There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job

Japanese Title: この世にたやすい仕事はない (Kono yo ni tayasui shigoto wa nai)
Author: Kikuko Tsumura (津村 記久子)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2015 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Press: Bloomsbury Publishing
Pages: 400

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job is a collection of five connected stories about the different jobs undertaken by a 36-year-old woman suffering from burnout. After leaving her professional career, she tells her agent at the recruitment center that she wants “an easy job.” True to the book’s title, however, each of her five temp jobs has a catch – or, from the reader’s point of view, an interesting twist.

The setting is never specified, but the narrator seems to live in a suburb where people get around by bus. Based on the name of the (fictional) local football club, as well as the hometown of the author, I suspect that the suburb is somewhere in the vicinity of Osaka. The pace of life is more relaxed than it is in Tokyo. The narrator’s coworkers are friendly, and her supervisors are kind and supportive. She is never asked to do anything dangerous or illegal, and nothing bad happens to her. Her parents are happy to support her while she finds herself, and she’s free to quit at any time. Nevertheless, there is indeed no such thing as “an easy job.”

The fourth story, “The Postering Job,” is the most representative, especially in its revelation that the job the narrator is hired to do is only a cover for what her supervisor actually wants her to do.

Tired of sitting alone in a small office surrounded by reference books, the narrator requests that the next job assigned to her by the temp agency somehow involves being able to go outside. She’s therefore placed at a small office that hangs public service posters in a residential neighborhood. These posters, which are ubiquitous in certain parts of Japan, encourage people to “Make our town greener!” while reminding them to “Check behind you when turning corners!” The narrator’s job is to walk around the neighborhood putting up new posters while taking down the old ones.

The narrator’s supervisor asks her to make an effort to chat with the people in the neighborhood. In doing so, she discovers that some businesses and residences have already hung posters advertising a social group called “Lonely No More.” This group seems to be targeting retired elderly people and young singles, and it hosts free dinners and social gatherings. As the narrator begins to investigate, she learns that Lonely No More is not a cult… at least, not yet. It appears to be heading in that direction, though, and the wife of the narrator’s boss is one of the organization’s leaders. In other words, the narrator wasn’t actually hired to hang posters, but rather to track down and make contact with her boss’s wife.

I love each of the twists in There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job. It’s difficult to pick a favorite, but the second story, “The Bus Advertising Job,” skims across the glimmering surface of a deep pool of magical realism. The fantastic elements of “The Bus Advertising Job” don’t affect the narrator’s pragmatic attitude or matter-of-fact tone, even as they become progressively stranger. I’m not going to spoil the twist, but it’s wonderful.

The final chapter, “The Easy Job in the Hut in the Big Forest,” was the story that resonated with me most powerfully. At this job, the narrator is tasked with manning a small rest station located along one of the trails in a large suburban nature park next to a football stadium. Tsumura’s descriptions of the park are so vivid that you can almost hear the wind in the trees and see the dappled shadows of leaves fall across the page.

The narrator enjoys her time in the woods, but the catch to this job is that someone is secretly living in the park. The reader is initially led to suspect that this person might be the narrator’s supervisor, who seems to be hiding some sort of secret. As the story progresses, the reader realizes that the supervisor almost certainly knows about the situation, and that he more than likely hired the narrator with the understanding that she would discover this person and hopefully entice them to communicate with her.

At the end of the story, it’s revealed that the narrator was originally a social worker. This information helps the reader make sense of all of the seemingly random positions she was assigned by the temp agency. Tsumura seems to be suggesting that, in many (if not most) service positions, the actual job itself is secondary to human connection and cooperation. Essentially, all work is social work. There’s no such thing as an “easy” job; but, if work culture were more focused on the human connections between local businesses and the communities they serve, then perhaps we could collectively save ourselves from exhaustion and burnout.

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job invites comparisons to Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. Both novels celebrate individual dignity and encourage a more tolerant understanding of difference, but the tone of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job isn’t quite as bleak and nihilistic as that of Convenience Store Woman. Tsumura’s stories advocate for empathy toward alienated social outsiders, but they also serve as a model for how people can help and support each other through the work they do and the social connections they make.

This is not to say that There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job is sentimental, nor is it always easy to read. The narrator’s flat affect hides an iceberg of psychological damage that’s only revealed in small details. She gets upset about inconsequential things – generally the availability of the specific snacks she enjoys – while shrugging off important things, and she runs away from problems that would be easy to solve with a simple conversation. The story doesn’t flat-out say “this is what burnout looks like,” but it subtly demonstrates the mindset of someone who has reached their limit and exhausted the energy necessary to deal with the intricacies of social interaction.

Although Tsumura’s sensitive treatment of mental illness is important, the broader social implications of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job don’t detract from the simple pleasure of how fun and addictive each of the stories is to read. I wanted to learn more about the narrator’s weird jobs, and I couldn’t help being curious about how each of these bizarre situations would turn out. Polly Barton’s award-winning translation is excellent, and I couldn’t be happier that Kikuko Tsumura’s work is finally available in English.

The Easy Life in Kamusari

Japanese Title: 神去なあなあ日常 (Kamusari naa naa nichijō)
Author: Shion Miura (三浦 しをん)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: Amazon Crossing
Pages: 197

Eighteen-year-old Yuki Hirano has just graduated from high school, but he has no ambitions in life or plans for college. Not wanting him to become a hikikomori, his mother enrolls him in a special year-long forestry training program in rural Mie Prefecture. Unlike Yuki’s home in Yokohama, the tiny mountain village of Kamusari has no convenience stores or cell phone reception, just trees as far as the eye can see.

Yuki receives a warm welcome into the home of his supervisor, Yoki Iida, but he wants nothing to do with Kamusari. Forestry work is difficult and dangerous, and Yuki doesn’t have any particular knack for the job. Other employees of Nakamura Lumber judge him for his mistakes and make him feel like an outsider. The only other person his age, a schoolteacher named Nao, isn’t remotely interested in becoming friends with him. There’s nothing in Kamusari except work, and Yuki is so exhausted by the physical labor that he falls asleep right after dinner.

