Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan

Title: Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan
Author: Amanda C. Seaman
Publisher: University of Hawai‘i Press
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 230

This guest review is by Tyran Grillo (@tyrangrillo on Twitter).

Amanda C. Seaman’s Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan is a masterfully written and timely monograph. It explores the role of pregnancy, if not the pregnancy of roles, concerning women as subjects within, and creators of, Japanese literature in a time of social restlessness around questions of procreation.

In her first chapter, “Write Your Mother,” Seaman seeks to define the practical and symbolic overtures of pregnancy as literary trope. Summarizing not only the large amount of literature on pregnancy and childbirth, but also the media blitz on Japan’s falling birthrate and rising aging population, she rightly asks: Does there continue to be a national obsession with all things baby? None have given this question proper attention, and Seaman’s work provides a compelling response. In addition to a widespread media blackout on this question, even less attention is paid to “cultural, artistic, and intellectual responses to and representations of pregnancy and childbearing in the ‘low fertility’ age” (1). This, Seaman claims, lenses a unique perspective on pregnancy as a metaphorical site for the actual bodies undergoing misunderstood changes.

Seaman is concerned with how women writers are using storytelling as response mechanism, and to make this point focuses on works of Takahashi Takako, Itō Hiromi, Ogawa Yōko, Tadano Miako, and Hasegawa Junko, among others. While politicians and other policy makers have taken it upon themselves to make pregnancy a matter of intense public interest, these writers make it matter of intense private interest, albeit in the decidedly public format of mass-market publishing.

Seaman’s book opens with an erudite summary of the scare regarding declining birth rates from the end of the Pacific War to the present century. Despite surface-level concern and efforts, Japan’s government has done little to promote childbearing in any way amenable to actual women. As the media continues to propagate a sugarcoated version of marriage and childbirth, the realities explored by Seaman’s writers of interest reflect an unabashed landscape of “danger, repression, destruction, or pain” (4). Their focus on bodies as continents shifting to the seismic activity of public opinion ensures that the self becomes not simply a beacon but a lightning rod to political provocation.

Explicit discussion on the printed page of women’s fertile bodies in such intimate terms is a relatively modern concession, and before its advent women’s bodies were relegated to a relatively impressionistic realm of unclean impulses and male-defined mystery. Yosano Akiko, notes Seaman, was instrumental in bringing an embodied approach to pregnancy and childbearing in the early 20th century, as well as for addressing the suffering involved in both. Her call was not taken up by many, although it did spark the “maternal turn” promulgated by such writers as Okamoto Kanoko. After the Pacific War, women’s maternal roles were more intimately associated with carbon-copied nuclear family archetypes. Only in the 1960s and 1970s did a “new wave” of women writers emerge. Among them, Tsushima Yūko reclaimed motherhood, in all its ups and downs, as something distinctly women’s own. Pregnancy manga soon followed in the early 1990s, and Seaman includes analyses of quintessential examples.

The title of Chapter Two – “Hey, You, Get Out of My Womb!” – references pregnancy as both a literal and metaphorical cipher of invasion. In this chapter, Takahashi Takako, Takekawa Sei, and Ogawa Yōko are shown to focus on the alien aspects of pregnancy. Seaman opens with an poem by Yosano Akiko that pays homage to folkloric themes newly applied to pregnancy. This sets a precedent for writers to come by exploring the ambivalences of the womb and using horror as a device of interruption. By capitalizing on the latter tropes, these writers challenge the characterization of pregnancy as uneventful. In Takekawa Sei’s “Tsuki no nai yoru ni” (On a moonless night), we encounter fantasy as manifestation of fear of sexuality in tandem with childhood trauma. And yet, Seaman concludes, “nothing can supersede the maternal instinct, not even the personal wishes or well-being of the maternal subject herself” (26). Takahashi Takako’s “Kodomo-sama” (Holy terror), on the other hand, takes fears of pregnancy into monstrous dimensions, while Ogawa Yōko’s “Ninshin Karenda” (Pregnancy diary) is alienation incarnate. Seaman characterizes the latter story as a modern fairy tale in its evocation of a collective unknown as it spirals into a pseudo-scientific and occult-like framing of family bonds and communication. She further notes an overarching ambiguity at play in all of these stories.

