Sweet Bean Paste

Title: Sweet Bean Paste
Japanese Title: あん (An)
Author: Durian Sukegawa (ドリアン助川)
Translators: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Pages: 216

Sweet Bean Paste is a novel about the trauma of discrimination and the stress of living in an unjust society, but the experience of reading it will help you remember the pleasure of being able to readjust your perspective, even if doing so is initially awkward and unpleasant.

Sentaro Tsujii is a young(ish) man who runs a stall called Doraharu that sells dorayaki, pancakes filled with sweet paste made from adzuki beans. Although Doraharu is owned by his former boss’s widow, Sentaro works by himself all day every single day of the year. When he finally decides to put up a “Help Wanted” announcement, a 76-year-old woman named Tokue Yoshii shows up and offers to work for only 200 yen an hour. Sentaro declines, thinking that he doesn’t want to be bothered by an old woman hanging around, but he quickly changes his mind when he tries her homemade red bean paste, which is unlike anything he’s ever tasted.

Doraharu is located in an open-air shopping arcade called Cherry Blossom Street, which is slowly losing foot traffic as customers gravitate to suburban shopping centers. Nevertheless, thanks to the deliciousness of the bean paste Sentaro makes with Tokue, the stall experiences a brief period of prosperity. It’s especially popular with students on their way home, and Tokue chats with the girls as she helps Sentaro. She becomes particularly friendly with an otherwise standoffish middle-school student named Wakana. Once Tokue finally draws Wakana out of her shell, the girl asks her about her hands, something Sentaro has wondered about as well.

Tokue reveals that she once had Hansen’s disease, and Sentaro realizes that she must live in Tenshoen, a sanitarium just outside of town. Until 1996, Hansen’s patients were secluded from the rest of society by law despite the fact that the illness has been cured and is no longer transmissible. When Wakana’s mother finds out who Tokue is and where she lives, however, she spreads the information around the community. The flow of business at Doraharu dries up, and Tokue voluntarily quits her job.

Sentaro served a prison sentence after being arrested in possession of recreational marijuana as a college student; and, as someone who was prevented from realizing the ambitions he held as a young man, he sympathizes with Tokue’s plight as a target of irrational discrimination. Wakana, a social outcast herself, regrets the part she’s played in how events have unfolded, and she agrees to accompany Sentaro on a trip to visit Tokue at Tenshoen, where they learn things about their community that they’d never suspected.

The savory center of Sweet Bean Paste is the slow development of the relationship between Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana, but the novel is ultimately about learning to find beauty and meaning in an unfair world despite knowing that some injustices may never be corrected. This theme occasionally results in a cloying level of sentimentality, but its emotional straightforwardness is balanced by the narrative itself, which offers no easy answers or conclusions.

Something I appreciate about Tokue is that, even though she’s a generally positive and upbeat person who doesn’t see herself as a victim, she expresses genuine sorrow and resentment at forces beyond her control, and the reader is occasionally made to feel uncomfortable in her presence. Meanwhile, Sentaro has a history of alcoholism and depression, and Sweet Bean Paste portrays the lived experience of these conditions with the respect and sensitivity it deserves. Although the novel doesn’t normalize illness, it humanizes it.

Sweet Bean Paste is not moralistic or didactic, however, and its major accomplishment is doing what all good fiction does, which is to allow the reader to experience the world from another point of view. Sukegawa excels at narrating from different positions while subtly shifting the reader’s viewpoint away from the emphasis on able-bodied “health” conveyed by so many aspects of mainstream culture and society. Readers looking for a happy ending may be disappointed, but the novel’s wholesomeness lies in its positive outlook on life. This is a small story about ordinary people, but it’s filled with hope and sweetness.

Title: Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter
Artists: Atelier Sentō (Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard)
Translator: Marie Velde
Publication Year: 2016 (France); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 128

This story was inspired by one of our trips to Niigata, during the fall of 2014. We dedicate it to the people we’ve met there. They welcomed us with overwhelming generosity and helped us discover the region and its secrets. Some of these people will appear in this book. We hope they will enjoy it.

