December 17, 2008

Books: Speed Tribes by Karl Taro Greenfeld

On my recent visit to Takadanobaba, I picked up a secondhand copy of Karl Taro Greenfeld's Speed Tribes, a collection of pieces about Japan's sub-culture. Written in the mid-nineties just after the economic bubble burst, the twelve chapters provide an insight into the lives of twelve different characters representing a broad spectrum of youth culture of the day. The characters include a member of the yakuza, a drug dealer, a member of the bosozoku (or bike gangs), an office lady, a right-wing nationalist, and so on.

The portraits are written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who follows the characters around and is aware of their thoughts and motives. This, combined with the fact that Greenfeld includes a disclaimer at the beginning of the book stating that the people agreed to talk with him on condition that the names are changed has led to heaps of speculation that the book is little more than a collection of fiction, and that the writer did not, in fact, meet up with these characters at all.

I would say that this is maybe taking the argument too far, but I'm sure that some of the characters are perhaps composites of a number of people he knew about or had come across during his time in Tokyo, and perhaps he took the liberty to colour in parts that were left blank. Does this matter? Well, some argue that it does, and that there is little in the way of solid support for what he says, though it is important to remember that a lot of these pieces originally appeared as articles in magazines such as Arena, FHM and so on. It is effectively a collection of journalistic pieces aiming to create an impression of Tokyo in that era, and shouldn't be taken as anything more serious than that.

For me, some chapters are much better written than others, though on the whole it warrants a read for those interested in more than the usual descriptions of Japan that focus on the more positive side of the culture. Interestingly, it is another book that has been optioned for a film, as with Tokyo Underworld, and it'll be interesting to see how it is adapted for the big screen.

A classic book about Japan? Maybe not, but entertaining it is.

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