Chapter Three, “And Baby Makes One,” examines pregnancy and its connection to notions of escape and reformation of personal identity. Both Hasegawa Junko’s “Museiran” (The unfertilized egg) and Tsushima Yūko’s Chōji (Child of fortune) deal with women treating pregnancy as an escape and motherhood as a “type of personal salvation” (52). Seaman reveals motherhood as a leitmotif throughout Tsushima’s oeuvre in constant negotiations of opposites – both in the physical and emotional sense. The 36-year-old protagonist is on the cusp of losing her womanhood (at least from society’s point of view), and the narrator recalls the indifference with which she treated her present daughter, finding peace only when her maternity slips away from conscious reiteration. Hasegawa’s “Museiran” goes further in its depiction of a painful hermetism, but both authors make use of dreams and fantasies, using the power of pregnancy to go beyond the playing field of romance in the shadow of failure.

Pregnancy as a way to partnership is the subject of Chapter Four, “Manual Labor,” which discusses millennial writers Kakuta Mitsuyo and Tadano Miako. Seaman sees both as challenging what she calls “canonical pregnancy,” by which is meant the “ideals and practices promoted by pregnancy literature” (81). Such literature “trains” expecting mothers to become realizations of the ideal, as if such extraneous knowledge were only available in magazines, books, and guidelines and not in the hardwired mechanisms of the female anatomy, which are carefully monitored by doctors and, after a child is born, education systems. Everything the mother does during pregnancy is believed to have a direct outcome in the birth and subsequent development of the child, even as little is said in such literature about a mother’s relationships with others in her life.

Kakuta Mitsuyo’s Yoteibi wa Jimi Peiji (My due date is Jimmy Page’s birthday) and Tadano Miako’s Sannen migoromu (The three-year pregnancy) rework the canonical pregnancy as “an emphatically social enterprise” (85). In Kakuta’s novel, a seemingly textbook pregnancy churns the protagonist’s mind into a slow, diaristic unfolding of ennui over, and alienation from, her growing fetus. Paradoxically, the story underscores and unravels restrictive pregnancy norms as she settles into the reality with relative peace and acceptance. Tadano is less introspective and more humor-oriented, choosing instead to follow surreal sequence of events, thereby underscoring folkloric tendencies and problematizing the notion of self-made mothers.

Chapter Five, “Riding the Wave,” moves on to tropes of pregnancy manga, texts that allow Seaman to discover novel ways of depicting the pain of childbirth in their deft mélange of humor and critique. From Itō Hiromi’s illustrated 1984 manual Yoi oppai, warui oppai (Good breasts, bad breasts) to the manga collection of 12 short stories, Go-shussan! (Birth!), published by the editorial collective known as “Cream Puff” (Chou Crème), Seaman notes a metaphorical hyper-realism at work. Using symbolic imagery “in favor of an affective but rather static emphasis on motherhood” (129) in personal narratives that challenge medicalized notions of pregnancy in dealing with a matrix of pain for which they feel ill prepared, while their use of humor, as Seaman observes, “counteracts the impression that the pregnant body is grotesque or abnormal” (143).

These themes are deepened in the sixth and final chapter, “Em-bawdy-ing Pregnancy,” which offers a deep reading of Uchida Shungiku’s eclectic blend of critique and family values-focused conservatism. Her controversial book of autobiographical fiction, Fazaa Fakkaa (Father fucker), examines a life of abuse at the hands of an unnamed stepfather. Seaman looks beyond the obvious sexual perversions of the novel to its catalytic pregnancies. The manga series Watashitachi wa hanshoku shite iru (We are breeding) is an optimistic yet no-less-frank examination of pregnancy. Uchida’s experiential mixture of realism and exaggeration makes manga a suitable vehicle for self-expression, by which she delineates personal experience outside the trigger-happy realm of politics.