As he continues working, however, Yuki gradually learns to appreciate the warm hearts of the villagers and the wild beauty of the mountain forest. He becomes accustomed to the slower pace of life in Kamusari, and he’s eventually inducted into the village’s religious traditions. The Easy Life in Kamusari is divided into four chapters, one for each season, and Yuki is keenly observant of how the natural world changes around him. He has to be, as his life and livelihood now depend on his connection to the forest.

Like Shion Miura’s 2011 novel The Great Passage about an earnest young dictionary editor, the protagonist’s gender is central to the fantasy of accidentally stumbling into a meaningful and fulfilling career. And The Easy Life in Kamusari is, without a doubt, a fantasy.

All of the conservative and “traditional” aspects of society in Kamusari are quaint and charming. There’s no poverty or bigotry or bullying. Yuki isn’t gay, so he doesn’t have to deal with the locals equating homosexuality to sexual deviance. Since Yuki isn’t female, he doesn’t have to do a second shift of cooking and cleaning and childcare, which means he can fall asleep after dinner without ever having to worry about the fact that the nearest grocery store is a forty-minute drive away.

If you’re thinking, “Wow, that must be nice,” then rest assured that it is. It’s very nice! That’s the fantasy.

The Easy Life in Kamusari is a light read, and nothing unpleasant happens. An older worker isn’t happy with Yuki being included in village activities, but he’s shut down quickly by Yuki’s supervisor and coworkers, who support and protect him. There’s a bit of darkness in Nao’s character, but the reader never hears her story, as Yuki decides that it’s not his problem. Everyone in the village seems to expect that Nao will allow Yuki to have sex with her despite her lack of interest in a relationship, but he doesn’t force the issue, thankfully.

The Easy Life in Kamusari is a coming-of-age story about a boy becoming a man through manual labor and religious ritual, and the narrative perspective is staunchly masculine. Unlike its boisterous cinematic adaptation, the novel refrains from sex puns about wood, but it nevertheless expresses a strong gender dichotomy. Yuki’s sense of belonging is tied to his gradual incorporation into male spaces that exclude women, and female perspectives are not introduced into the story. If you’re sensitive to how “tradition” can trap people in gender roles and unwanted relationships, especially in isolated rural areas with no tolerance for more progressive worldviews, The Easy Life in Kamusari may not be for you.

Still, if you can accept the limitations of the narrative perspective, it can be nice to indulge in the fantasy of “traditional” masculinity as recounted in the light and gentle storytelling of a female author. No one gets hurt, either by toxic masculinity or in a gruesome forestry accident.

Speaking of which, the other fantasy presented by The Easy Life in Kamusari is the fantasy of living in harmony with nature. Forestry work is fairly dangerous in reality, as are wild animals, diseases carried by insects, and extreme weather conditions. While I admire the research Miura did for this novel, I can’t help but wish that she had been willing to explore a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of rural life and agricultural labor. Japanese cedar plantations have been harshly criticized by domestic and international environmental groups, and it would have been interesting to see these issues acknowledged and discussed from the perspective of people withing the industry. In addition, I would have liked to see a hint of the ongoing discussion about Japan’s aging rural population, perhaps in terms of what it means to have so many older people doing such dangerous work so far away from any healthcare resources.

But again, The Easy Life in Kamusari is a fantasy. It’s a charming and pleasant novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read a few pages at a time, and I’d always come away refreshed by the beauty of Miura’s writing and Juliet Winter Carpenter’s translation. Although I wish the story were more engaged with the realities of its setting, I would happily recommend The Easy Life in Kamusari as a light read to anyone interested in nature writing, Japanese religion, or a heartwarming story of growing up and finding one’s place in the world.

Earthlings

Japanese Title: 地球星人 (Chikyūseijin)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2018 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Press: Grove Press
Pages: 247

Content Warning: This review contains a frank discussion of child abuse and incest.

If you’ve made it past the content warning, you should also be aware that Earthlings contains extended and explicit descriptions of parental child abuse, incestuous child sexuality, adolescent sexual abuse, severe dissociation, suicidal ideation, mental illness, murder, starvation, and cannibalism. This material is central to the story, which has a truly disturbing ending.

While I would happily recommend Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman to anyone, Earthlings is definitely not for everyone. Elif Batuman calls this novel “hilarious” in the blurb on the front cover of the American edition, and I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Earthlings is deeply sad and upsetting. It’s not the least bit funny, joyous, offbeat, or quirky. The author’s tone may be deceptively light, but the themes of her story are as dark as they come.

Earthlings is a novel about the deteriorating mental state and unfortunate life decisions of a relatively normal girl named Natsuki who is made to feel that she isn’t human because of the sustained abuse she receives at the hands of her parents and teachers. The point of the story isn’t to argue that we need to free ourselves from the normative expectations of an oppressive society. Rather, Earthlings demonstrates just how deeply painful and unhealthy social alienation can be to the people who are arbitrarily designated as outcasts and scapegoats.  

The novel begins with the eleven-year-old Natsuki’s confession that she is a special child who was chosen by an alien named Piyyut, who came from Planet Popinpobopia to help her fight evil witches as a magical girl. Although Piyyut looks like a stuffed animal to ordinary people, he’s actually an emissary sent by the Magic Police. This is a secret to everyone except Natsuki’s cousin Yuu, who tells Natsuki that he understands Piyyut’s situation because he’s an alien too.

From the very first page, it’s clear that Natsuki has created a fantasy version of herself in order to escape the neglect of her parents. Neither of Natsuki’s parents attempt to hide their preference for her older sister Kise, who has a codependent Münchhausen-by-proxy relationship with their mother. While Kise can do no wrong and requires special care and attention, Natsuki becomes the scapegoat of her mother, who constantly criticizes her appearance and personality. Instead of defending Natsuki, everyone in her family defers to her mother – everyone except her kind and friendly cousin Yuu, whom Natsuki decides is her boyfriend and future marriage partner.

