For one reason or another, I’ve taken many years to finally finish a Gail Tsukiyama novel. I’ve started a few, gotten distracted and put each aside, but this time, after noticing that she was one of the few APA authors at this year’s National Book Festival (she was also featured in the fest’s debut in 2001), I chose the audible route to push myself to the end. Of her many novels, I settled on Street mainly because the narrator is actor/comedian Stephen Park whose on-film work I’ve admired through the years.
Please allow me a quick rant: audio producers should have figured out by now that we don’t all look alike, which means we don’t all speak alike, either. Hiring Park, who is Korean American, because of his ethnic Asian face does not mean that he’ll have some linguistic magic wand that enables him to speak fluent Japanese. No, really. This is a fact. Listening to Park constantly stumble with Japanese mispronunciations shows lazy casting, as well as embarrassingly irresponsible hiring for not even providing minimal language guidance. Not all Korean American actors are like James Kyson Lee who actually speaks Japanese. I have to wonder with grave concern (and not a little disgust) if producers really do think we’re interchangeable this way.
But back to Street. Two brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji, are orphaned as young children, and raised with by loving, nurturing, supportive grandparents. Japanese expansion into China and other parts of Asia has been well underway, but war does not begin to encroach into Tokyo until years later. In 1939 Tokyo, 11-year-old Hiroshi dreams of being a sumo wrestler while Kenji, age 9, finds a renowned Noh mask maker who welcomes the young boy as his apprentice.
War looms – food becomes scarce, civilians suffer at the whims of the kempeitai (military police), violence is virtually unavoidable – then bombs and fires rain down death and destruction. Shocked to hear the emperor’s very human voice for the first time in history, the nation struggles towards recovery. Life continues: Hiroshi fulfills his sumo dreams, and marries the frail, damaged younger daughter of the sumo master with whom he trains; Kenji finishes an architecture degree at prestigious Tokyo University, but returns to his love of the Noh mask and establishes himself as an unrivaled maker. Encompassing more than a quarter century, the brothers bear witness to one of the most rapidly changing periods of Japanese history, from pre-war traditions, to the paralysis of defeat and subsequent U.S. occupation, to rapid economic growth through the 1960s.
At best, Tsukiyama’s sixth novel is a solid, historical family saga. At worst, her writing tends toward pedestrian, occasionally dragging with unnecessary plodding details, other times rushing over years as if she, too, is anxious to finish the 400+ (hardcover) pages or almost 15 hours stuck in the ears. Too many of her characters prove narrow, near-saintly in their unwavering goodness, especially the brothers’ grandparents, Hiroshi’s widowed master, and Kenji’s gay mentor. That said, given Tsukiyama’s growing shelf of titles that continue to garner awards, her loyal readers clearly appreciate the reliable, albeit predictable, storytelling – uncomplicated, straight-forward … dare I say … comfortable.