This paragraph prefaces Onibi, a diary-style graphic novel written and drawn by Atelier Sentō, the creative team of Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard. In the late summer and fall of 2014, Brun and Pichard were able to spend about ten weeks living in the small village of Saruwada thanks to the efforts of Kosuke and Sumie Baba, who run a small restaurant and international guesthouse called Margutta 51. At the beginning of their stay, Brun and Pichard bought a toy Polaroid camera from a man who assured them that it could photograph spirits, so they went out ghosthunting. Onibi is the result of their travels and conversations.

Along with a short prologue and epilogue, Onibi has seven chapters, each of which chronicles a local legend related to the yōkai of Niigata prefecture in northern Japan. Sime of Brun and Pichard’s excursions were facilitated by the proprietors of Margutta 51, who introduced them to people with stories to share. Some of their encounters happened completely by chance, however, and most don’t play out as expected. In the second chapter, for example, Brun and Pichard take the train to a small village to find a creature called “Buru Buru-kun,” but they find that the old forest where it’s said to live has been cut down to make room for rice fields. In the seventh chapter, Brun and Pichard visit Osorezan, a temple in the caldera of an active volcano where the world of the living and the world of the dead are believed to meet. They misplace their ghost camera as they explore the strange surroundings of the temple, but the conversations they have with their fellow pilgrims make the journey worthwhile.

I especially enjoyed the fourth chapter, “Mountain’s Shadow,” which is about the pair’s chance encounter with a man who gives them a walking tour of Yahiko. The village is famous for its fall foliage, but it’s deserted during the week. After taking in the sights, Brun and Pichard step into a small udon restaurant, where they’re approached by a man who offers to tell them about the local yōkai. He takes them to a large tree in town and then up a hill to a mountainside temple, after which they embark on a walking trail through the woods. Instead of taking the tram down the mountain once it gets dark, they decide to walk, and they hear strange noises in the trees as they descend. This episode is enhanced by its visual appeal as the color palette shifts from the brown of the restaurant interior to the gold of the afternoon sunlight in the village to the blue of the forest twilight.

The comic artwork in Onibi is gentle and warm, with a gorgeous color palette and a pleasing compositional balance on each page. The humans who appear in the book are distinctive without coming off as caricatures, and the landscapes, townscapes, and interiors are striking. Brun and Pichard pay special attention to natural and artificial lighting and weather conditions, making the reader feel almost as if they’re right walking right beside the artists as the summer shifts into fall. Tuttle has released a beautiful Kindle edition of the book, but I highly recommend the print version, which allows the reader to appreciate the details and textures of the artwork.

Although it hints at some fairly dark themes, Onibi is more atmospheric than spooky, and it should be suitable for people of all ages. If I were teaching a class about Japanese folklore (and Onibi makes me dearly want to teach such a class), I think the graphic novel might serve as an interesting companion to Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing, especially the chapter on Osorezan. Even for people with no background knowledge of Japan, Onibi is a fascinating exploration of a beautiful part of the world, as well as a lovely introduction to the people who live there – and the supernatural creatures who may just live alongside them.

Nan-Core

Title: Nan-Core
Japanese Title: ユリゴコロ (Yurigokoro)
Author: Mahokaru Numata (沼田まほかる)
Translator: Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
Publication Year: 2011 (Japan); 2015 (United States)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 253

As his father is dying of pancreatic cancer, a young(ish) man named Ryosuke discovers a set of notebooks hidden in a box in his father’s study. The handwritten confession contained in the notebooks is shocking, and Ryosuke begins to suspect that the woman who raised him may not be his biological mother. Then again, a part of him has always known that something was strange ever since he was four years old, when his family moved from Tokyo to Nara while he was in the hospital. It may well be that Misako, the person he was told to call mother when he was brought home, replaced his real mother, especially if the woman who gave birth to him is the same person who has written something resembling a “murder diary” in the notebooks he’s found.

