After Dark

Until recently, it had been a while since I had read anything substantial in English. While in the thick of my studies I had imposed a personal embargo on anything in my mother tongue. But since the summer holidays began, (and they are now almost at a close), I have managed to catch up on some reading. It's probably no surprise that I tend mainly to read Japanese authors. The most recent being the latest Haruki Murakami book to have been translated into English, After Dark.After Dark

Murakami's novels always seem like slices from some larger story. They begin as if we should already know what has happened and end as if there is more to tell. After Dark, is no exception. It reads like a chapter lost from some other unpublished manuscript. Dropped on the street at night and discovered by the reader as they stumble home drunk; there it is lying in a puddle, grubby and inviting.

The story begins at 11:56 p.m. around the time the last trains stop in Tokyo and continues until first light. We know it is Tokyo, but the setting could be either Shibuya or Shinjuku as it is set in the somewhat euphemistically named "amusement district". Mari, a nineteen year old girl, is alone in a Denny's restaurant reading a book. She seems intent on reading all night, but her plans are soon interrupted when Takahashi, a boy a couple of years older, and an old friend of Mari's sister, Eri, enters the scene. Soon Mari, who speaks Chinese, is asked by the manager of a nearby Love Hotel to help translate for a Chinese prostitute who has been beaten by a client. As the events of the night unfold we drift in and out of places that may or may not exist; the concrete reality of Mari's introduction into the dark side of Tokyo and the eerie dream world behind the TV screen in her sleeping sister's bedroom.

Murakami has chosen to write this story from a very detached perspective, and we intrude the lives of the characters as if we are invisible, yet self-aware tourists holding cameras slightly above the action. "We are in a Denny's" or "the room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darkness" we are told as our guide drags us through the night. Yet while the author's trademark surrealism allows us to slip through the screen of an unplugged TV, the scenes involving Eri and the mysterious masked man are too much like something from a Japanese horror film or something David Lynch would dream up. They seem too familiar and lack Murakami's usual originality. As a result I was a little disappointed in this book.

The last book I had read by Murakami was his collection of short-stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and I think it was a much better read. In the introduction to that book Murakami explained how when he writes short-stories he can't think about novels and vice versa. But After Dark somehow seems to be stuck half way between the two. So while his novels usually benefit from the mystery of that which is untold, here the story just seems unfinished.



There is somewhat of a T-shirt war going on in Tokyo at the moment. The fashion obsessed hordes that flock to Harajuku and Shibuya are a fussy lot, and if they can't wear something that inspires conversation or praise then they don't want it – hence the demand for curious, original and interesting T-shirts has reached new heights. As this demand has grown so has the competition between various T-shirt producers with everyone trying to supply consumers with groovy Tees at the lowest possible price. This summer's big players in the Battle of the T-tans were Graniph, Beams and Uniqlo's new UT brand. All of whom have enlisted the world's design elite to try and raise their cool quota.

The latest salvo in this war has been fired by Uniqlo from their new flagship UT store on Meiji-dori in Harajuku. Displayed in shelves resembling refrigerated vending machines - or possibly cryogenic storage units - each T-shirt is rolled up and packaged in plastic cylinders with barcodes and product numbers identifying which shirt is inside. The effect is very impressive, very cool and looks really expensive. But the twist is these shirts sell for only around ¥1500 each. Which is ridiculously cheap in my books.

Uniqlo are being really smart here. They have been around for awhile now and are established as as global brand with stores in New York, the UK, China, Korea and Hong Kong. As a cheap store with fairly generic designs and colours that are easy to mix and match the "Uniqlo look" has become a standard in Japanese fashion these days. But perhaps because of that it has become a little bit unstylish. The brand desperately needed to be updated, and that is exactly what the new UT range has done. No expense has been spared to ensure that people notice – with uber-trendy photographer Terry Richardson shooting the ad campaign.

The shirts themselves are are all serialised and constantly updated. Current series include one devoted to the art of Keith Haring, another is an Ozamu Tezuka Tribute and another focuses on Japanese Pop Culture. Various graphic designers get the chance to show their stuff in the World Typographer series and there is an annual competition held with the winner and runners up showcased in the Creative Award series. There is even a collaboration with the colour standards company PANTONE® for their colour series.

It will be interesting to see how both Beams and Graniph counter attack but with summer drawing to a close it may have to wait until next year. My advice to them is to begin by following Uniqlo and make their T-shirts in XL so I can actually wear them.