Because of the strength of her magical girl fantasy, Natsuki is able to survive the abuse she suffers at home. Unfortunately, precisely because this abuse makes her vulnerable, she becomes the sexual target of a young and popular teacher at her after-school tutoring program. The author gets the abusive teacher’s mentality exactly right. He starts with small acts that have plausible deniability, such as using “posture correction” as an excuse to grope Natsuki. When he escalates his behavior in an attempt to test the boundaries of what he can get away with, he does so in a way that Natsuki will be ashamed to talk about, such as fishing her used sanitary napkin out of the trash after she uses the bathroom.

Natsuki knows there’s something wrong with the teacher’s behavior and tells her mother, but her mother takes the teacher’s side and scolds Natsuki for overreacting. She then punishes Natsuki for “making up stories” by forcing her to spend more time with the teacher. Natsuki ends up going to the teacher’s house for a private lesson, which leads to exactly the scenario you’re afraid it will. The sexual assault scene is long, explicit, and extremely difficult to read. Once again, the author depicts the mentality of child abuse with perfect accuracy, in that the teacher forces Natsuki into a situation in which she feels compelled to “consent” to her assault, thus making it seem like her own fault.

Severely traumatized and knowing from experience that no one will believe she’s been raped, the now twelve-year-old Natsuki resolves to commit suicide in the mountain forest surrounding her grandparents’ house during the annual family get-together for the summer Obon festival. Before she dies, Natsuki wants to experience genuine physical affection, so she convinces her cousin Yuu to go out in the woods with her to have penetrative sex, after which she swallows an entire bottle of her aunt’s sleeping pills.

As Elif Batuman says in the blurb on the front cover of Earthlings, the abuse, rape, and attempted suicide of a twelve-year-old girl is “hilarious.”

Except it’s not. Natsuki’s fantasy of being a magical girl is a psychological coping mechanism, and her lack of affect is the result of severe trauma. Not only are the events Murata describes terrible to read, it’s also terrible to hear them recounted in the voice of a twelve-year-old narrator who doesn’t yet possess the emotional maturity to process what’s happening to her. This narrative style isn’t “quirky.” It’s horrifying.  

After Earthlings firmly establishes itself as a horror story told by an unreliable narrator, it jumps forward in time to 34-year-old Natsuki, who is currently in her third year of marriage to a man named Tomoya. After her suicide attempt, Natsuki was essentially treated as a prisoner by her family for two decades, and marriage seemed to be the only way for her to escape. Natsuki met Tomoya on a website for people in situations similar to her own, namely, people who need to get married in order to appease their families. The site caters mostly to the LGBTQ+ community; and, while Tomoya’s sexuality is never specified, he seems to be aro-ace, meaning that he does not experience romantic attraction and is disgusted by physical sexual contact.

Tomoya and Natsuki are essentially roommates who sleep in separate bedrooms while sharing an apartment. This arrangement works well for both of them, at least until their families begin to exert pressure about having children. The stress of this pressure weakens the deep fault lines of their respective childhood traumas, and they decide to escape society by fleeing to Natsuki’s grandparents’ house in the mountains. The house is currently occupied by Yuu, who has been acting as a caretaker for the property after having been laid off from a prestigious office job in Tokyo. As you can imagine, what happens to these three characters in an isolated cabin in the woods isn’t great, and the novel’s ending is shocking.

Earthlings is about three broken people whose connection to reality gradually deteriorates as they feed one another’s delusions while in total social isolation. The plot summary I’ve provided is the background necessary for the reader to understand the core of this story, as well as its tone.

In Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata argues for the quiet dignity of menial service jobs and the validity of neurodivergent perspectives. The narrator of Convenience Store Woman enjoys her job as a clerk at a convenience store because she finds the routine comforting and appreciates being able to interact with other people according to a preset script. Toward the end of the novel, she finds herself in a difficult situation because she succumbs to her family’s pressure to find a partner and chooses the first person to make himself available despite his unsuitability. Many readers of this internationally bestselling novel identified with the narrator’s perspective and sympathized with the author’s description of the small pleasures of part-time service industry jobs that are often looked down on by older generations.

Earthlings explores similar material and themes but takes a radically different approach. In this novel, Murata emphasizes her narrator’s social alienation to an extreme degree. The narrator’s unwilling separation from “Earthlings” is not a good thing, nor is it depicted as being relatable. Instead, Murata uses these characters to ask serious questions about what it means for neurodiversity and queerness to be forcibly removed from mainstream society. For instance, why are child molesters protected by their communities while the children they abuse are treated as unbalanced and unclean? Why is traveling overseas to undergo expensive and invasive surgery in order to have children seen as normal, while choosing to remain childless is viewed as antisocial and neurotic?

If you can handle the dark tone and gruesome subject matter of Earthlings, it’s an extremely compelling story. At the risk of calling child abuse “hilarious,” I have to admit that I was entertained, especially once Natsuki starts living in her grandparents’ abandoned house in the woods. For what it’s worth, the ultimate fate of the pedo teacher and the garbage parents who enabled him is unpleasant yet satisfying.   

As a fan of social horror, I love Earthlings, but I would caution potential readers to take the content warnings seriously. Sayaka Murata is a brilliant writer who tells strange and complicated stories, and I look forward to seeing more of her sizeable body of work in translation. I just hope that, in the future, she’s treated like the complex and nuanced literary figure she is instead of marketed as an easily digestible product of pop culture.

The Cat Who Saved Books

Japanese Title: 本を守ろうとする猫の話 (Hon o mamorō to suru neko no hanashi)
Author: Sosuke Natsukawa (夏川 草介)
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: HarperCollins
Pages: 198

A high school junior named Rintaro Natsuki has inherited a bookstore from his recently deceased grandfather. During the week following the funeral, Rintaro is visited by a talking cat who spirits him away to a series of four magical book-themed “labyrinths.”

The Cat Who Saved Books is a celebration of reading in which a teenage booklover matches wits with the embodiments of academic pigheadedness and corporate greed. The warm coziness of Rintaro’s small bookstore is a welcome haven from the opulent sprawl of the Amazonian book labyrinths. At the center of each labyrinth is an adult in a position of power who misuses his authority to mistreat books. Accompanied his crush, Sayo Yuzuki, Rintaro is tasked with reminding these jaded adults of the true joy of reading. The boss of the second labyrinth, for instance, is a professor obsessed with dissecting books in order to create tidy summaries that will facilitate speed reading, but he realizes the error of his ways when Rintaro and Sayo present him with the passionate argument that reading is about the journey, not the destination.