The woman who has admitted her darkest secrets in these notebooks knows that something is wrong with her. She has trouble empathizing with other people, and nothing in life brings her joy. When she discovers that witnessing death makes her feel human, she can’t stop thinking about it, and she takes indirect action that results in the death of a young boy and one of her female classmates. Killing, she realizes, is her “Nan-Core,” something a doctor once told her parents that she was lacking and whose pronunciation she misremembered as a child. Her “Nan-Core” is what makes her feel alive, and she continues to search for opportunities to trigger it as she grows up, goes to college, and starts working at an office.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Misako, the woman who wrote the confessions in the notebooks, is indeed Ryosuke’s biological mother, and that the woman who called herself Misako as she raised him and his brother is a surrogate. Ryosuke wants to find out how and why this happened, and most readers will quickly come to the obvious conclusions, which are later confirmed by Ryosuke’s father. The most intriguing element of this family drama is what happened to the original Misako, whose fate remains a mystery until the very end of the novel.

As Ryosuke steals time during his father’s hospital visits to read Misako’s notebooks, a disturbing series of events plays out in his own life. Ryosuke runs a mountainside dog café called Shaggy Head, and he’s fallen in love with one of his employees, Chie. Chie was once a bar hostess, and she’s on the run from her abusive husband, who himself seems to be on the run from the yakuza. When Chie disappears into thin air, another of Ryosuke’s employees, Ms. Hosoya, takes it on herself to find the missing woman, a decision that results in dangerous complications for everyone involved.

Despite all the murder and spousal abuse, Nan-Core tells a surprisingly gentle story. The novel’s focus is not on mystery or violence, but rather the evolution of the relationships between the members of Ryosuke’s family as Ryosuke and his brother learn more about their parents and begin to see them as people. Ryosuke also starts to create his own new family as he develops stronger bonds with Chie and Ms. Hosoya. The secrets hidden deep within these relationships stem not from malice and neglect, but rather from attempts to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. Even Misako was able to grow and change because of the kindness of the people who adopted her into their family (although her story does take some surprising turns along the way). Misako’s homicidal tendencies can easily be read as an attempt to form connections with other people despite extreme alienation, and some of her murders are even a bit gratifying. For example, why continue to deal with sexual harassment at work when you can just murder the creep who keeps bothering all the female employees? In the end, the gentle Ryosuke ends up borrowing strength from his mother’s confessions; and, when his story finally intersects with hers, the result is extremely satisfying.

Nan-Core at first seems to be a thin mystery propelled by a cast of one-dimensional stereotypes, but the plot slowly thickens as layers are added to each character. The story can be melodramatic at times, and the lack of any real consequences resulting from the characters’ actions is a bit fanciful, but none of this detracts from the charm of the novel. My only real complaint is that, given that Ryosuke manages a dog café, Nan-Core has an unfortunate lack of canine characters. Judging from its trailer (link), the 2017 cinematic adaptation of the book (link) doesn’t have any dogs either. This is a shame, because I really think the story’s odd but intriguing blend of horror and romance could have been enhanced by more puppies. Honestly, probably everything could be enhanced by more puppies, but at least Nan-Core offers its readers a batch of warm and cuddly murderers. My rating: 13/10, would be an honor to be murdered be these cutie pies.

The Last Children of Tokyo

Title: The Last Children of Tokyo
Japanese Title: 献灯使 (Kentōshi)
Author: Yōko Tawada (多和田葉子)
Translator: Margaret Mitsutani
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2018 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 138

In the future – but not long in the future – Japan has secluded itself from the rest of the world. The environment is saturated with toxic substances, it’s dangerous to go near the sea, and most animals have disappeared from the wild. Humans still live on the Japanese archipelago, but their society has changed. Adults born in our own time live long lives and continue working well past their hundredth birthdays, while children born in the present of the novel have trouble retaining nutrients from food and are often too weak for sustained physical activity. Young and healthy people in their sixties and seventies do everything in their power to immigrate to Okinawa or the north of Japan, where agriculture still thrives, while Tokyo suffers from depopulation.

A novelist named Yoshiro still lives in Tokyo, where he cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei is fascinated by pictures of animals that have recently gone extinct, while Yoshiro similarly spends his time looking back on the gradual shifts and changes in Japanese society. Each of Yoshiro’s memories is a sustained flight of magical realism that often has very little to do with the conventions of science fiction or dystopian fantasy. The Last Children of Tokyo is not about social critique through the medium of apocalypse, nor does it have much of a plot. Rather, it’s a reflection of everyday life in contemporary Japan in a mirror that’s mostly accurate but has a few interesting distortions.

Some of these distortions offer a speculative interpretation of how daily life has changed as a result of Japan’s recent demographic shifts.