In her Afterword, Seaman concludes on an open-ended note: “It remains to be seen whether literature can offer a similarly [i.e., to manga] compelling, challenging, and idiosyncratic account of what it means to become a mother in millennial Japan” (182). The keyword in Seaman’s statement here is “account,” which underscores the importance of personal experience. The implicit question of this study, however rhetorical, inspires us to think beyond the script of pregnancy in search of individual connections and to view said connections not as objects of fetishizing scholarship but as the voices of living human beings.

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Tyran Grillo is a Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in East Asia and the Americas at Columbia University (link). Tyran received his doctorate in Japanese Literature in 2017 from Cornell University, where his research focused on (mis)representations of animals in Japanese popular culture, as well as intersections of Asian Studies and Posthumanism. He has been a professional translator for over a decade, translating twelve books of Japanese fiction into English to date, including Parasite Eve by Sena Hideaki (Vertical, 2005), Paradise by Suzuki Kōji (Vertical, 2006), and Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku (Kurodahan Press, 2016). Alongside his academic life, Grillo is an avid arts critic, having written over one million words of impressionistic reviews and essays on music, performance, and film on his website, Between Sound and Space.

So Pretty / Very Rotten

Title: So Pretty / Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture
Authors: Jane Mai and An Nguyen
Publisher: Koyama Press
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 304

This guest review is by Kyra Wiseman.

With their poofy petticoats and delicate dresses, aficionados of Lolita fashion stand out as an elegant oasis among a sea of jeans and t-shirts. It is hard to imagine how such a feminine style of dress could have a dark underbelly, but Jane Mai and An Nguyen explore this in their collection of essays and comics, So Pretty / Very Rotten.

Lolita fashion is a Japanese street fashion based off of Victorian children’s clothing. It emphasizes modesty, femininity and elegance. A basic Lolita outfit (co-ordinate, or co-ord for short) consists of a blouse with puffed sleeves and a round Peter Pan collar, a knee-length dress or skirt, over-the-knee socks, Mary-Jane shoes, a headbow, and most importantly, a bell-shaped petticoat. It is an unashamedly feminine style in a time where femininity is undermined and women feel a pressure to dress and present in a more masculine style in order to be taken seriously. I personally have been a part of this subculture since 2010, and my love for it only grows with each passing year.

While it contains several essays that go into the historical and feminine aspects of Lolita, So Pretty / Very Rotten brings to light a more macabre side of the fashion. Mai and Nguyen discuss how there is an innate sense of materialism within the community. The urge to buy, buy, buy and collect pieces to perfect one’s Lolita wardrobe is prevalent. Often one feels as if they don’t belong unless they have a wardrobe of a certain size or pieces by specific brands. One of Jane Mai’s comics depicts a character literally exchanging body parts in order to gain a deeper understanding of Lolita and what it means to be a part of the fashion.

A less macabre theme, though no less troublesome, is that of escapism. Many view Lolita and the window to another time, as it creates a gateway to a world where life is simpler and where teatime and lovely dresses help take away the pain and stresses of real life. The authors express the idea that sometimes Lolitas can get so wrapped up in this world of beauty and luxury that they forget to take care of other aspects of their lives. They do note, however, that there is also a sense of freedom in making the choice to dress in a way that is so outlandish. When you’re surrounded by a supportive community that encourages self-expression through fashion, it feels as though you have the power and opportunity to be yourself, no matter how strange your interests are. As one character says, “Isn’t there a kind of power in announcing so plainly the things that you like?”

