Enjoying Drinks With the Dead & Aimlessly Wandering Around Town — The World of Seino Toru

I have never read a manga by Seino Toru. But just by living in Tokyo, you kind of know who he is.

Seino has many works under his belt, but he is likely most known for the title Tokyo-to Kita-ku Akabane, in which he stars as the main character. Judging by the title, it seems to be an account of his life in Akabane, where Seino has been living since 2003. When reading up on the guy’s other works, one starts to notice that Seino can only write about one thing: his daily life. What’s cool is that he draws everything in a very exaggerated, cartoony style, and always seems to add an element of insanity to otherwise mundane proceedings–at least that’s the impression I get from flipping through his stuff.

It goes without saying that Seino’s material is ripe for the transition into live action, with two of his works brilliantly coming to life as TV dramas earlier this year: Tokyo Kaikizake and Zenzzzzzen Shiranai Machi wo Aruitemita Monono.

Tokyo Kaikizake

One thing that helps “spice up” non-fiction accounts of someone’s life is them actually doing crazy things. And since Seino Toru is an actual insane person, the world was blessed with the manga essay anthology Tokyo Kaikizake, or Drinking With the Dead in Tokyo.

True to the manga works of Seino, Tokyo Kaikizake stars everyone as themselves. My research shows that the manga unsurprisingly features Seino as the main character, but the drama opts to configure pretty-boy actor Sugino Yosuke as the lead. The drama opens with Sugino finishing up a shoot on a TV show, when his manager approaches him about a potential role in a horror film. Sugino refuses, admitting that he dislikes anything “scary,” and would rather not be involved in such projects. However, during a regular radio show he hosts, he ends up interviewing Seino Toru himself. During the interview, Seino talks in detail about his strange habit of engaging in social drinks with the dead.

Tokyo Kaikizake aired on TV Toyko–a local channel that is home to many series that are exaggerated takes on otherwise mundane material, such as Kodoku no Gourmet and SadoKodoku no Gourmet (The Solitary Gourmet) follows the solo adventures of a salesman enjoying luxurious meals between client meetings, while Sado (The Way of the Sauna) follows the solo adventures of a freelancer graphic designer through the many great saunas of Japan. As most of the action in these shows happens solo, to put us in the characters’ heads, the proceedings are primarily driven by the internal monologue of their main characters. In this tradition, Tokyo Kaikizake does the same. However, instead of lines devoted to extolling the virtues of crispy tonkatsu coating or the relaxing burn of sauna stones, Tokyo Kaikizake grants the audience access to Sugino’s insane mental conversations with the spirits he is trying to bond with. So obviously, it’s awesome.

If you’ve lived in Japan for any period of time, you will know that while people in general are not religious, people can be very superstitious. As such, when it comes to topics relating to spirits, there is a strong belief that certain areas can be haunted if people meet untimely deaths there. So what “social drinks with the dead”–the Kaikizake of the title–entails is going to these places on your own with snacks and booze, and trying to establish a supernatural connection with the spirits that reside there. This is apparently a real hobby that Seino engages in, and has written the titular manga about. While Seino only appears in the first episode to get the reluctant Sugino going on his kaikizake journey, Sugino gradually starts to enjoy his otherworldly encounters, and things start to get crazy.

As the series goes on, Sugino gradually overcomes his fear of ghosts, and gets deeper and deeper into kaikizake. After being pushed in the right direction by Seino, Sugino happens upon a network of supernatural specialists who are all real people. These special guests include figures such as Yoshida Yuki, a prominent occult researcher and author; Oshima Teru, creator of a famous website that documents stigmatized properties; and Mikami Takeharu, editor-in-chief of the occult magazine Mu. These characters and others appear in each episode, tipping Sugino off to another kaikizake spot.

As Sugino starts to enjoy his time drinking with the dead, he starts to get more hospitable to his supernatural drinking partners. For instance, when visiting a love hotel where a woman was thought to have perished, he prepares champagne and sweets as opposed to the more typical combination of sake and dried squid. When drinking in an old haunted theater, he gets dressed up to perform with the spirits. The climax of each of these supernatural run-ins comes whenever Sugino yells “mazaru!!“, which means to mix or blend. It’s not made explicitly clear what this means, but it likely refers the world of the humans and spirits coming together. For Sugino, anyway.

Among the many shows Japan has focused around watching people doing mundane things on their own matched to internal monologue, Tokyo Kaikizake is by far the weirdest I have seen. Its devotion to insanity and its dedication to the occult–inclusive of multiple appearances by real-life experts–makes it an intriguing and wacky little title.

Zenzzzzzen Shiranai Machi wo Aruitemita Monono

When I first came to Japan to study abroad as an anti-social 20-year-old, rather than trying to make friends with my housemates or fellow students, I opted to take long walks around in bland, Japanese suburbia. “This is it, I’m in Japan! This is where the animes are set! This is where the animes are MADE!” And it was good for me, at the time. I took a bunch of pictures, learned the geography of the area in a pre-smartphone era, and in general felt like I was soaking in the place, and the culture. Flash-forward 11 years later to the 2020 pandemic, and I found myself doing the exact same thing all over again. You need to have something to do in lieu of meeting friends for drinks or other otherwise normal activities that prove risky during a pandemic. Hell, given I still have to wait a few more weeks until I’m fully vaccinated, I am still taking long walks in the neighborhood quite regularly. Given the circumstances, Zenzzzzzen Shiranai Machi wo Aruitemita Monono–or Taking a Walk in a Town I Know Noooootttthhhhhhinnnnggggg About–dropped at just the right time.