The names of some of the older holidays were changed: “Respect for the Aged Day” became “Encouragement for the Aged Day,” while “Children’s Day” was now “Apologize to Children Day”; “Sports Day” was changed to “Body Day” to avoid upsetting children who were not growing up big and strong; so as not to hurt the feelings of young people who wanted to work but simply weren’t strong enough, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.” (43-44)

Other distortions magnify current practices out of proportion, making them seem like harbingers of social collapse.

He heard the phrase “Baby Carriage Movement” from Marika for the first time. This was a movement to encourage mothers to push their baby carriages around town every day as long as the sun was shining. Mothers who woke up unbearably miserable every morning, feeling helpless, hungry, about to pee all over themselves with no one to help them, whether because of a moist, clammy dream they’d had the night before, or because being cooped up all day with a squalling infant stimulates memories of the mother’s own infancy, went out to push their baby carriages until they came to a coffee shop with a “baby carriage mark” in the window, where they would find books and magazines to read and other mothers to talk to. (67)

Nevertheless, Tokyo is still a center of population, and Yoshiro can’t bring himself to leave the city as social services crumble, public transportation breaks down, and people resort to eating weeds. Even in decline, it seems, Tokyo is still home to many vibrant communities.

Though Tokyo was now impoverished, new shops still bubbled up from the depths to open up like flowers; just sitting on a park bench, you never got tired of watching the people go by. Walking around the city made the gears in your brain start turning. People had begun to realize that these simple pleasures were the most delicious part of the fruit we call everyday life, which is why even though their houses were small and food was scarce, they still wanted to live in Tokyo. (60-61)

In The Last Children of Tokyo, the city of Tokyo is less of a physical location than it is a collection of people who, as a society, have developed a fascinating set of collective quirks. The novel has very little plot to speak of, allowing the reader to take in the sights as its narration slowly meanders between times and places. The last forty or so pages shift to Mumei’s perspective as he becomes involved in a secret plan to leave the Japan, but there’s no sense of urgency regarding the matter; and, like the rest of the novel, the ending is meant to be enjoyed for its atmosphere. Tawada’s writing is given form by its abstractions, most of which can be interpreted by the reader in multiple ways and pursued in multiple directions. As a result, The Last Children of Tokyo is neither a particularly hopeful nor a particularly grim novel. It’s an odd book and an entertaining thought experiment, and Tawada playfully invites her readers to join her on a journey through a Tokyo that doesn’t exist – at least, not yet.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Title: The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Japanese Title: 旅猫リポート (Tabineko ripōto)
Author: Hiro Arikawa (有川 浩)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2015 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 247

A man named Satoru Miyawaki is on a journey across Japan, visiting old friends as he looks for someone to adopt his pet cat, Nana. After Satoru’s parents died in a car accident, he went to live with his aunt Noriko, who moved for work every few years. Although he never stayed in one place for long, Satoru was able to make a number of close friends; and, as he drives north, he visits a friend from elementary school, a friend from middle school, and a pair of friends from high school. His final destination is Hokkaido, where his aunt has settled down.

Satoru adopted a stray cat after it was hit by a car, and he gives it the name Nana because a bend in its tail makes it look like the number 7 (nana in Japanese). As a former stray, Nana has his pride, but he decides to stay with Satoru because Satoru asks him respectfully if he wants to be his cat. The reader knows this because about half of the narration in The Travelling Cat Chronicles is from Nana’s perspective. As Satoru reconnects with old friends, Nana makes astute observations about their lives, their habits, and the nature of their relationships with Satoru. He also interacts with the pets of Satoru’s friends, who share insights of their own.