So Pretty / Very Rotten is fantastic for readers who are interested in alternative Japanese fashion, whether they are beginners or seasoned pros. I personally enjoyed the illustrations and the love and attention that Mai and Nguyen have brought to recreating Lolita outfits in a way that is representative of their own tastes while portraying the versatility of the fashion. I hadn’t expected the book to touch on ideas relating to Lolita as escapism or to explore the darker side of using clothes to express oneself. I felt as though this unique perspective helped me look at the fashion I love in a new light, and perhaps it has also helped me recognize my own habits in the way I approach the fashion. This collection of short essays and comics will be a welcome addition to the library of those who are Lolitas or those who love them and would appreciate a better understanding of this weird yet wonderful frilly world.

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Kyra Wiseman is a Washington D.C. native with a passion for alternative fashion. She has been a part of the DC/MD/VA metropolitan area Lolita community for six years.

The Nakano Thrift Shop

Title: The Nakano Thrift Shop
Japanese Title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudōgu Nakano Shoten)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop, which is run by a middle-aged man named, unsurprisingly, Mr. Nakano. While she watches the store and works the till, a young man around her age, Takeo, accompanies Mr. Nakano on buying trips. The trio is occasionally visited by Mr. Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist of independent means. The twelve loosely connected stories in The Nakano Thrift Shop are about the strange and silly things that happen to this odd group of characters, whose small dramas for the most part seem to exist outside of the specifics of time and place.

Hitomi is short-tempered and cagey, Takeo is passive and uncommunicative, and Masayo is chatty and expansive, but it is the stubborn and befuddled Mr. Nakano whose mishaps and shenanigans serve as the focal point or punchline of each story. In the second story, “Paperweight,” Mr. Nakano bribes Hitomi to go visit Masayo and get gossip about her new lover, which sparks a friendship between the two women. In the third story, “Bus,” Mr. Nakano travels to Hokkaido on a buying trip and becomes involved in a one-sided love affair, amusing Hitomi with the messages he sends back to the shop. In other stories, an unusual customer provides a break from the store’s daily routine. For example, in the ninth story, “Bowl,” a young man tries to get rid of a valuable antique bowl, which he believes has been cursed by an ex-girlfriend. The Nakano Thrift Shop is more of a downmarket store, so Masayo forces Mr. Nakano to pass the bowl over to a specialist ceramics dealer with whom he happens to be in the process of breaking off a romantic relationship.

Over the course of the book, Hitomi enters into a romantic relationship of her own with Takeo. This romance never makes much progress, however, as Hitomi demands action and attention while Takeo doesn’t like talking on the phone and is content simply to allow life to happen to him. Like everything in The Nakano Thrift Shop, their relationship is lowkey and laidback, and it ebbs and flows without any sort of drama.

For the reader, the pleasure of these stories lies in peeking into the lives of these characters as they drift through the changing seasons while comfortable in the stability of their friendships. Even though unusual things occasionally happen, no one is ever strongly affected by these events. For instance, in the first story, “Rectangular #2,” an odd man named Takadokoro comes into the store to sell artistic nude photos. Masayo tells Hitomi that the pictures are of Takadoroko’s former student. Takadokoro has the potential to be a truly creepy (or pathetic) character, but the warm narrative tone of The Nakano Thrift Shop treats him as just another person in the neighborhood. He doesn’t bother anyone, and no one is bothered by him. After all, everyone is a little weird once you get to know them.

In the final story, “Punch Ball,” the Nakano shop has closed, and the characters have all gone their separate ways. Hitomi takes various office jobs as a temp worker while she studies for her bookkeeping certification exam. Her current distance from the carefree atmosphere that suffused the earlier stories puts them into perspective, and her former freedom from the pressures of the corporate world now seems much more meaningful. Now that she spends her days sitting at a desk in front of a computer, social interactions are no longer improvised and unique, and friendships are no longer so easily formed. There’s a playful innocence to Hitomi’s time in the Nakano shop that only becomes apparent in retrospect.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a short and pleasant book that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Briefcase (which was published as Strange Weather in Tokyo in the UK). Although it’s a wide leap removed from the darker themes and imagery of some of Kawakami’s other work that has appeared in translation, it’s mercifully free of the sentimentality and melodrama of Yoshimoto Banana novels. As Hitomi seems to be in her mid to late twenties, it’s up for debate whether The Nakano Thrift Shop can be classified as “girls’ literature” (shōjo shōsetsu), but reading these stories conveys a vicarious sense of what it feels like to be a young woman chilling out and having fun in a trendy Tokyo suburb.