The Cat Who Saved Books is unabashedly sentimental, and Rintaro and Sayo’s earnest sincerity can feel embarrassingly naive at times. That being said, the story’s satire is surprisingly sharp. The Cat Who Saved Books reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 in the strength of its indictment of the contemporary Japanese publishing industry. I was especially impressed by the third labyrinth, which acts as a bitter critique of giant corporations that put out a steady stream of publications simply for the purpose of pursuing profit. Natsukawa’s comments on easily digestible self-help guides written in the form of bullet points (“Five Ways to Change Your Life!”) are amusing, as is the fantastic image of endless reams of paper tossed from the windows of an impossibly tall skyscraper.

Each labyrinth’s theme is underscored by a set of books. The books referenced are (with the sole exception of Osamu Dazai’s short story “Run, Melos!”) classics of European literature. Examples include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de Nuit, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. These books line the shelves of the store managed by Rintaro’s grandfather, who stepped away from an important position in academia in order to free literature from the clutches of scholars and help make them more accessible to ordinary people. Although it’s odd not to see any Japanese fiction mentioned, these weighty European classics conjure an image of the sort of old-fashioned bookstores that used to be common in big cities but are quickly disappearing.  

That being said, the homogeneity of the “serious literature” Natsukawa valorizes in The Cat Who Saved Books is a bit disappointing. I remember what small bookstores used to be like, and I remember hating them. What if you want to read stories that aren’t written by not-so-proverbial Dead White Men? What if you want to read stories written by women? What if you want to read stories that speak more intimately to your own experiences? What if you want to read stories that challenge reality instead of simply reflecting it? It’s ironic that The Cat Who Saved Books would have no place at Rintaro’s bookstore, and it’s a shame the story isn’t self-reflexive enough to acknowledge this. It’s easy to sneer at study guides and self-help books, but that’s what funds the publication of literary fiction.

Likewise, it’s easy for me to be frustrated with the naive idealism of The Cat Who Saved Books, but I can imagine that this title will be prominently displayed in the windows of the indie bookstores that are still fighting the good fight. Perhaps it might even help booksellers guide interested readers to more stories outside the sphere of “literary classics.”  

Thankfully, HarperCollins has put an enormous amount of love and care into the publication of the hardcover edition of The Cat Who Saved Books. This book is a beautiful physical object. I’m a big fan of the gorgeous cover drawn by Yuko Shimizu, who was given space to write an interesting note that offers insight into her creative process. There’s also a wonderful afterword by Louise Heal Kawai, who explains a number of translation choices, including her decision not to assign gendered pronouns to the talking cat.   

As a middle-grade novel, The Cat Who Saved Books is perfect for younger readers just beginning their journey with books. The fantastic elements of the story will appeal to fans of anime and video games, and older readers who enjoy light novels and visual novels will appreciate the colorful, over-the-top characters and comfortably formulaic story structure. The Cat Who Saved Books is an entertaining story filled with warmth, kindness, and bright-eyed hope for the future of books as a means of encouraging empathy and inspiring imagination, and it speaks both to the kids delighted by its adventure and to the adults amused by its satire.

.   .   . . .

I’d like to extend my gratitude to HarperCollins for providing an advance review copy of The Cat Who Saved Books. The North American hardcover edition will be released on December 7, 2021. You can learn more about the book on its website (here) and order a copy from your local small bookstore, which you can find through IndieBound.

The Woman with the Flying Head

Author: Yumiko Kurahashi (倉橋由美子)
Translator: Atsuko Sakaki
Publisher: M. E. Sharpe
Publication Year: 1997
Pages: 159

Yumiko Kurahashi was a member of the generation of female writers whose work began appearing in the early 1960s. She continued writing into the 1990s, by which time she had produced a number of collections of short stories. Kurahashi is notable for her absurdist imagination, as well as the cleverness with which she blends multiple literary traditions from Noh drama to Greek tragedy.

The Woman with the Flying Head was published in 1997 by the academic press M. E. Sharpe (which has since been incorporated into Routledge) and collects eleven stories that were originally published between 1963 and 1989. Some of these stories are playful, and some are creepy, but all are fiercely intellectual reflections on both carnal and creative desires.

There’s a fair amount of taboo sexuality in these stories, including incest and bestiality, not to mention sexual entrapment and murder. It’s important for the reader to understand that these stories are explorations of concepts and ideas, not mimetic representations of three-dimensional characters. In the opening story, “The Extraterrestrial,” why do a brother and sister have sex with the alien that hatched out of the egg that mysteriously appeared in their bedroom one morning? It doesn’t matter; what matters is the experimental space generated by the scenario.

You can have a lot of fun with Kurahashi’s stories once you accept the author’s writing on its own terms. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys close reading and analysis, there’s a lot to read and analyze. It’s also entirely possible to enjoy the stories as sex comedies and interpersonal dramas constructed on a scaffolding of absurdist thought experiments. Kurahashi has won numerous literary awards for her work, and this collection is prefaced with a serious and thoughtful introduction by the translator, but “supernatural sci-fi erotic dark comedy” is probably the most accurate label to apply to the author’s distinctive genre of fiction.

The intellectualism attributed to Kurahashi partially stems from her references to a wide range of world mythologies. Although her narrators tend to be terrible and problematic men, the real stars of the show are the demonic women who torment them. Far from being symbols of female resistance or empowerment, the majority of Kurahashi’s female characters are demons in the traditional sense. They are to be feared and abhorred instead of admired, and they tend to reflect the anxieties of a patriarchal society even as they playfully mock fears regarding female sexuality.

The demon in the 1985 story “The Witch Mask” takes the form of a Noh mask that has been passed down as an heirloom in the narrator’s family. This style of mask, the horned hannya, is used to represent women who have turned into demons after succumbing to powerful emotions. The narrator’s mask is particularly frightening because its hunger literally consumes its victims with desire.

