Schoolgirl

Title: Schoolgirl
Japanese Title: 女生徒 (Joseito)
Author: Dazai Osamu (太宰 治)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2011 (America); 1939 (Japan)
Publisher: One Peace Books
Pages: 94

At the beginning of an essay on Yoshimoto Banana, Ann Sherif quotes the Japanese psychiatrist Machizawa Shizuo as saying that he despairs of the darkness in Japanese literature, as people come into his office clutching books by Dazai Osamu and saying, “This is exactly how I feel. I’m sorry that I was born.”

Dazai’s work is pretty dark. However, for all the young men who have lived “lives full of shame” (a sentiment expressed in the opening line of No Longer Human, generally considered to be Dazai’s defining work) there are apparently hordes of schoolgirls who visit the author’s grave on the anniversary of his death to offer flowers and prayers. I never really understood why this would be so (most of Dazai’s narrators are abusive pigs); but, having read Schoolgirl, I think I’m starting to get it.

Schoolgirl is an uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness monologue by a bourgeois high school student who has lost her father and lives alone with her mother. The girl rambles from topic to topic, stating strong feelings in one paragraph (I hate my mom!) and then contradicting them in the next (I actually love my mom!). She talks about her best friend (whom she hates – or not), the other women she sees on the bus (whom she hates – or not), the people who come over for dinner (whom she hates – or not), and the prospect of getting married (which she hates – or not). She also meanders through mundane topics such as her dogs, movies she likes, her teacher, and the garden around her house. More than anything else, though, she subject she repeatedly returns to is that of her feelings regarding herself. The narrator of Schoolgirl describes herself with the self-loathing characteristic of all Dazai narrators:

In my heart, I worry about Mother and want to be a good daughter, but my words and actions are nothing more than that of a spoiled child. And lately, there hadn’t been a single redeeming quality about this childlike me. Only impurity and shamefulness. I go about saying how pained and tormented, how lonely and sad I feel, but what do I really mean by that? If I were to speak the truth, I would die.

Her descriptions of herself tend to be a bit dramatic, but I guess she is a teenage girl. In fact, Dazai uses the narrator’s identity as a teenage girl in order to make general third-person and first-person-plural statements about young people. Sometimes these statements are a bit strange for the narrator herself to make (such as when she says, “What a girl likes and what she hates seems rather arbitrary to me”). Generally, though, Dazai uses the relatively marginal social position of the teenage girl to make rebellious manifestos of the My Generation variety. Where the narrator’s “girliness” really takes off, however, is in her flights of fancy. For example:

Mother used this parasol long ago, when she first got married. I felt quite proud for finding this interesting umbrella. When I carried this one, it made me feel like strolling through the streets of Paris. I thought that a dreamy antique parasol like this would go into style when this war ends. It would look great with a bonnet-style hat. Wearing a long pink-hemmed kimono with a wide open collar, with black lace gloves and a beautiful violet tucked into that large, wide-brimmed hat. And when everything was lush and green I’d go to lunch in a Parisian restaurant. Resting my cheek lightly in my hand, I’d wistfully gaze at the passerby outside and then, someone would gently tap me on the shoulder. Suddenly there would be music, the rose waltz. Oh, how amusing. In reality, it was just an odd, tattered umbrella with a spindly handle.

Another flight of fancy I enjoyed was the narrator’s description of her “Rococo cooking,” which is enjoyable and meaningful for her but apparently not fully appreciated by all of the ugly, stupid, and boring adults in her life. As insecure as the narrator is in her identity and her relationship to other people, however, she can always find refuge in her fantasies of luxury and glamour of an ahistorical European origin. “I’m Cinderella without her prince,” the narrator says at the end of the novella. “Do you know where to find me in Tokyo?”

Despite her petulant grumpiness, the narrator of Schoolgirl reminds me less of the tortured youths of novels like No Longer Human and The Setting Sun and more of the narrative voice of the Gothic Lolita poster child Ryūgasaki Momoko from Takemoto Nobara’s 2002 novel Kamikaze Girls. In fact, reading Schoolgirl felt a bit like reading one of the longer essays (perhaps by someone like Miyavi) from the Gothic & Lolita Bible. In Schoolgirl, as in Lolita fashion cultures, a certain world weariness and disgust towards adult society is mixed with a self-consciously artificial desire to maintain one’s innocence and emotional purity through a beautiful and delicate fantasy enacted through clothing, cooking, visual imagery, and music.

Of course, the Gothic Lolita mindset inspired in part by the narrative style of Schoolgirl is only one facet of the novella, which glitters like a diamond from any way you choose look at it. Schoolgirl might be used to demonstrate how premodern poetic nature imagery made its way its modern literature, or how the early Shōwa period was not all about fascism and conquest, or how “modern girls” viewed the West as a site of cultural maturity and longing, or how the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship shape the development of teenage girls – or even how male authors use transgender narration to escape the confines of literary conventions. Despite its relative brevity, Schoolgirl is fascinating and can be approached from a variety of angles by a wide range of readers. I can’t think of a single person to whom I wouldn’t recommend this novella.

Schoolgirl is published by One Peace Books, a small indie press that readers of contemporary Japanese literature in translation should keep an eye on. One Peace has published translations of two amazing manga, Tenken and Breathe Deeply, that should already be on the radar of serious and mature manga fans. They’ve also published two illustrated children’s books and a handful of inspirational books, such as Treedom and Shift. If the high publishing quality of Schoolgirl (and the small number of their other titles I have in my possession) is any indication, One Peace Books puts a great deal of attention and care into their non-conventional yet highly interesting catalog. Go check them out!

Review copy of Schoolgirl provided by One Peace Books.

4 thoughts on “Schoolgirl

  1. Ornitorrinco says:

    Wow, it’s always good news seeing a “new” japanese novel translated into a western language. Particulary when it was done by a true master like Dasai was. Thanks a lot for the heads-up!

  2. Norman R. Kelley says:

    I enjoyed your review and thoughts about this work. I wonder if you’ve some across “The Anatomy of Dependence” by Dr. Takeo Doi (also a psychiatrist)? In it, and in a subsequent book, he deals with the concept of ‘amae’ and the relationship between mother and child. His notion is that this very relationship pervades all of Japanese interpersonal, inter-business, inter-etc.-relationships. In Western literature, there is an illustration of this, presumably Japanese concept of ‘amae’, in “The Italian Girl” by iris Murdoch. Thanks for the references!

  3. Starrybrooke says:

    Loved your thoughtful review as always. One of my Japanese girl-friends loves Dazai Osamu, and her favorite is 皮膚と心. It’s a creepy story written in the first-person of a new bride. I thought of that because it’s another told in a female voice and very powerful. The narrator develops a skin rash which reflects her doubts about her husband.

  4. The writing style instantly recalled “Kamikaze Girls” as I read it, so I’m interested that you felt that way too.

    I recently commented in a blog post that 13 year old girls are in a tough place, because they’d *like* to be more in control of their worlds, and their own decision making, but are not let allowed to be. (And when they are allowed to be, they so often make bad decisions…even when they know they are bad choices. So the self-contradictory tone makes perfect sene to me.)

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