The Pleasures of Metamorphosis

Title: The Pleasures of Metamorphosis: Japanese and English Fairy Tale Transformations of “The Little Mermaid”
Author: Lucy Fraser
Publication Year: 2017
Publisher: Wayne State University Press
Pages: 232

This guest review is by Annaleigh Marshall.

Lucy Fraser’s The Pleasures of Metamorphosis analyzes the idea of “pleasure” through the lens of mermaid stories, all of which branch from Hans Christian Anderson’s original “The Little Mermaid.” From a girl turning into sea foam to a man trying to have sex with a mermaid and then being eaten alive, Fraser uses the transformations present in the texts to show how different societies enjoy them and thus find pleasure in the tales. Through her feminist voice and academic knowledge of Japanese culture, Fraser reevaluates interpretations of both fairy tales and Japanese society.

The Pleasures of Metamorphosis is composed of six chapters, as well as an Introduction and Conclusion. Throughout her study, Fraser argues that the pleasure found in the idea of “The Little Mermaid” is achieved through the act of transformation. She discusses not only the legitimacy of being able to transform the fairy tale but also the ways in which this is done. Using concrete examples drawn from literature and film, Fraser shows how authors play with the ideas of Anderson’s original text.

Creators from both Western and Eastern backgrounds transform the figure of the mermaid, resisting the straightforward portrayal of an innocent girl becoming a male possession and transforming her into an adult woman on a journey to find herself within a society of gender norms and restrictive societal rules. The pleasure is in the journey of the characters, authors, and readers, and it exists within a conversation of laughter and societal critique that Fraser argues can only be created by a fairy tale. Fraser maintains a strong connection to the idea of transformation throughout the book, using evidence from multiples sources and disciplines.

Fraser makes it clear that she does not wish to compare the West to the East. Instead she wants to show the reader how fairy tales serve all of humanity as a safe way to critique our societies and experiment with concepts impossible to test in reality. The West and the East are in a cycle of constantly borrowing from one another, transforming and creating something new, sometimes to the extent that the original author does not recognize their own work’s influence. Fraser argues passionately for the idea of cross-cultural transformation, using “The Little Mermaid” as a case study and prime example. She also discusses other fairy tales, such as “The Snow Queen” and “Snow White,” but her primary focus is on the story of a youthful fish-girl going through a metamorphosis to enter the patriarchal world of adults.

Fraser’s writing style is detailed and specific, and she favors a system of presenting an idea and then illustrating this idea with lengthy examples. Often her detail-orientated perspective creates page-long discussions concerning minor details of a story. These extended explorations add strength to her argument that the pleasure of reading fairy tales lies in their transformations. Fraser shows how authors from Oscar Wilde to Japanese postfeminist writer Nonaka Hiiragi take Anderson’s original tale and use their own life experiences, national history, and personal beliefs to create unique retellings of “The Little Mermaid.” Sometimes these stories can act as methods to teach children proper social behavior, while sometimes they serve as a way to question our shared cultures and beliefs.

It should be noted the writing is not as accessible as it could be, as the author frequently uses academic jargon from Gender Studies, Folklore Studies, and Cultural Studies without sufficient explanation, expecting her reader to already understand her terms. The biggest problem lies in the author’s handling of Japanese-language expressions. Since she takes the time to explain these words, she seems not to take Japanese language proficiency for granted. Her explanations of these concepts can feel rushed, however, and she also refers to historical eras in Japanese history without providing a great deal of context, which can be alienating to readers unfamiliar with Japanese language or history.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Fraser’s informative study of the movement of fairy tales across national and cultural borders. By incorporating an interdisciplinary viewpoint, she is able to depict multiple perspectives on the transformative use of Anderson’s classic story as a means of understanding both society and individuals. As Fraser argues, we are all mermaids waiting for our metamorphosis, and the pleasure we find in mermaid stories exists in the potential for transformation.