Satoru’s friend from elementary school, Kosuke, has taken over his father’s photography shop, but business isn’t doing well, and he’s separated from his wife. Satoru manages to convince Kosuke to follow his dreams, transition into pet photography, and reconcile with his wife by talking to her about adopting a cat of their own. The next person Satoru visits is Yoshimine, a friend from middle school who has left the city to become a farmer. Yoshimine has just adopted a kitten; and, in any case, he correctly suspects that Satoru doesn’t actually want to leave Nana behind. Afterwards, Satoru visits his high school friends Sugi and Chikako, who run a pet-friendly inn near Mount Fuji. Sugi and Chikako already have pets of their own, including a dog named Toramaru, who immediately takes a disliking to Nana. Needless to say, Nana is not adopted by anyone, which suits him just fine.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not so much a travelogue as it is a sustained reflection on Satoru’s childhood, which was shaped by his relationships with his friends, whom he bonded with over various incidents involving pets. All of Satoru’s memories are wholesome, and his friends are unfailingly kind. Nana is loyal and protective of Satoru, and he is a patient and considerate travel partner. When the pair finally arrives in Hokkaido, they encounter nothing but gorgeous green fields and delicious fresh foods. The reason Satoru feels that he can no longer care for Nana is sad (albeit predicable); but his aunt Noriko, who has always disliked cats, is a sweet and open-hearted person who learns to love and appreciate Nana.

The tone of The Travelling Cat Chronicles is warm and gentle, and both the humor and the tragedy of the novel are relatively light. It’s an easy novel to read, and its focus is on healing and the pleasures of living simply and in the moment. Some readers may find the story contrived and overly sentimental, and some pet owners may be disappointed by the lack of depth in the writer’s portrayal of the experience of living with a cat. Nevertheless, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a lovely story of friendship and the affection that people share with their companion animals. The watercolor chapter header images by Shuai Liu are a delightful addition to the English translation of Hiro Arikawa’s bestselling novel, a cinematic adaptation of which will arrive in Japanese theaters in October 2018 (link).

Convenience Store Woman

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Japanese Title: コンビニ人間 (Konbini ningen)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 163

Keiko Furukawa is 36 years old and has been working at the same convenience store for almost two decades. She loves the job, which suits her perfectly. Keiko has never fit in and constantly finds herself at a loss for how to talk with other people, but human interaction is governed by detailed rules and a prewritten script in the perfectly ordered world of the convenience store. “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated,” Keiko explains, adding that she appreciates this sense of distance from unnecessary social and emotional disturbances (60). The structured environment of the convenience store provides Keiko with a safe space in which she can perform work that she finds satisfying, meaningful, and helpful to other people.

At its core, Convenience Store Woman is a novella about the dignity of a job that many people find trivial and demeaning. Keiko takes obvious pride in the convenience store where she has worked since it opened eighteen years ago, and it’s not difficult to share her enthusiasm as she cheerfully describes seemingly banal tasks such as preparing food, restocking shelves, and greeting customers. Unlike the confusing and conflicting expectations imposed on her by the outside world, Keiko knows exactly what needs to be done in the convenience store, and she knows exactly when and how to do it. She often remarks on the feeling of satisfaction her experience and competence give her. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Keiko declares…

It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning. (4)

Keiko pays close attention to the smallest details of the self-contained environment of the store, and her keen powers of observation allow her to appreciate the personalities and behavioral quirks of the customers. She does not judge or discriminate against anyone who enters the store and does her best to unobtrusively ensure that they are comfortable. She applies the same keen focus of her attention to her coworkers, mimicking their comments and speech patterns so that they find her friendly, companionable, and – most importantly – normal.

Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have an overarching plot, but its story is propelled forward by small scenes of conflict resulting from the friction between Keiko’s contentment and the expectations of other people. A crucial incident occurs during a backyard barbeque during which the husbands of Keiko’s high school friends have too much to drink and start laying into her for remaining in the same dead-end job without getting married. “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects,” Keiko later rationalizes as she thinks back on the conversation. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of” (80). Keiko comes to the unfortunate realization that, by remaining unmarried and childless at 36, she has begun to stray so far outside of normative social expectations that she risks ostracization.

Partially because of this incident, Keiko feels pressured into inviting a thirty-something NEET named Shiraha to live in her apartment. Shiraha briefly worked at the same convenience store as Keiko but had been dismissed because of his poor performance. He had also, it turns out, been stalking some of the customers, and he continues to hang around the building even after he’s fired. Keiko views this as a threat to the harmony of the convenience store, so she takes it on herself to drag him to a family restaurant and try to talk sense into him. During this conversation, Shiraha echoes many of Keiko’s anxieties regarding social belonging, saying that he risks ostracization himself if he remains unmarried.

