Japanese Title: 生命式 (Seimeishiki)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2019 (Japan); 2022 (United States)
Press: Grove Press
Life Ceremony collects twelve short narrative thought experiments about the taboos governing social customs. These stories are playful, intriguing, and marvelously well-written, but this book might not be for everyone. In this review I’ll discuss cannibalism in a relatively light tone that approximates the tone of the collection itself, so please take care if you’re squeamish about food or human remains.
The opening story, “A First-Rate Material,” is an excellent introduction to the themes of the collection. In a world very much like our own, human bodies are not burned after death, but recycled. Human bones become pieces of jewelry, human teeth and nails become the ornaments hanging from chandeliers, and human skin is used to upholster sofas. The young woman who narrates the story is proud of her luxurious human hair sweater, but her fiancé finds clothing and furniture made of human materials to be weird and upsetting. The narrator promises to respect his wishes, but things come to a head (so to speak) when they visit his mother’s house. Before his father passed away, he requested that his skin be made into a veil for his son’s bride to wear during the wedding ceremony.
Even if you’re okay with this thought experiment so far, the story starts to become disturbing when Murata describes, in great detail, what this veil looks like, as well as how the skin of an elderly man’s corpse feels against the narrator’s own living skin. The narrator’s fiancé pretends to be fine with the veil in order to appease his mother, but he’s clearly in shock during the drive home. The reader can’t help but sympathize with both the narrator and her fiancé. Are human bodies not beautiful? Is it not disrespectful to burn our loved ones, or to allow them to rot? In the end, is there any real difference between human skin and animal skin? On the other hand, the idea of wearing human skin is undeniably creepy.
This cognitive dissonance is upsetting, as Murata intends it to be. The gap between subjective perceptions and social expectations forms the core of each of the stories in Life Ceremony. Some of these stories have a gentle and almost fairytale-like quality, but some of them hit hard.
The title story, “Life Ceremony,” provides the purest expression of this cognitive dissonance in its levelheaded consideration of cannibalism. In the near future, the traditional family system is no longer relevant. Few people choose to get married or live together, so the state subsidizes pregnancy and runs community childcare centers for the babies produced by unattached mothers. Many of these babies are conceived at “life ceremonies,” which are funerals in which the bodies of the dead are prepared as a lively and joyous feast that’s open to the community. A life ceremony is considered a success if people pair off during the party in order to conceive children.
The narrator, Maho, isn’t particularly interested in pregnancy or life ceremonies, a view she shares with her male coworker Yamamoto. Maho and Yamamoto are drinking buddies who enjoy a close platonic friendship, and they occasionally discuss how weird it is that both eating human bodies and unromantic insemination used to be considered taboo when they were younger. This story seems like another playful thought experiment until Yamamoto dies in a sudden accident. His family asks Maho to help prepare his body for his life ceremony, at which point the matter of human cannibalism becomes much more concrete and tactile.
Murata has a lot of fun as she parodies the wholesome tone of recipe blogs and lifestyle magazines during a prolonged and detailed description of the preparation of human flesh for culinary consumption. This seems like it would be creepy – and it sort of is – but Murata does an excellent job of normalizing the practice. By the end of the story, many readers will have inadvertently entered a headspace of accepting Maho’s world as completely natural. A series of events that would culminate in a disturbing ending in any other story somehow read as surprisingly sweet and touching.
“Life Ceremony” is a virtuoso performance, and Murata makes it seem effortless. I want to acknowledge the skill of the translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, in making the text feel so light and natural. Many of the words involving food preparation in English are quite visceral, so it’s a remarkable accomplishment to present the reader with the same clean lightness of the original Japanese text. Despite the occasionally disturbing subject matter, the imagery in the stories of Life Ceremony is never explicitly graphic, and Tapley Takemori’s translation skillfully conveys both the smoothness and the hidden depths of Murata’s prose.
Life Ceremony is a treasure trove of oddities, and each story is strange and fascinating in its own unique way as Murata invites the reader to question the logic of how we interact with the world and understand ourselves as social creatures. Each of the stories is just the right length to be read in one sitting, but the implications of Murata’s provocative thought experiments linger long after the last page.