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Annaleigh Marshall is a rising senior double majoring in English and Modern Languages at George Mason University. She has previously published an essay on Hawai’ian Pidgin in the George Mason Review (link), and you can find her full professional profile on LinkedIn (link). Annaleigh is passionate about linguistics and translation, and she aims to enter the field of video game localization when she graduates.

Syndrome

Title: Syndrome
Japanese Title: シンドローム (Shindorōmu)
Author: Satō Tetsuya (佐藤 哲也)
Illustrator: Nishimura Tsuchika (西村ツチカ)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fukuinkan Shoten
Pages: 315

This guest review is written by Max Rivera (@makkusutl on Twitter).

Thanks to a recommendation from a writer whose work I follow closely, I had the pleasure of reading this tiny monster of a book, whose story is comprised of elements widely regarded as “classic” or even “cliche” in Western science fiction films: a meteorite that crashes down onto a small town, a group of kids whose unquenchable curiosity leads them to a mysterious discovery, bicycle rides at night, and meta-references to prominent sci-fi cinematic works such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Super 8.

Syndrome‘s synopsis is as simple as it gets: a meteorite crashes down on an unnamed city, causing a lot of turmoil. As days pass, the city becomes ensnared in a spiral of surrealism, mystery, and suspicion. The unnamed protagonist is an average yet gloomy high school student who hates the fact that this happened, as his fragile peace of mind is disturbed by the clash of what is normal and what is not. At first glance, it would seem Syndrome is a rehash of a number of works its readers have seen or read in the past, but there are two unmistakable elements that place this book a cut above the rest: its technically accomplished prose and its depiction of the perspective of its protagonist.

Syndrome‘s story is divided into seven chapters that represent seven days. On Day One, when the meteorite lands, things are relatively calm, but the reader can already perceive a faint sense of eeriness stirring, as can the protagonist. The gradual transition from normal to bizarre is highlighted by the detached sentence structure used by the author. Descriptions of landscapes, occasional thoughts, and conversations often lack any human trait; they are intriguing but feel almost numb. The prose bears almost no emotion whatsoever, which lends it an addictive and breakneck pace.

As the protagonist and his ostensible friends Hiroiwa and Kuraishi investigate the crash site and attempt to unveil what’s going on, the characters become more self-aware of their situation. Kuraishi is particularly knowledgeable and also happens to be a die-hard cinephile. He doesn’t directly break the fourth wall, but he acknowledges that the meteorite scenario is a classic trope of Western science fiction movies. For example, Kuraishi mentions The Blob (1958) and its 1988 remake, discussing how it became Steve McQueen’s feature film debut. Later on, Kuraishi compares what’s happening in the town to H.G. Wells’s 1953 film The War of the Worlds and Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation. It’s amusing to the reader to watch Kuraishi ramble on about all this while the protagonist and Hiroiwa have no idea what he’s talking about, especially since he is stereotypically nerdy, which is perhaps a meta reference in itself. The author, a veteran at the renowned Hayakawa SF imprint, thus gives the reader a taste of his extensive cinematic knowledge.

All of these loose strands contextualize each other as days grow darker and reality begins to mirror fantasy. By then, the reader has already begun to tell that the protagonist’s state of mind is unique, to say the least. He becomes ever more suspicious of his surroundings, his so-called friends, and even his family. For him, anyone and anything outside what he considers “his mental zone,” namely, people who are outspoken and act based on their instincts, are “dangerous” people to be wary of. There’s a strong contrast between the protagonist’s standard narrative style and the narration that occurs when he gets lost in his obsessive thoughts, which are represented by longer sentences and textual stacks of repeated concepts. This type of prose achieves a dreamlike effect, and the two narrative styles intertwine in ways that portray a fascinating human dichotomy. As there is little recognizable emotion in the writing, which is close to a stream of consciousness, the impassive first-person perspective generates an illusion that the reader is being sucked into the black hole of the protagonist’s mind.

