The Lake

Title: The Lake
Japanese Title: みずうみ (Mizuumi)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Melville House

I have been waiting for this book to come out for months. When it finally did, I read it in one sitting. As with many of Yoshimoto’s novels, it was occasionally frustrating, but I liked it. I guess one could say that The Lake is typical Yoshimoto. Allow me to explain.

The novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, Chihiro, comes from a non-traditional family, works in a non-traditional profession, never worries about material things like money or the future even though she’s almost thirty, and seems to float through life, although she has hidden depths:

It’s like when you decide to build a house: some people want to go and find the land first, then hire an architect to help them draw up plans, and then choose the materials for the walls and everything on their own. I’m not like that. I prefer to wander around until I stumble across something, then I do the best I can with it, scrutinizing this thing I’ve discovered, getting to know it for what it is.

The heroine meets her love interest in an offbeat and untraditional way – in this case, he lives across the street from her, and they wave to each other from their respective windows until he talks to her on the street and casually starts showing up in her apartment. This love interest, Nakajima, is a grad student (first warning sign) and a stereotypical herbivore male:

I got the sense that he wasn’t really into sex, and he was shockingly thin, and although there were days when he would consume an astonishing amount, ordinarily he ate almost nothing, so overall he didn’t seem very energetic.

Nakajima is a little weird. Besides not having any friends and never wanting to sleep with our protagonist, he also exhibits behavioral quirks, such as his insistence on keeping detailed tallies of the money he owes Chihiro for using water and electricity when he stays over at her place. But Chihiro is still in love with him:

Whenever Nakajima said my name, every single time, it sparkled like a treasure. I had no idea why. Wow – did you see how that flashed? Say it again for me, please!

Chihiro gradually comes to realize that there is something seriously wrong with Nakajima; but, since she’s become attached to him, she decides to take it slow. As she ever so articulately explains to a friend:

“Anyway, he’s not like other people at all, it’s like, I don’t know how to describe it, like he’s living in the clouds, maybe. Like when people talk about someone having transcended it all – he’s like that, I guess. So part of me thinks it’s just in his makeup, and he would have been this way even if nothing had happened. For the time being I’ll just keep watching, I won’t rush it.”

Finally, Nakajima asks Chihiro to go with him to visit two old acquaintances who live in a cottage by a lake. Chihiro has been worried that Nakajima will leave her, either physically (by suddenly disappearing from her apartment) or psychically (by entering a long-term catatonic trance). She’s also bothered by his plans to leave Japan and study in Paris, which don’t seem to include her at all. She thinks about her anxieties as she walks around the lake with a trembling and profusely sweating Nakajima, but she still supports him, because:

He was an adult, perhaps thirty-five or so, and yet he was extremely small, like a child. His face seemed kind of shrunken, giving him the look of a bulldog. His eyes were sparkling, though, and there was something noble in the way he carried himself.

Do you feel like you’re reading a shōjo manga yet?

The narrative is driven forward by a twinned pair of mysteries: who are the people who live on the lake, and what is Nakajima’s damage? Both mysteries are solved when Chihiro returns to the lake on her own around thirty pages before the book ends; and, to give the author credit, they are resolved quite nicely and sufficiently satisfied my morbid, look-at-the-car-wreck curiosity. Still, I wasn’t too terribly invested in figuring out what was going on (the blurb on the book jacket sort of spoils it with its overt mention of religious cults), and I didn’t really care about the relationship between Chihiro and Nakajima, which was more hurt/comfort than actual romance.

What was interesting to me were the descriptions of small-town politics. The majority of the story is set in Tokyo, but Chihiro comes from a small town where her father wasn’t allowed to marry her mother, who worked as the mama-san of a small bar. Chihiro’s assessment of her father’s family, the patrons of her mother’s bar, and the atmosphere of the town in general are acerbic and insightful. Also, Chihiro works as a muralist, and one of her friends commissions her to create a mural on one of the walls of a run-down community center in a small neighborhood in Tokyo in an effort to save the structure from being demolished. The interplay between Chihiro, the community center, the local government, and a potential sponsor of the project is dramatic in a quiet sort of way, and Chihiro’s explanations of her creative process as she interacts with the people who watch her work are also interesting.