The male narrator of the story is fully aware of the danger of the mask, but the cursed object still captivates him. He places the mask on the face of each of his lovers and watches their bodies writhe as it consumes them. He refers to his obsession with the beautiful mask as “an irresistible desire” before finally applying it to the face of his fiancée, whom he loves dearly. He attempts to justify this murderous act by confessing that he “was haunted by an idea – the call of the demon… the desire to put the witch mask on a beautiful face.” 

“House of the Black Cat” is also about a hungry demon. This demon alternates in shape between a regular-sized housecat and a human-sized catwoman. The cat in its humanoid form is strangely alluring to the story’s human protagonist, Keiko, as she watches it go about its day in a video made by her husband’s friend Kamiya. The video becomes pornographic as the cat “devours” her human partner, who bears a strong resemblance to Kamiya himself. It seems that Kamiya disappeared shortly after lending Keiko’s husband the video. Although Keiko is never able to conclusively determine his fate, she suspects that the cat killed him so that she could feed him to her children, four black kittens. “House of the Black Cat” is about forbidden sexuality; but, as is the case with many of Kurahashi’s stories, it’s also about the creative drives that inspire artists to test the boundaries of consensus reality.     

The stories collected in The Woman with the Flying Head are strange, fantastic, and thought-provoking. Kurahashi’s writing is filled with vivid imagery and suggestive symbolism that blend together to create fantasies that are both horrible and darkly fascinating. A decent comparison might be Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales of Misogyny, or perhaps even Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, but Kurahashi’s voice is absolutely unique. I always find myself returning to The Woman with the Flying Head every October for Halloween, but these creepy little stories are perfect for whenever you want to take a step back from the grind of mundane reality to channel some playfully demonic energy.  

So We Look to the Sky

Japanese Title: ふがいない僕は空を見た (Fugainai boku wa sora o mita)
Author: Misumi Kubo (窪 美澄)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: Arcade Publishing
Pages: 267

So We Look to the Sky is a compulsively readable collection of connected stories that follow the soap opera lives of five characters, each of whom might be generously described as “a hot mess.” I don’t know what the reviewer from the Japan Times was given to read when they described So We Look to the Sky as “pressingly real” in the blurb that appears on the book’s cover, because each of the stories is an absolute train wreck of improbable situations. This is not a condemnation – far from it! I very much enjoyed So We Look to the Sky. If you’re expecting a sensitive portrayal of real life, though, it might be best to look elsewhere so that you can better appreciate the ridiculous fun this book has to offer.

The events in So We Look to the Sky begin are set into motion when a high school student named Takumi is picked up by a young housewife at a comics convention. She invites him to her apartment for cosplay sex, and things progress from there. The depiction of this sex is unabashedly explicit, with the word “cock” appearing for the first time of many on the fourth page of the book.

Takumi’s mother runs a midwife clinic out of their home; and, after assisting her during a difficult birth, Takumi breaks off his partnership with the housewife because he starts seeing her body as an animalistic sack of flesh filled with minuscule eggs. This is all well and good, except the housewife’s husband has already taped Takumi having sex with her. And then the husband puts the videos online.

This is all according to the plan of the housewife’s mother-in-law, who uses the sex tapes as a tool to pressure her precious baby boy’s otaku bride into going to America for fertility treatments so that she can stop being useless and have children already. Meanwhile, pornographic photos of Takumi’s cosplay sex are circulated throughout his school, much to the dismay of his former girlfriend. It turns out that the girlfriend has a shut-in brother, who left college after joining a cult. It was a sex cult.

All of this transpires in the first fifty pages of So We Look to the Sky, which only becomes more outlandish as it goes along. There’s a new twist about once every fifteen to twenty pages, with the stories tackling themes like poverty, suicide, child abuse, sexual abuse, queer sexuality, and natural disasters with good-natured glee. It’s difficult to take any of this seriously as social commentary, but it’s a lot of fun to read.

So We Look to the Sky opens as a raunchy sex comedy. As a raunchy sex comedy, it is very entertaining. I wouldn’t classify the book as “erotica,” but there’s a lot of explicit fucking. Polly Barton’s lively translation leans into the awkwardness and self-reflexive humor of these scenes, which function as vehicles for character development fortified with relatable secondhand embarrassment. If ever a work of Japanese fiction in translation deserved a cover designed by Chip Kidd, it’s this one.

I don’t mean to hate on the people who contributed the painstakingly sincere promotional blurbs that appear on the book’s cover, but I think it’s important to emphasize that So We Look to the Sky is not “an intricate portrait of women, family, love, and friendship.” If you come to this novel expecting serious literary writing that can be compared to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.  

As something of a content warning, the fourth story takes a sensationalist and almost Dickensian approach to extreme poverty, with the twist being that the gay man who wants to help at-risk teenagers by starting a scholarship-assisted tutoring program is actually a pedo. As I wrote earlier, the entire book is a big trashy soap opera, so this development makes sense in context, but your mileage may vary.

The fifth and final story, “Pollen Nation,” is a clear standout as the strongest and most interesting in the collection. This story is about Takumi’s mother, who has to deal with the death threats and hate mail being sent to her maternity clinic as she cares for her son, who has become a shut-in. Along with her capable assistant Mitchan, Takumi’s mother manages to keep the clinic running despite the demands of her difficult clients, who run the gamut from first-time mothers obsessed with micromanaging their diets to clueless husbands who blame their ignorance about pregnancy on everyone but themselves.

What I appreciate about “Pollen Nation” is its no-nonsense treatment of the topic of pregnancy in Japan, which is generally stylized as either divine or monstrous in both popular and literary fiction. Regardless of the political discourse surrounding pregnancy, somebody’s got to deliver the babies, and it’s refreshing to see this experience portrayed as a matter of normal everyday life.     

