Chip Kidd's design for the first English translation of Genichiro Takahashi's award-winning 1982 debut novel Sayonara, Gangsters seems unusually telling: The book itself is covered with random black letters, which only cohere into a title when viewed through strategically placed holes in the book jacket. It's an apt metaphor for the book's content, except that Takahashi doesn't provide such a convenient decoder device. Sayonara, Gangsters is a series of absurdist, near-nonsensical vignettes, effectively a block of seemingly random letters. Takahashi makes these vignettes colorful and entertaining, but as with Rorschach blobs, their analysis may reveal more about any given reader than about their creator.
In the postmodern fantasy dystopia of Sayonara, Gangsters, virtually all things are conceptually tangible and capable of independent acts. Names battle and kill their owners. Dreams deride the people having them. Abstract ideas travel on conveyor belts through factories. Sunlight blows away in a high wind. A Ferris wheel commits suicide. Meanwhile, the nominal plot follows the narrator, a poetry teacher named "Sayonara, Gangsters," and his lover, "The Nakajima Miyuki Song Book"; they conceive and birth a daughter, who later obediently dies in response to a governmental death-alert postcard. Afterward, she chats with Sayonara, Gangsters as he disposes of her body, while Song Book goes on to a strange death of her own. Death is the most common of the many metaphors in Sayonara, Gangsters—it's ubiquitous and final, but its effects are unpredictable, and its scope isn't limited to corporeal, tangible, or even living things. It's easily read as forcible change, an unwelcome passing from one state into another, variable depending on its victim and its perpetrator.
But death is only one of Sayonara, Gangsters' broadest and clearest symbols. Other images are more opaque. At times, it's tempting to suspect that Takahashi is engaging in specific wordplay and cultural reference that gets lost in translation. At other times, he just seems coy, playful, deliberately dense, or simply goofy. In each mode, though, Sayonara, Gangsters is a light, poetic, enjoyable read, full of crafted imagery that can be emotionally devastating even as it lacks a coherent story-center.
And sometimes, Takahashi's message transcends any linguistic or imagistic barrier. In one beautifully executed scene, Sayonara, Gangsters and an old woman attempt to describe a creature that keeps defiantly changing form in reaction to their analysis. Ultimately, the woman finds a solution, by describing it in a way that cannot itself be described. Her method seems to sum up Takahashi's own approach to giving mutable, shifting moods a concrete form: He blithely writes his own rules.