Although Shiraha is thoroughly unpleasant, Keiko invites him into her apartment and treats him like a pet, happy to tell the people in her life that a man has moved in with her. The circumstances aren’t ideal; but, as Keiko explains to the reader, “Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now” (94). The “impasse” Keiko faces has nothing to with wanting to advance in life; rather, the complications that arise from Shiraha’s presence trigger a crisis that forces Keiko to choose between becoming the person she is expected to be and her own unique sense of happiness.

Keiko reads as being on the autism spectrum, and her thought processes and behavioral patterns remind me a great deal of some of my friends and students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Keiko never explicitly identifies herself as being on the spectrum, however, and I get the impression that she would probably find the label distasteful. When she honestly informs a group of women that she has never been romantically attracted to anyone, they sympathetically respond that it’s become much more common and socially accepted to identify as asexual, and that they would understand if she were to come out as such, but Keiko finds this offensive.

I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. (37)

To Keiko, she is no one but herself, and she has no interest in serving as a representative for anyone else. Be that as it may, I think people who identify as asexual or on the autism spectrum will find a great deal of resonance in Keiko’s experience of being misunderstood and pressured to conform to arbitrary expectations, often “for her own good.” Toward the end of the story Keiko grows increasingly annoyed at the irrationality of the people who claim that they are trying to help her, including her own sister, who is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality – however messy – is far more comprehensible” (133). Regardless of Keiko’s opinion as the narrator of her own story, I feel that she does in fact perform advocacy, especially in her insistence that her personality and life choices are not a result of psychological trauma and that she is, in fact, healthy, happy, and strong.

In an enlightening interview with Fran Bigman at LitHub, Sayaka Murata talks about her own experiences of working as a convenience store cashier as she has continued to publish more than a dozen books during the past fifteen years. “For me and also for Keiko it is both a utopia and a dystopia,” Murata explains. “It is a utopia where you can make people happy, make friends, or feel less gendered.” Customers don’t have to put on an act (or fancy clothes or makeup) to walk into a convenience store, and foreign customers and employees are welcome. For an employee who is unwilling or unable to conform to corporate-dictated guidelines, a convenience store can be a dystopia, but clearly defined behavioral standards are exactly what Murata’s narrator needs in order to feel like a well-adjusted member of society. To anyone who’s ever felt that life might sometimes be a little easier if there were a rulebook, it’s easy to see the appeal of the utopian aspects of the convenience store environment.

Identity politics aside, Convenience Store Woman provides an entertaining glimpse into the mind and worldview of a fascinating character. Many parts of the novel are humorous, while others are uncomfortably cringe-inducing. More than any sort of social critique, however, Murata offers her readers finely detailed observations of the human beings inside a Japanese convenience store, which is a marvelous ecosystem unto itself.

A Small Charred Face

Title: A Small Charred Face
Japanese Title: ほんとうの花を見せにきた (Hontō no hana o mise ni kita)
Author: Kazuki Sakuraba (桜庭 一樹)
Translator: Jocelyn Allen
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 239

A Small Charred Face is a collection of three interconnected stories about vampires and the humans who love them. These vampires sleep during the day, fly by night, feed on human blood, can’t see their reflections, and never age during their 120-year lifespan. They also smell like grass and burst into bloom at the end of their lives, and they are called Bamboo. Their laws forbid them from befriending humans, but sometimes an outsider, alone and destitute on the margins of society, manages to catch the attention and the heart of a Bamboo.

The first and longest story, which frames the other two stories in the book, is “A Small Charred Face.” The story begins with horrific violence, with the narrator, a boy named Kyo, trying to escape a criminal organization that has just raped and killed his mother and sister. A Bamboo appears, hoping to feed on the bodies, but it ends up rescuing Kyo instead. The Bamboo, a young man named Mustah, takes him home to a seaside cottage where he lives with his partner Yoji. Kyo, who has grown up in wealth and privilege, is forced to adapt to life in the impoverished community, and Mushtah and Yoji convince him to disguise himself as a girl so that the people who killed his family won’t find him. Growing up as a girl in a household with two vampire fathers in a neighborhood ravaged by economic inequality, Kyo actually manages to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, but problems arise when a period of adolescent rebellion brings him to the attention of other Bamboo, who will not tolerate their existence becoming known to humans.

