Real is Relative: From MTV to Shuichi Yoshida’s Parade

In 1992, MTV premiered a reality TV show, billed as the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and. Start. Getting. Real. The Real World, about to enter its 30th season and often credited with spawning the reality television phenomenon, is successful because of this simple premise: stick a group of young people with different backgrounds in a house, turn on some cameras, invite a bunch of voyeurs to tune in and watch in 30-minute installments. It’s not scripted, just edited.

Shuichi Yoshida’s novel Parade is not The Real World: Tokyo, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. Four twentysomethings and one teenager, all with the loosest connections to one another, share an apartment in Setagaya, Tokyo. They are intimately familiar with each other in ways made possible only by living in the same space: washing each other’s laundry, sharing a bathroom, seeing each other during the most vulnerable moments of the day. But none of them really know each other, not in the ways we consider that one human can truly understand another. They are five private people, each with their own secrets.

The book is split into five parts, a different character narrating each section, their observations immediately betraying the preceding sections of the book. There’s 23-year-old Kotomi, who hitched a ride to Tokyo on a whim to reunite herself with her soap opera-star ex-boyfriend. There’s 28-year-old Naoki, the oldest of the group, who has found himself the unwitting confidant of his younger roommates and the sounding board for their problems. And there is Satoru, the most enigmatic of the group, a homeless teenage hustler who worms his way into the apartment (and perhaps into some hearts???). There is maybe a murder mystery at the heart of the story, and one of the five main characters is maybe involved, but the story isn’t really about that. Not in the way that it’s about the way these five people try to both relate to and disconnect from one another.

The Japanese version of Parade was published in 2002; the English translation comes out this month with Knopf. That’s a full dozen years, the life of a seventh-grader, between the publication of Shuichi Yoshida’s original words and translator Philip Gabriel’s closest approximation in English. I don’t know what the experience of reading Parade in Japanese in 2002 was like, but I can speak as a North American reading a translation in 2014.

I have lived half my life on this side of 2002, my adolescence shaped by the background consciousness of an enigmatic “War on Terror,” my adult years recorded and archived on Facebook. When my peers speak of surveillance culture, they speak to the here and the now of it, the social media and the spying and the thinkpieces that spring up, in equal measure on both. Transparency has a domino effect, where virtue is connected with honesty, which is connected with a lack of secrecy, regardless of context. Edward Snowden reveals the secrets of the NSA. Vanity Fair runs a 30-page profile on Snowden, which republishes comments he left on forums during his teen years and selects photos from his girlfriend’s Instagram account. I share the link on my Facebook profile in between a selfie and a joke about online dating that gets a “like” from a friend I haven’t seen since high school. The Real World is still on TV, and I at 24 years old am squarely in its target demographic, yet I don’t know a single person that still watches it. We’re all too busy being voyeurs into each other’s carefully crafted personas.

That Parade is a book in translation adds another filter to the way we interact with and understand Yoshida’s characters. Translating is a constant pull and push between preserving the accuracy of ideas and recreating the style of the prose. It’s the editing process on The Real World: the secrets that Yoshida’s characters keep from one another and those they share, the untagged photos on Facebook, the Valencia filter on the digital scrapbooks of our lives, the daily decisions we make to conceal, to obfuscate, to decidedly reveal versions of ourselves to the versions of people we’d like to know. The creation of art and the creation of our identities are like a set of cousins who share the same nose—variations on a theme of one set of DNA. No English-speaking reader will truly know what Yoshida meant to say with every line of Parade, but there’s a good chance no Japanese-speaking reader will, either. We’re all just trying to read a version of his thoughts.