So We Look to the Sky is the sort of outrageous Japanese popular fiction that I’d love to see more of in translation. The book has very little redeeming literary value, but who cares? It’s difficult to look away from the characters as they make terrible decisions while still doing their best. Despite the awful situations these ridiculous people manage to get themselves into, everything somehow works out in the end, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a story.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Japanese Title: かがみの孤城 (Kagami no kojō)
Author: Mizuki Tsujimura (辻村 深月)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2021 (United Kingdom)
Press: Doubleday
Pages: 355

Thirteen-year-old Kokoro has stopped going to school after being bullied by her classmates and ignored by her homeroom teacher. Kokoro’s sympathetic mother has enrolled her in an alternative school, but Kokoro can’t bring herself to attend, as much as she might want to. Made physically ill by her anxiety, all Kokoro can do is stay at home while watching daytime television and waiting for time to pass. Just as she’s on the verge of spiraling into depression, the mirror in her bedroom begins glowing, and she is pulled through its shining surface into a mysterious castle.

Kokoro is one of seven middle-schoolers greeted by a girl wearing a fancy dress and a wolf mask who calls herself “the Wolf Queen.” The Wolf Queen tells the children that they have one year to locate a hidden key that will unlock a secret room. If one of them manages to make it inside the room, they will be rewarded by having a wish granted. The caveat is that, once the wish is granted, the castle will disappear. In the meantime, they can use the castle however they like during school hours.

It doesn’t take Kokoro and the other children long to figure out that none of them are going to school, at least not during the day. Instead of competing to see who can find the key and the room, then, they’re content to use the castle as a place to hang out while playing video games and chatting. They eventually grow close enough to make plans to get together as a group outside the castle; but, despite their firm promises to each other, no one appears at the designated meeting spot.

This intensifies the question that no one has wanted to bring up – what in the world is going on? And, perhaps more importantly, will they ever be able to see each again once their year in the castle has ended?  

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a novel about friendship, specifically friendship between outcasts. In many ways, the group of children who gather in the castle is reminiscent of the Loser’s Club from the Stephen King novel IT (albeit with a much lighter tone). Each of the kids is living through the unpleasant fallout of a traumatic experience, but they gradually open up to each other and work through their issues together. Nothing about this character development is saccharine or sentimental, and misunderstandings and gaps in communication occasionally arise. There’s a fair amount of teenage awkwardness and egocentrism, but none of the characters is overtly unsympathetic.

Kokoro is struggling with having been targeted a group of mean girls, and the novel’s depiction of bullying felt especially real to me. The treatment Kokoro received at the hands of her classmates is genuinely disturbing, but even worse is the attitude of the teachers at her school, who apparently expect her to apologize to the people who went out of their way to antagonize her. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is YA fiction, to be sure – there is no strong language, substance abuse, or mention of sex or sexuality. Still, parts of the story are painfully honest, and the novel’s sensitive but realistic treatment of cruelty and anxiety doesn’t pull any punches.

Despite its fantastical elements, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is more of a mystery than a fantasy, although it admittedly takes its time warming up. Kokoro and her friends are in the process of recovering from trauma, and they’re understandably reluctant to discuss serious matters. Most of them avoid doing anything that would disturb the comfortable haven they’ve been miraculously granted. The novel ambles through what seem to be a few false starts, with one problem emerging only to be quietly resolved. Patient readers who accept the story on its own terms will be rewarded, however, as the plot gradually gains depth and momentum. It’s easy to fly through the pages of the lengthy final chapter, and the conclusion is extremely satisfying.  

As its cover copy proclaims, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a bestselling novel in Japan, and there’s no reason why this story won’t resonate with readers outside of Japan. Philip Gabriel’s translation is impeccable, preserving a sense of timelessness while handling the teenage characters’ dialog with grace and good sense. It’s easy to compare Lonely Castle in the Mirror to Eto Mori’s recently translated YA novel Colorful, or perhaps even the early Harry Potter novels, but it has its own unique charm and magic. Teenagers in the same age range will find Kokoro and her friends to be sympathetic and relatable, while the story is compelling enough to wrap adult readers in its mysteries.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt

Japanese Title: むらさきのスカートの女 (Murasaki no sukāto no onna)
Author: Natsuko Imamura (今村 夏子)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2019 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 216

The Woman in the Purple Skirt begins as a charming set of observations about a woman who lives in a quiet neighborhood. It soon becomes clear, however, that there is something creepy about the narrator, who calls herself The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

The specificity of the narration raises many questions. Why is the narrator so obsessed with the Woman in the Purple Skirt? How is she able to observe her so closely? Is she stalking this woman? Or is she perhaps talking about herself in third person? Is she making up a fantasy version of herself, or is she projecting her personality onto a real woman? If so, why? Who is the Woman in the Purple Skirt? Who is the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan?

The Woman in the Purple Skirt isn’t suspense, necessarily, and it’s certainly not the “thriller” that the publisher seems to be trying to market it as, but the experience of reading this story is unsettling. The novella won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, which is awarded to work from emerging writers that pushes boundaries and has a certain air of being “literary.” Despite the stylish chick lit cover of the American edition, the plot of The Woman in the Purple Skirt is almost depressingly mundane.

After a series of temp jobs that she quits after only a few days, the Woman in the Purple Skirt finds employment as member of the cleaning staff at an upscale hotel. She seems to be having an affair with one of her supervisors, and rumors spread that her salary is disproportionately high. At the same time, certain imbalances in inventory cause her coworkers to suspect that she is stealing. As the atmosphere at work becomes more hostile, the woman’s relationship with her supervisor also deteriorates. Meanwhile, the narrator, who is also a supervisor on the hotel’s cleaning staff, continues to glide through the life of the Woman in the Purple Skirt like a shadow.

This story is banal, but the subtle uncanniness of the narration forces the reader to view these normal events in normal lives with a sense of unease. The prose is sparse, the language is simplistic, and the affect is almost completely flat. Lucy North’s translation is reminiscent of Raymond Carver, especially in terms of dialog. Like Carver’s short fiction, the themes that emerge from beneath the placid surface of the narration are distressing: economic precarity, alienation, and the dangers of aging without a social network or financial safety net.

Despite its engagement with contemporary social issues, there’s nothing about The Woman in the Purple Skirt that requires specialist cultural knowledge, as the experience of struggling with loneliness while making minimum wage is equally shitty everywhere. I’d recommend this novella to anyone who enjoyed (or was at least moved by) Convenience Store Woman, as well as anyone concerned with urban anomie who entertains doubts about the ethics of low-wage work.

