If Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes can be compared to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, then THe Box Man is redolent of Metamorphosis. I was tols to expect The Box Man to be a more challenging book and that much is true. It takes the form of a man who has taken the decision to live his life inside a cardboard box. That is to say that he moves about the city as a tramp, but wearing a cardboard box over his head. The box itself is a masterpiece of design with holes for vision, but veiled to protect the identity of the wearer, and even shelves built inside. Two things are particularly remarkable – firstly, that he is not the only box man, but there are a number of box men around the city . Secondly, that being a box man is what would these days be called a lifestyle choice. It is something that he chooses to be, and chooses not to be as well.
First published in 1973, it feels as if it was written much earlier. It’s a classic of surrealism, written sparsely (as is the case with much Japanese fiction) and is about many things: insiderness/outsiderness; identity; the public world/the private sphere; voyeurism; fetishism; the mediation of reality/human contact; conformism, and much more besides. It is certainly a challenging book, but it is rich and vital reading for anyone interested in Japanese literature and it makes sense of the tradition that moves through Murakami and on to the new generation of younger writers. It is also a book that will warrant a second reading.