The ending of the novel is fitting, given how the story works: we don’t know what comes next, nor do we have a feeling that everything is over. In truth, Syndrome doesn’t have a beginning or an end, per se. Instead, it’s an epistolary account of a mentally-troubled teenager who watches everything around him fall apart.

Syndrome is a wormhole into the unknown. Once you start reading it, the book won’t let you go.

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Max Rivera is a freelance writer from Mexico City. He is currently majoring in Translation & Interpretation and Literature. As a former resident of Japan and aficionado of Japanese fiction, the Japanese publishing world, and pop culture, he often publishes reviews and cutting-edge articles on these subjects through several outlets, such as his personal blog on Tumblr and the popular Japanese media blog Tanoshimi. He loves cold weather, books, and cats way too much.

Dendera

Title: Dendera
Japanese Title: デンデラ (Dendera)
Author: Satō Yūya (佐藤 友哉)
Translators: Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 360

Dendera is not an easy book to read. Although the cover copy describes the story as being set in “a utopian community” of old women, this is no tale of feminist empowerment. Rather, every page practically bleeds with suffering and human misery, and the only salvation for any of the characters lies in death.

In the Village, there is a strictly enforced rule that everyone must Climb the Mountain when they reach the age of seventy. Men and women who reach this age are carried on the back of their oldest child, who leaves them in the wilderness so that they may ascend to Paradise. That time has come for Kayu Saitoh, and she is ready – all she wants is to lie down and rest. As the snow falls around her on the Mountain, she embraces the sensation of her body becoming cold, knowing that when she sleeps, she will not wake in this world.

Right before she passes out, however, Kayu Saitoh is rescued and taken to Dendera, a settlement formed on the Mountain by all the women who were abandoned by their families and left to die of exposure. Dendera is little more than a collection of flimsy huts, but the community of fifty women has supported itself for more than three decades. These women don’t want to die, and so they rescue each other, eking out a meager living from the harsh environment.

The leader of Dendera is a woman named Mei Mitsuya, who founded the settlement because, as she says herself, “I had no intention of dying.” Mei Mitsuya hates the Village, but simply staying alive is not revenge enough for her. Her ultimate goal is therefore to accumulate enough resources to attack and destroy the Village. This is easier said than done, however, as life is not easy on the Mountain, especially for a small group of older women. They barely have enough to eat, and it is only by monitoring the community’s food supply that Mei Mitsuya is able to maintain her control over the other women.

Kayu Saitoh, who is resents being robbed of the opportunity to die a “pure” death, feels no gratitude toward Mei Mitsuya or any feeling of investment in Dendera. This sense of detachment allows her to see the power dynamics of the community, especially the tension between the “hawks,” which is what Mei Mitsuya’s faction calls itself, and the minority group of “doves,” who seem to want nothing more than for the village to prosper. This conflict is subtle, however, as the main concern of the Dendera inhabitants is feeding themselves. After all, no one has much energy to spare for anything besides hunting, scavenging, and rudimentary farming, not to mention the care of those too senescent to care for themselves.

Unfortunately, the old women aren’t the only ones going hungry, as this particular winter has been especially fierce. A large bear who has established her territory on the Mountain is starving, as is her cub. She eventually becomes desperate enough at attack the human settlement, which throws the tiny society into complete disarray. As Kayu Saitoh watches everything fall apart around her, she begins to catch glimpses of Dendera’s dark secrets. The bear is a terrible enemy, but this creature is far from the most frightening threat besieging the community.

If you want to read about old women being evil to each other in a wilderness setting, Dendera is your book. I found myself fascinated by this story, especially when it became clear that there was a deeper mystery underlying the basic struggle for survival. I appreciate just how unapologetically mean and selfish each of the women is, and this darkness of characterization served to render their rare moments of kindness and cooperation shine all the brighter. I also enjoyed the interludes of narration from the bear’s perspective, which don’t attempt to attribute her with human characteristics but still engender a strong sense of sympathy for her own struggle to survive.