Because of the intriguing questions it raises and the unfortunate relatability of the discussion it’s likely to inspire, I would also recommend The Woman in the Purple Skirt as a text in a class on contemporary Japanese fiction. In addition, I think the novella might work well as a text for upper-level Japanese language classes, as its polished yet accessible prose evades the deliberate opacity of most Akutagawa Prize-winning work. Imamura has a field day with the narrative ambiguities made possible by the Japanese language, so it might be interesting to read the original side-by-side with North’s translation, which makes a number of tough decisions that nevertheless read as smooth and effortless.

Acclaimed author Natsuko Imamura’s first work to appear in English translation is short enough to be read in the span of an hour, but it’s worth spending time with. It’s difficult to say that a book as genuinely creepy as The Woman in the Purple Skirt is an enjoyable read, but the novella is a darkly shining jewel of literary fiction that invites and rewards analysis and introspection.

Colorful

Japanese Title: カラフル (Karafuru)
Author: Eto Mori (森絵都)
Translator: Jocelyne Allen
Publication Year: 1998 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 224

A fourteen-year-old boy named Makoto Kobayashi has committed suicide, so a nameless and formless soul is granted a second chance at life by doing a “homestay” in his body. While inhabiting Makoto’s body, the soul must also occupy his life while guided by an angel named Prapura.

As if being in middle school weren’t difficult enough, the soul soon realizes that Makoto’s life is a mess. His family initially appears to be warm and loving, but it soon becomes apparent that nothing is as simple as it seems. To begin with, Makoto’s phone is completely free of contacts, which Prapura gleefully explains is because Makoto doesn’t have friends. The only girl who’s ever been nice to him visits love hotels with an older man, which Makoto knows because he saw her – at the same time he saw his mother leaving with her dance instructor.   

Although the soul now occupying Makoto’s body is given a year to figure out its past crime, there’s very little sense of narrative urgency involved in solving this mystery. Instead, the forward momentum of the story comes from “Makoto” gradually realizing that life isn’t so black and white, and that every person has different colors. As he explains it…

The idea of the Kobayashi family I’d had in my head gradually began to change color. It wasn’t some simple change, like things that I thought were black were actually white. It was more like when I looked closely, things I thought were a single, uniform color were really made up of a bunch of different colors. That’s maybe the best way to describe it. (149)

Although Colorful is YA fiction, some of the “colors” of its characters may require an unusual degree of empathy for many American readers, but I would argue that it’s precisely this exercise of empathy that makes the experience of reading the novel so powerful and moving.

To give an example, Hiroka, the fourteen-year-old girl who is “dating” an adult man for money, is represented as being in control of her body and decisions. When Makoto attempts to rescue her from the doorway of a love hotel, she initially goes along with him, but it doesn’t take long for her to make it clear that she doesn’t appreciate his heroic gesture. She actually enjoys having sex with a considerate and experienced older partner, she says, and she appreciates the money he gives her. When Makoto asks if she can’t just wait until she’s older, Hiroka doesn’t hesitate to explain her reasoning, telling him that she wants to be able to buy nice things while she’s still the appropriate age to appreciate them. She wants to enjoy her body, and she wants to enjoy her life, and she doesn’t want to date Makoto, whom she considers to be a friend.

Later in the story, Hiroka admits to occasionally feeling depressed, confessing to Makoto that she’ll want to have sex on six days of the week but then want to join a convent on the seventh. By this point, Makoto has matured enough to accept Hiroka’s decisions. He assures her that it’s normal to feel confused sometimes, and that there’s nothing wrong with her. This conversation does not lead to romance, but rather to Makoto’s self-awareness that he has grown enough as a person to accept Hiroka on her own terms.

This is what is expected of the reader as well – a willingness to accept the characters not as stereotypes or idealizations, but as they actually exist. Colorful does not place any value judgments on Hiroka’s personality, desires, or decisions. She does not decide to stop having sex with her older partner, nor does she realize that the things she spends the money on are childish and shallow. She is not diagnosed with any sort of mental illness or personality disorder, and she does not decide to “get help.”

It’s extraordinarily refreshing to see teenage female sexuality discussed with honesty and sensitivity without being punished. Hiroka is not a slut or a victim, but rather a normal young woman who enjoys having sex with people who enjoy having sex with her. She’s not 100% emotionally mature, and she doesn’t entirely understand who she wants to be or what she’s doing with her life, but that’s okay. The point of Colorful is that human beings are complicated.

Makoto’s father is another example of a relatable character whose story requires empathy to appreciate. When Makoto tells him that, as an aspiring artist, he prefers to draw landscapes because he dislikes people, his father confesses that he dislikes people too. Although he’s a talented designer, he was bullied at the company where he works. He thought he was highly positioned and highly respected enough to be able to speak up about the CEO’s mismanagement of the company, which was causing real and serious harm. This backfired, and he was ostracized for two years by his former friends and colleagues even though they knew he was right. He explains to Makoto that, although he was promoted when the CEO was eventually forced to step down after a public scandal, he will never get back those two years of his life, nor will he be able to return to his former easy friendships with his colleagues.   

This is a difficult lesson – that “doing the right thing” is not always going to be appreciated. Many times, in fact, speaking out against something that is clearly wrong will turn you into a social pariah. Even worse, this damage can linger for years, perhaps even for the rest of your life. Doing the right thing can ruin your career, and you might become so focused on damage control that you don’t notice that you’re sacrificing your relationships with the people who are close to you.

In so many stories, young people who do the right thing despite the hardships involved are rewarded for their uncompromising bravery. Meanwhile, the “absent father” figure has to make difficult and complicated decisions and ends up being positioned as the villain. As with Hiroka, being able to hear Makoto’s father’s side of the story is refreshing, not to mention validating to me as an adult reader.