Shiranai Machi is yet another adaptation of a Seino Toru manga, but unlike Kaikizake, this drama adaptation keeps Seino as the main character. However, rather than being played by Seino himself like in Kaikizake, the role is taken on by the ever-amusing Muro Tsuyoshi. Each episode opens with Seino looking at a map and losing his mind, gazing at all the different places in the Kanto area he’s never been to. “I can’t just die knowing that I’ve never been to this place, never experiencing its sights, people and stories!” he exclaims, as he jumps on a train and flings himself over to some random, god-forsaken part of Japan. 

Per the title, Shiranai Machi is all about exploring “uncharted” urban territory. Living in Japan, there are always stations on your train line that you never get off at. Why? Because there’s nothing there… or so you think. Shiranai Machi is all about the hidden greatness that awaits in visiting these unknown places. But, since this is a Seino Toru story, starring Seino Toru, the greatness of these places isn’t immediately obvious. Seino is known for being an extremely awkward and negative dude, so when disembarking at Kami-Nakatazato or Yamada stations, his internal monologue immediately jumps to a groan of “wow, there really is noootttthinnnngggg here.”

Upon arrival, Seino tends to arbitrarily walk in one direction to see what secrets the neighborhood holds. In his travels, he stumbles upon local temples, small museums, and cafes. All the while he learns of local customs, partakes of local specialties, and at the end of the day chats with the locals themselves, typically at a down-home izakaya. Where the flavor comes in is in Seino’s constantly awkward nature, and the various forces that aggressively work either for or against him making new discoveries.

In the very first episode, he is regularly confronted by a man who appears at every random corner of Kami-Nakazato, insisting that Seino ceases his search for a unique and local place to eat, because the only place in town is one Chinese chain restaurant. It’s not clear if this man is some kind of yokai or figment of Seino’s imagination, because he disappears into nothingness immediately upon Seino’s discovery of the perfect place to dine. When at Kokudo station, Seino is threatened with the prospect of sitting through a 2-hour long explanation of the area’s famous Namamugi Incident. The “threat” comes via an old man running a make-shift museum out of a shed which has a sensitive circuit breaker. When at Kururi, which Seino learns is famous for its ice, he happens upon an old-school ice shop serving up shaved ice. When enjoying his shaved ice, Seino attempts to sound cultured by commenting on the quality of the ice. This is followed by the owner of the shop bluntly commenting that he has the ice shipped over from Hokkaido. Contributing more to the awkwardness, more than one episode concludes with Seino uncomfortably singing karaoke with the locals. It is these off-beat interactions that make Shiranai Machi an enjoyable, awkward comedy that doesn’t quite force loud laughs, but conjures up a satisfying grin, doing well to remind us all of our awkward side. 

Gourmet-focused programs are the bread-and-butter of turn-your-brain-off Japanese TV. As such, scenes that feature Seino sitting down for meals seem as if they will be a bit more traditional. But even then, the show throws in slight twists and turns. Throughout his travels, Seino’s strange gourmet encounters include: Meeting an old lady shop owner who is also a high-level practitioner of an obscure martial art; visiting an otherwise western-style café that serves up the distinctly Japanese dish of crab rice porridge; and discovering Napolitan spaghetti on the menu at a down-home ramen shop among a dense menu of otherwise traditional ramen selections. When visiting Yamada in the western Tokyo city of Hachioji, Seino is convinced he meets the love of his life–a cute country girl named Misaki, who invites him up to her farm for a glass of fresh milk. In short time, he finds out that she is married with kids, and Seino is forced to sit through an awkward lunch of homemade pizza, trying to tamper his horniness in front of the whole family. 

Contributing more to the off-kilter nature of the show is the selection of locales, which strikes a fine line when it comes to obscurity. In some cases areas featured fall on popular train lines used by many commuters in Tokyo–namely Kami-Nakazato, Kokudo, and Yamada–while other spots selected are tied back to obscure pieces of trivia. One distinct master stroke is the decision to feature Kasumigaseki. No, not where the iconic National Diet Building is–Kasumigaseki in Saitama. The final two episodes are set in Kururi, Chiba, which Seino is inspired to visit simply because he likes the band Quruli (pronounced Kururi), which incidentally happens to be from Kyoto, with no relation to Kururi in Chiba at all.

Adding to the strangeness, in all the places Seino visits, there is always a photo of another man. In these photos, the man is smiling with the owners of whichever establishment Seino finds him in at the end of each episode. While this man seems to be on a similar journey as Seino with similar interests, the friendly nature of the photos suggests that he is more sociable and likable than Seino, and is essentially doing what Seino is trying to do, but better. The fact that each photo suggests that this mysterious man is making these journeys by bike–rather than by train like Seino–is the ultimate blow. Obviously, Seino starts to develop a one-sided rivalry with this mysterious man as the series progresses. Of course, destiny has it that they meet at the end, and shit goes down in a hilariously awkward fashion, acting as the ultimate bookend for a series that celebrates awkward encounters. 

In a time of prolonged stress and anxiety, Shiranai Machi hit at the perfect time. And while there may be some government interests in featuring little-known parts of rural Japan, the explorations of these obscure locations is genuinely fascinating, and the peppering in of Seino Toru’s awkward, cringe-inducing humor is the icing on the cake.

Up until now, I only knew Seino Toru as The Guy Who Writes the Akabane Manga, and The Guy Who is Married to Dan Mitsu. While these facts were enough to pique my interest in him, these drama adaptations of Kaikizake and Shiranai Machi have me sold. The dude has an incredibly weird outlook on the world that I need to learn more about. Time to go manga shopping. 

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