If you like Banana Yoshimoto for her quirky characters, fragmented yet loving families, and universes almost like our own but one step closer to the supernatural, then you’ll like The Lake. If you dislike Banana Yoshimoto for the lack of adult judgment in her characters and her rambling, juvenile prose (which is tight like a handful of squirming hamsters), then you probably won’t like The Lake. For the record, I like the book, and I also think Michael Emmerich did an excellent job of translating it.

7 thoughts on “The Lake

  1. Kathryn,
    Splendid blog! (shall I dare to call it, blog?)
    While I am just a dilettante in Japanese literature, I have been profiting immensely from your reviews.
    I gotta admit I was thrown off by this one, though.
    It’s the breadth and ecumenism of your tastes. I don’t know who is endorsing Banana Yoshimoto. The reader of S. King or the reviewer who ranks, most deservedly, Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion as one of the greatest books in Japanese lit.
    Did Yoshimoto not appear in the literature world in circumstances not unlike those of Dorota Masłowska?

    1. Thank you for your comment. And… thank you for having so much faith in my taste in literature. I think you might be giving me too much credit, though…

      First of all, I don’t think Temple of the Golden Pavilion is one of the greatest works of Japanese literature (in my mind, that honor would go to his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, man those books are good); I just think it’s really important in terms of understanding a certain strand of postwar discourse. Second, Stephen King is an amazing writer who is not to be placed on the opposite end of a spectrum from Mishima. I firmly believe that in the existence of mass-market trash, but King is not one of the writers that creates it.

      I am confused by your last question. I’m not sure I understand what you’re implying in terms of the quality of Yoshimoto’s work. Yes, Yoshimoto did appear in the literature world under somewhat similar circumstances as Dorota Maslowska, but I’m not familiar enough with Maslowska’s work or reception to compare her with Yoshimoto (although I tend to think it’s a case of apples and oranges in terms of content and geo-political background).

      In any case, let me link you to a recent blog post you might find interesting:

      (I’m linking to a blog and not to the news sources themselves because Japanese URLs tend to vanish about a month after they’re created – also, I think you might enjoy the blog itself. Cheers!)

  2. I really like the bits of the book you’ve quoted, but I think this is one of those things where I’d enjoy the movie version a bit better than the source text. I totally have the patience for sitting through one of those quiet indie movies where everything’s a bit grey and no-one really talks (which is what this book reminds me of), but I don’t…really want to read a book like that.

    I’m really glad you liked it, though!

    1. The Lake isn’t like an indie movie! It’s not like an indie movie at all! There’s no divorce or awkward sex or anything!

      …Oh wait. There totally is. Sorry.

      Maybe it is a bit like an indie movie, but it’s a high-budget, happy indie movie like Little Miss Sunshine. The Lake is very colorful, and any contemplative navel gazing that occurs is quickly exhausted. Honestly, Yoshimoto’s novels are a perfect combination of pure lit and chick lit, and they’re very easy to read. Ironically, it’s the film versions of her books that tend to be terrible, as the appeal of her work lies more in her writing style than in the stories themselves.

      If you think you’d like to watch a movie of this book, then I strongly encourage you to read the book itself. It’s really fun, and you can read it in way less time than it takes to watch a movie.

  3. Fascinating blog! There are very few blogs out there (that I’ve personally come across anyhow!) that covers contemporary Japanese literature/novels, so I am happy to come across this page!

    I have also recently started up a blog where I post my translations of Japanese novels (I am considering one of the novels you wrote a review on in a previous post—“Keritai Senaka” by Wataya Risa. If you are interested, would you like to exchange links? 🙂

    1. Thank you for your kind words, and I’ve put a link to your blog on the sidebar of this one. Cheers! I’m really looking forward to reading through your translations over the summer.

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