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Concrete Islands in Japan | a Ballardian overview

January 27, 2010

Japan has a very extensive and modern road network. It consists of 1,152,207 kilometers (715,981 miles) of highways, of which 863,003 kilometers (536,270 miles) are paved. They include 6,114 kilometers (3,799 miles) of expressways. The number of motor vehicles increased from 70,106,536 in 1995 to 73,688,389 in 1999. Can we call these a “concrete island”?

In J.G. Ballard’s 1974 novel Concrete Island, a wealthy man becomes stranded (his Jaguar breaks down, natch) in a fenced-off section of highway overpass. He fills his days much as you’d expect – he retreats into himself, meets people that don’t exist, and generally turns into a raving nutbag.

As Ballard states in his introduction to the book:

Modern technology, as I tried to show in Crash… offers an endless field day to any deviant strains in our personalities. Marooned…on a traffic island, we can tyrannise ourselves, test our strengths and weaknesses, perhaps come to terms with aspects of our characters to which we have always closed our eyes.”

Ballard’s novel was located in Europe, but we can undoubtedly place it in Japan, as read: “the whole city was now asleep, part of an immense unconscious Europe, while he himself crawled about on a forgotten traffic island like the nightmare of this slumbering continent”

We can sumarize it with these words: On a day in April, just after three o’clock in the afternoon, Robert Maitland’s car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the island below, where he is injured and, finally, trapped. What begins as an almost ludicrous predicament in Concrete Island soon turns into horror as Maitland-a wickedly modern Robinson Crusoe-realizes that, despite evidence of other inhabitants, this doomed terrain has become a mirror of his own mind.

All images from Osaka, more info in the book Junctions and in Ballard’s Concrete Islands.

Recommended reading: Simon Sellars aka @ballardian book review.

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