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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

IN THE POOL by Hideo Okuda,
translated from the Japanese by Giles Murray,
IBC Publishing, Tokyo (distributed outside Japan by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley), 2006, 224 pp.
ISBN-13: 978-4-925080-94-1, ISBN-10: 4-925080-94-6
Charlie Dickinson


It's easy to see why IN THE POOL by Hideo Okuda has sold more than 200,000 copies in Japan since its 2002 publication and become a major Japanese motion picture.

This collection of five "longish" stories has hilarious dialogue, lovably neurotic characters, and keen insight into contemporary Japanese life. Okuda gave this story collection a wonderful thematic unity: Each story begins with an outpatient at Irabu General Hospital who has been sent to the basement office of the "NEUROLOGY DEPARTMENT" because their problem suggests a head case.  The neurology department consists of the hospital owner's son, Dr. Ichiro Irabu, an overweight slob of a medical practitioner--but also a wise fool.  He's ably assisted by Mayumi, a sexy young nurse who administers mysterious (possibly "Dr. Feelgood") injections to each patient with steely indifference, then returns to gum-chewing and her magazines.

Every patient realizes the double-wide weirdness of Dr. Irabu and Mayumi and makes a mental note they might better off.  Possibly, they should leave ASAP.  But each of the five is burdened with seemingly intractable afflictions: Kazuo Omori, a magazine editor, becomes addicted to his twice-daily swims "In the Pool" and wants to swim even more; Tetsuya Taguchi in "Making a Stand" suffers a sustained erection syndrome that might last months; competitively attractive Hiromi Yasukawa of "Trade Show Model" knows men are stalking her (yet she never sees them); teenager Yuta Tsuda spends $200+ monthly text messaging in "Cell" and stops using his phone only to sleep; and journalist Yoshio Iwamura ("Double Check") has an obsessive compulsive disorder that starts with making sure his cigarette stubs are extinguished and escalates to unchecked OCD.

In each case, Dr. Irabu manages a cure of his bewildered patient.  How? That's the story.  But part of the hilarity is Irabu himself will even take up his patient's behavior--whether it be compulsive swimming or compulsive text messaging.  It's one way the doctor helps his patient along on the road to self-acceptance.  Imitation as the sincerest form of flattery works here too.

So while IN THE POOL has many laugh-aloud moments, at a deeper level, this comedic collection has some intellectual backbone.  These are stories about characters tamping down their neuroses and getting on about life.

In that regard, a note about Japanese psychotherapy with which Japanese might be more familiar than English readers: Okuda has Dr. Irabu refer to the great pioneer in Japanese psychotherapy, Morita.  A contemporary of Freud, Dr. Masatake Morita (1874-1938) cared little about the roots of neurosis, preferring to educate patients to accept neurosis and go on with action-oriented steps to improve their lives.  "Just do it!" might have been his slogan.  As one student of Morita, Takehisa Kora, has written, accepting reality as it is or "arugamama means to jump in anyway, fear and all."(1)

For this reviewer, Irabu's techniques echo, in a light-hearted way, the Moritist approach to healing neuroses.  So, yes, there is much wacky comedy in Okuda's IN THE POOL stories, from doctor and patient alike. But the madness is not without defensible method in the tradition of Japanese psychotherapy (and increasingly in Western cognitive therapies).

This highly popular story collection in Japan might be read in this English edition by anyone interested in tales of Japanese Woody-Allenesque neurotics at their most endearingly eccentric, who are finally redeemed by self-acceptance learned from a wise fool, Dr. Ichiro Irabu.

© Charlie Dickinson October 2006
read "stories & more" @ http://charlied.freeshell.org
(1) Kora, Takehisa, HOW TO LIVE WELL: Secrets of Using Neurosis, State
University of New York Press, 1995, p. 13

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