Although the story isn’t set in any particular time or place, it might be possible to read Dendera as an allegory for the precarity faced by a rising number of older people in Japan, especially in the context of the plethora of (relatively) recent news media stories about people who fall out of touch with their families and effectively “disappear” only to then be found in their houses or apartments weeks after they die. That being said, the story has a certain quality of timelessness that allows it to function as a study of human character that transcends any specific social or historical context. I could easily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys highbrow horror fiction, regardless of whether they know or care anything about Japan.

Dendera is gritty and compelling human drama. The story takes a number of interesting turns before moving in a surprising direction as it builds up to an ending that is magnificently transcendent. The unrelenting unpleasantness of its subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste; but, if your stomach is strong enough, Dendera is a thoroughly satisfying novel.

Record of a Night Too Brief

Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Japanese Title: 蛇を踏む (Hebi o fumu)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 1996 (Japan)
Press: Pushkin Press
Pages: 158

Record of a Night Too Brief collects three short stories that the book’s cover copy describes as “haunting” and “lyrical” in their depiction of young women experiencing “loss, loneliness and extraordinary romance.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it in no way describes the actual stories in question, which are less “haunting” than they are grotesque and less “lyrical” than they are unapologetically strange. Instead of trying to treat them as romance, I believe it’s much more fulfilling to approach their absurdity in the spirit of intellectual play.

The title story, “Record of a Night Too Brief,” is a sequence of nineteen of the unnamed narrator’s dreams. Each of these dreams is two or three pages long, and they are linked only in that every other scenario features a young woman whom the narrator is either pursuing or in the process of merging with. If there is a unifying theme or plot, it is lost on me, but the power of these dreams comes from their vivid imagery. To give an example (from page 11):

Several dozen ticket collectors stood in a row, and once we passed through, showing our tickets, the tall object came into view.

It was a singer, who stood as tall as a three-storey building. From where I was, I had a clear view of the beauty spot under her jaw, and the rise and fall of her breasts.

“The beauty spot is artificial,” the girl informed me, gazing up at the singer, enraptured.

The singer was producing notes at different pitches, as if she were warming up. When she sang high notes, flocks of birds took flight from the branches of the ginko trees. When she sang low notes, the earth heaved, and small furry creatures emerged from underground and crawled about.

…and so on. It’s all very random, but one can’t help but become swept up in the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting parade of surreal images.

The next story, “Missing,” is set in an apartment complex that functions according to its own arbitrary and bizarre set of customs and rituals. One of the rules of this community is that each household can only have five members. If a sixth member is added for any reason, then someone has to disappear. This recently happened to the narrator’s family after her older brother was engaged to be married. Because his fiancée would have become the sixth person, he disappeared, and the narrator’s other older brother stepped in to fill his position. His fiancée, Hiroko, has no idea that this has happened, as the rules are different in her own apartment complex, where certain members of certain families literally shrink. Meanwhile, the narrator continues to hear the voice of the older brother as he (or his spirit) skulks around the apartment. No explanation is given for any of this, as everyone takes these occurrences for granted.

The final story, which provides the title of the original Japanese publication, is “A Snake Stepped On.” This story is about a young woman who one day finds herself living with a snake. This snake takes the form of an older woman who insists that she is the narrator’s mother. As she accustoms herself to life with a snake, the narrator begins to realize that many of the people around her are also living with snakes, including the local Buddhist priest whom she thought of turning to for an exorcism. Following the conventions of magical realism, the tone of this story is mundane, with the possibility of being devoured by a snake – or becoming a snake oneself – treated as merely another everyday occurrence.

Record of a Night Too Brief is a short collection of curiosities that are fascinating in their novelty. The fantastical qualities of each story allow for various interpretations, and they will no doubt intrigue different readers for different reasons. As contemporary fairy tales, the stories in this collection spark and inspire the imagination.