The second story (and the title story of the original Japanese publication), “I Came to Show You Real Flowers,” follows Marika, a female Bamboo from “A Small Charred Face,” several decades after her life intersects with Kyo’s story. Marika was transformed into a Bamboo when she was a teenager, so her mind and body remain those of a young woman. Marika adopts a human girl named Momo who has nowhere else to go, and together the two of them enact revenge on the men who prey on the weak and defenseless, which Momo luring them into a secluded spot so that Marika can swoop down, break their necks, and eat them. As Momo grows older, however, she begins to grow weary of being constantly on the run and surrounded by violence.

The third story, “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” is the origin story of Ruirui, who will go on to lead a group of Bamboo immigrants from China to Japan. This story is narrated from the perspective of Ruirui’s older sister, the fifth child of the Bamboo royal family. This nameless young woman describes how the Bamboo are respected and revered in the small and isolated rural community that surrounds their castle in the mountains, and how the princes and princesses are carefully brought up according to Confucian tradition. All of this changes with the Cultural Revolution, however, which brings outsiders to the village and spreads distrust among the villagers. Anyone who deviates from the narrow ideology of the Communist Party must be struck down for the good of the people, so even the seemingly invincible Bamboo find themselves is terrible danger.

Kazuki Sakuraba began her career by writing light novels; and, although A Small Charred Face contains scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault, it still feels like young adult fiction in many ways. The narrators are children (or have the minds of children), and their worldview is correspondingly myopic. Although the third story occurs during the Cultural Revolution, it’s difficult to ascertain when the first two stories are set. They might be set in the present, or in the near future, or at the end of the twenty-first century. Technology is never mentioned, nor are any events that would have led to the circumstances under which Kyo and Marika lost their families. What is “the Organization” that goes around murdering and raping women and children, and why doesn’t anyone have a cellphone? Is the story set in an alternate universe in which Japan descended into chaos at some point during the twentieth century; and, if so, what happened? Unfortunately, the narrators are not interested in anything other than their own teenage emotional drama, so they don’t even hint at the state of the society outside of their own circle of acquaintances. Meanwhile, they simply take it for granted that the people around them are routinely raped and murdered as a matter of course. The stories also decline to explore the nature and culture of the Bamboo, and there’s only a bare minimum of worldbuilding and trope exploration.

As frustrating as these limitations may be, I think they’re fair. The reader can only speculate about what happened to Japan in this fictional universe, but the Cultural Revolution was very real, and there’s no reason a fourteen-year-old who survived something like that would be able to understand the larger geopolitical currents that resulted in everyone around them being suddenly being dragged out into the street and killed. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched to think that something like this could happen in Japan – or that it could happen anywhere, for that matter.

What A Small Charred Face does – and what it does very well – is to allow the reader to share the experience of living on the absolute margins of society as an outsider. The vampires in these stories are a metaphor for difference, of course, but this metaphor is far from abstract. The Bamboo are openly in same-sex relationships, and they are openly immigrants, openly working awful night-shift jobs, and openly in economically precarious positions. Mustah is Brazilian, Yoji is Chinese, and Ruirui is a political refugee. Although these characters live in hand-to-mouth circumstances, none of them threatens Japanese society. On the contrary, they provide the love, hope, and comfort that Japanese society is not able to offer to its own children. Yes, the Bamboo are literal vampires who feed on the blood of humans, but the majority of them obtain the blood they need by working in healthcare-related industries, especially those that force people to work awful hours and don’t pay well. Given Japan’s aging population and the severity of its healthcare crisis, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I’m not generally a fan of young adult fiction, especially when it intersects the genre of supernatural romance, and I was not expecting to be as deeply moved by A Small Charred Face as I was. Sakuraba stages a trenchant social critique within the dystopian environment she has created for her vampires, but her characters are beautifully realized and full of heart. Their flaws are relatable, their kindness is believable, and their unhappy endings are a consequence of the profound injustices of our own world. If you believe in the transformative potential of young adult novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent, then I cannot recommend A Small Charred Face highly enough. And if you love monsters and see their difference as a reflection of your own, please rest assured that the gay romance in these stories is treated with sensitivity, as are feminist politics and gender fluidity.