The beauty of Colorful rises from the novel’s ability to take simple stereotypes and explode them into rich and detailed character portraits as Makoto comes to understand and empathize with people who aren’t perfect but are doing their best to live their lives with dignity. Along with Hiroka, Makoto is able to forge friendships with two other classmates; and, along with his father, he’s also able to better understand his mother and brother. The fantasy bits about souls and angels and resurrection are little more than props for an extremely character-driven story that doesn’t feel like a fantasy at all.

Colorful doesn’t go out of its way to be gritty or nasty or unpleasant. It’s honest and sincere, and it handles serious topics with gentle nuance and an occasional touch of humor. As the author describes her intentions in the Afterword,  

I chose to write about a serious subject with a comical touch. I chose to depict it lightly. I wanted kids who liked reading and those who didn’t have fun with it to start. I wanted them to laugh and roll their eyes and relate to everything the characters did. I wanted them to enter the world of the book and be free of their everyday lives. And then, when they closed the book at the end, I wanted the weight on their hearts to be just a little lighter. (210)

I believe that Mori succeeded marvelously, and I could not write a better summary of her novel.

I should also mention that Colorful received a high-profile anime adaptation in 2010 that was later released in North America in 2013 by Sentai Filmworks. The movie makes a number of interesting choices regarding plot and characterization that help keep the story moving forward at a brisk pace. It also includes a charming interlude into Japanese train fandom as a means of showing Makoto’s growing friendship with one of his classmates. Although it might be difficult to find a copy of the officially licensed DVD version, it’s definitely worth the effort to seek out a way to watch the movie. Colorful is on par with slice-of-life Studio Ghibli movies like Whisper of the Heart and From Up on Poppy Hill, and its art, animation, and voice actor performances are all lovely.

Jocelyne Allen’s translation of the original novel is equally fun and lively, with an especially good ear for the dialog of the teenage characters. Over the years, many of my international students have told me that Colorful meant a lot to them as they were growing up, and that it sparked their interest in Japanese fiction. I’m delighted that Colorful is finally available in translation, and it’s my hope that this heartfelt coming-of-age story inspires readers with a sense of joy and appreciation for the rich and vibrant colors of the world.

I want to extend my gratitude to Counterpoint Press for sending me an advance review copy. Colorful will be released in paperback on July 20, 2021. You can learn more about the book on their website (here), and you can find a set of pre-order links on the book’s page at Penguin Random House (here).

The Cat in the Coffin

Japanese Title: 柩の中の猫 (Hitsugi no naka no neko)
Author: Mariko Koike (小池 真理子)
Translator: Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publication Year: 1990 (Japan); 2009 (United States)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 190

According to the back cover copy, The Cat in the Coffin is “a gem of a modern update on the governess genre immortalized by Jane Eyre and ‘The Turn of the Screw’ [and a] hypnotic thriller that lures the reader into the darkness of the human heart,” which is as good of a description as any. The Cat in the Coffin is a story about family, desire, love, malice, and a cat at the center of a chilling murder.

Masayo, an aspiring artist from Hokkaido who has just turned twenty, moves to Tokyo to be a live-in housekeeper and caretaker for Momoko, the eight-year-old daughter of a semi-famous artist and college professor named Goro Kawakubo. The year is 1955, and Goro has embraced a modern American lifestyle of cocktails and garden parties after the tragic death of his wife. Masayo cares little for fashion or the glamor of high society, but she is enchanted by Momoko, who speaks to no one except her white cat Lala. Masayo bonds with Momoko through their shared love of Lala, and they become fast friends.

Everything goes well until a startlingly beautiful woman named Chinatsu shows up at one of Goro’s parties. Chinatsu worked as a translator and lived with her husband in America before becoming a widow and returning to Japan. Despite her air of cosmopolitan sophistication, Chinatsu is thoughtful and kind. Goro is clearly in love with her, but both Masayo and Momoko are ambivalent. After all, if Goro marries Chinatsu, there will be no need for Masayo to remain in the house as Momoko’s caretaker.

All of the characters in The Cat in the Coffin are good people, but they’re imperfect in small but significant ways. Goro takes his relationship with Chinatsu slowly so that his daughter will be comfortable with the woman who will replace her mother, but he is perhaps a little too willing to leave his daughter entirely to Masayo’s care. Momoko understandably misses her mother and craves her father’s affection, but her grief has caused her to become isolated and antisocial. Masayo tries her hardest to do what’s best for Momoko, but her crush on Goro causes her to give Chinatsu a cold shoulder.

The comparisons to Jane Eyre and “The Turn of the Screw” are apt, as Masayo’s idealized longing for Goro and Momoko’s aggressive strangeness create a difficult situation for Chinatsu, whose only flaw is that she isn’t able to conceal her dislike of Lala. Chinatsu gradually succumbs to a delusion that everything will work out if she no longer has to compete for Momoko’s affection with a cat, and she ends up taking drastic action in secret. Masayo witnesses her terrible act, which creates a terrible psychological burden she is unable to bear. The suspense of The Cat in the Coffin thus lies in witnessing a modestly happy household’s slow dissolution in a boiling pot of misdirected passion and ice-cold rage.

The Cat in the Coffin can also be read as a sustained exploration of Masayo’s fear of growing up as she longs for independence but still clings to childhood, sinking herself into a codependent relationship with Momoko and Lala instead of building a working friendship with Chinatsu, who represents her anxiety of adult sexuality. Meanwhile, although Chinatsu is only a secondary character from Masayo’s perspective, her life history is fascinating, and its eventual revelation is quite dramatic. Chinatsu’s story is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in her ambition and failed pursuit of the American dream, and it’s precisely because of her progressive American approach to Momoko that their relationship is so disastrous.  

The Cat in the Coffin begins at a somewhat leisurely pace, but the suspense is slowly amplified throughout the novel, which is neatly structured and short enough to be read in one or two sittings. The ending is highly satisfying, as is the frame narrative, in which Masayo, now a famous artist, relates the story of Momoko, Chinatsu, and Lala to her own housekeeper. The well-edited and well-executed translation keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, making The Cat in the Coffin an enjoyable book to binge. This psychological thriller is lean and sharp and almost painfully insightful, and I especially recommend it to fans of Japanese cat novels who are interested in something domestic that still has its claws.