Translucent Tree

Title: Translucent Tree
Japanese Title: 投光の樹 (Tōkō no ki)
Author: Takagi Nobuko (高樹 のぶ子)
Translator: Deborah Iwabuchi
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 188

My past experiences with romance novels have been few and far between. My grandmother used to keep a few around her house back in the early nineties, and they were mostly period pieces with titles like “Master and Maid” and “Forbidden Tryst” (my favorite was “The Pirate Slave;” the cover art was epic). I’ve never actually read a romance novel all the way through, but I’ve always been curious about them (especially after finishing Loving with a Vengeance a few days ago). I’ve heard that Takagi Nobuko is a famous and prolific romance novelist in Japan, so I figured that a translation of her award-winning novel Translucent Tree would be as good of a place as any to begin a foray into the magical world of bodice rippers. If nothing else, I was drawn by the cover, which displays a super-phallic pinecone superimposed over a triangular spray of pine needles, which are suggestively cleft down the middle under the dust jacket. Classy, right?

Translucent Tree is a story of star-crossed lovers. Following the conventions of a tale as old as time (or at least as old as 1949, when Harlequin established its basic formula for romance), the man is wealthy and a bit of a jerk, and the woman is struggling financially and a bit immature. The man, Go, lives in Tokyo, and the woman, Chigiri, lives in a town close to the Japan Sea called Tsurugi (which actually exists). Go, who makes his living as a documentary filmmaker, had once worked on a piece featuring Chigiri’s father, a metalworker knowledgeable about traditional sword-smithing techniques. During the filming, Go met Chigiri. Chigiri was a child at the time, but the two left strong impressions on each other.

Years later, Chigiri has divorced her husband and moved back to Tsurugi with her daughter to take care of her bedridden father. Go returns to Tsurugi on a whim in order to revisit a famous cedar tree and ends up running into Chigiri. The sparks fly, and the two enter into a strained long-distance relationship in which neither can be completely honest with the other. Go offers money to Chigiri in an attempt to help her father, to whom he still feels a debt of gratitude, and Chigiri tries to compensate Go by sleeping with him. Since they love each other but can’t bring themselves to admit it, their brief encounters are fraught with sexual and emotional tension.

Takagi’s portrayal of Go and Chigiri’s relationship is heartbreakingly honest at times. Their inane phone conversations are painfully awkward, and their inability to communicate is endearing, as is the emotional blackmail to which they subject themselves. Neither Go nor Chigiri is portrayed as being particularly attractive, and both of them have legitimate personality flaws. Go can be an asshole, and Chigiri can be annoyingly dense. Despite this, they’re attracted to each other in what strikes me as a very human and realistic way.

What I didn’t appreciate, however, were Takagi’s attempts to add an element of timelessness to the narrative by characterizing Go as some sort of Eternal Man and Chigiri as an Eternal Woman. Translucent Tree is filled with overgeneralizing sexist statements, like:

What she hadn’t counted on was the inability of men to understand the depth of a woman’s resolution. Women are determined and tenacious when men are of precious little use merely because women lack adaptability; it’s impossible for them to take a step or speak a work unless they have thought things over thoroughly and adopted a plan of action.

Really? No one taught me that when I was going to woman school. I had no idea I was supposed to lack adaptability. There are similar statements on subjects such as how men and women lie differently (apparently, women reveal information selectively while men just make things up) and why men travel but women don’t (women are roots and men are branches, you see). The utterly non-ironic way in which these pronouncements are made grated on my nerves every time I encountered one.

Another aspect of Takagi’s writing that hit slightly off the mark was her pillow talk. Being a romance novel, Translucent Tree has its fair share of eight-page sex scenes. Fun sexytimes are always a welcome addition to any narrative; but, unfortunately, each of Translucent Tree’s bedroom shots is more awkward and stilted than the last. It’s possible that this awkwardness is largely the fault of the translator, who apparently never got the memo on how not to write sex, but I am still going to have to point my finger at Takagi herself for her descriptions that read like something out of bad fanfiction:

They were both thinking about the same thing, but from different positions. Chigiri was at the top of the mountain peering down at the deep valley between her legs and, beyond that, at her slippered feet, which felt oddly detached from the rest of her body. Go was standing at the foot of the mountain gazing deep inside the valley, waiting for the right moment to start the trek in.

I use this particular passage as an example because it’s a paragraph of self-contained awkwardness instead of two pages of gradually building awkwardness, but I think it’s also useful to illustrate not only what is merely amusing about Translucent Tree but also what is genuinely interesting. The numerous nature and geography metaphors throughout the text posit Go and Chigiri not just as the Eternal Man and the Eternal Woman but also as New Japan and Old Japan. Romantic conceits relating to nostalgia for an imagined Japanese tradition have been embodied in female characters before, but I think Takagi handles this device remarkably well. Chigiri’s hometown of Tsurugi is an appealing mix of old-style sushi shops and historic trees in the middle of rice fields. Chigiri herself is less of an idealization of well-bred Japanese femininity and more of a portrait of an earthier type of woman who has weathered the blows of misfortune yet still maintains the passionate core of her being. Go’s Tokyo is not a steampunk wonderland of trains and tall buildings but rather a shabby place where the human relationships are shallow, the food is all takeout, and the old pinup calendar on the wall is slowly turning yellow.

Go’s attempts to capture and preserve Old Japan through the lens of a camera are ultimately meaningless, while Chigiri’s charm is wasted as she slowly goes to seed out in the boondocks. It’s only through their relationship with each other that the two really come alive, and their first tryst is perhaps the most memorable scene in the book, if only because of its setting in a beautiful, “traditionally” Japanese estate in the countryside. In this scene, cultural imagery and sexual imagery are reflected back on one another repeatedly. Through its interaction with New Japan, then, Old Japan is both refreshed and refreshing. In the impact of its use of geography as metaphor, Translucent Tree is just as brilliant as As I Lay Dying or Deliverance. I can see why the book has won awards, even though the “romance” aspects of the novel are somewhat lacking. Although its gender politics tended to rub me the wrong way, I enjoyed Translucent Tree, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Japan fantasies of the sort written by Kawabata Yasunari or Muriel Barbery.

Speaking of geography, I’m sure that by now everyone has heard about how Japan survived its most recent encounter with subterranean catfish tremors and walls of liquid death marching toward the coast. Not to lessen or belittle the tragedy, but I think the country handled the situation remarkably well, and I hope that the governments of other countries (*cough* such as my own *cough*) were paying attention. That being said, there are still many people who are evacuated and homeless. If you’re interested in making a donation but skeptical of the Red Cross, Global Giving is the site that everyone seems to be vetting, for what it’s worth.

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