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.   

Where the Wild Ladies Are

Author: Aoko Matsuda (松田 青子)
Japanese Title: おばちゃんたちのいるところ (Obachan-tachi no iru tokoro)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 271

Where the Wild Ladies Are collects seventeen short stories about the everyday lives of ghosts, demons, and yōkai in contemporary Japan. Although all of these stories are a bit strange, their tone is light and comedic, and all the hauntings are consensual.

My favorite story in the collection is “Quite a Catch,” which is about a young woman named Shigemi who has found herself in a romantic relationship with the ghost of a skeleton she inadvertently pulled out of the Tama River in Tokyo while fishing with a friend. The ghost, Hina-chan, appears outside of Shigemi’s apartment to thank her for dredging her bones from the riverbed. Shigemi is alarmed at first, but before long she and Hina-chan are chatting while watching television, not to mention bathing and sleeping together. Hina-chan’s nightly visits are a best-case scenario for the narrator, who has always wanted companionship without having to live with a spouse or roommate.

As the story notes in the back of the book explain, “Quite a Catch” is based on the comedic folktale Kotsutsuri (Skeleton Fishing) about a man who, after having heard a friend’s story about being thanked by the beautiful ghost of a drowned skeleton, goes to the river in an attempt to snare himself a supernatural girlfriend of his own but ends up fishing up the skeleton of the villain of a famous kabuki play.

Other stories in the collection feature other well-known figures from Japanese drama, lore, and legends narrated from unusual perspectives. “On High,” for example, is about a ghostly princess who haunts the beautiful hilltop Himeji Castle while it’s in the process of undergoing extensive renovations in the name of “historic preservation.” Meanwhile, “Enoki” is narrated by a sacred tree that is both frustrated and amused by the humans who insist on praying to it for various blessings, while “A Fox’s Life” is about a woman who’s been told she resembles a fox so often that she finally decides to go up into the mountains and become one.

“Smartening Up” is the first story in the collection, and it’s an excellent introduction to the author’s playful voice as she expresses the central theme of learning to embrace your weirdness and imperfections. The narrator begins the story obsessed with the darkness of her hair, spending a considerable amount of time and money on hair removal treatments while wishing she were born blond. On returning home after a rigorous session at an aesthetic salon one evening, she finds her aunt waiting for her in her apartment. This is something of a surprise, as her aunt had committed suicide in the wake of a failed love affair. Even more shocking, this aunt tells the narrator that she knows all about how she’s come to hate her appearance after being dumped. There’s nothing wrong with her hair, her aunt insists, especially since the fault lies with the piece of trash who cheated on her. The aunt assures her that her black hair is gorgeous, and that there’s no need for her to feel gross and ugly.

This story is loosely based on the Dōjōji legend, specifically the kabuki play Musume Dōjōji (The Maid of Dōjō Temple). The original story, in which a lustful woman is spurned by a celibate monk and turns into a giant snake to pursue him, is almost laughably misogynistic. The kabuki version, on the other hand, celebrates the woman’s serpentine transformation as an act of beauty and magic, with the dancer twirling in a robe that shines silver with the gorgeous gleam of scales.

The narrator’s aunt reminds her of the time they saw this play together and then admits that she’s still figuring out what her own secret power is. As the narrator considers the matter, she realizes that her own power is indeed in her hair. She begins eating hair-fortifying foods like liver and seaweed, helping her hair to become as monstrous and powerful as the snakes commanded by Medusa. She hides her demonic hair during the day but allows it to come out at night, brushing it to a high sheen and thinking about what sort of special skills she will learn in the future as she grows more comfortable wielding her magical power.

This may sound sentimental and a bit self-helpy, but the tone is actually very tongue-in-cheek and down to earth. The narrative voice, which is expertly captured through Polly Barton’s translation, is highly engaging. Many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are were inspired by rakugo comedic storytelling, which is meant to be a bit salty and ridiculous. A set of brief notes concerning sources and inspirations is provided at the end of the book, but it’s absolutely not necessary to be familiar with the original legends to appreciate and enjoy the stories in the collection.

Although many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are revolve around the theme of supernatural female empowerment, there’s no man-hating here – far from it. There are plenty of interesting male characters, including a time-traveling and dimension-hopping wizard who was inadvertently roped into the job and decided, like any good salaryman, just to stick with it. Although the reader doesn’t figure this out until late in the collection, all of the stories are loosely linked, with the various male and female characters managing to get along with each other in relative harmony.

Between the creative contemporary re-imaginings of folklore, the strong female friendships, the queer monster romance, and the general disdain for boring office jobs and awful bosses, the target audience of Where the Wild Ladies Are is specifically me, and I feel very seen and catered to. Still, Where the Wild Ladies Are should resonate with a broad readership. I suspect that a lot of anime fans and yōkai enthusiasts will be highly entertained by the collection, and the stories will appeal to anyone of any gender who enjoys clever comedy about how wild it is to live in the modern world.

People From My Neighborhood

People from My Neighborhood
Japanese Title: このあたりの人たち (Kono atari no hitotachi)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上 弘美)
Translator: Ted Goossen
Publication Year: 2019 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Granta
Pages: 121

The unnamed first-person narrator of People From My Neighborhood lives in a town that was rural when they were a child but has since developed and gentrified as farmers sold their land. Young people now commute to Tokyo, but a number of interesting people – and creatures – remain in the area. Some of the stories in this collection of microfiction are about the supernatural, but many are about people who are just a little odd or different.

There’s the taxi driver, for example, who spends all night driving around the ghosts of three women who supposedly died in the old tenement housing he refuses to vacate. There’s the self-appointed principle of a dog training program who spends all day loafing around the local park and sharing gossip. A child named Hachirō rotates between families in three-month intervals determined by lottery, as his parents already have fourteen kids. An elderly man who lives in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of town is called “Grandpa Shadows” by the local children because he has two shadows, one of which is rowdier than the other.

Then there is the mysterious diplomat who comes to town and provokes panic by going fishing in a lake that doesn’t exist. A princess keeps a beautiful garden and may or may not be responsible for a handful of murders and mass poisonings. One day a temporary mountain of sand appears along with a temporary god, and one day gravity simply disappears for a few hours.

My favorite story is “The White Dove,” in which a high school student picks up a peculiar avian creature during a fieldtrip. She takes the creature home, and it undergoes several metamorphoses before transforming into a sweet-tempered middle-aged man. He has a great destiny to fulfill, but this is largely irrelevant to the girl, who has a healthy sex drive and can think of far better uses for the man-shaped creature who now lives in her house. Although I’m always a fan of monster romance, what I love about this story is the way it sidelines the spectacular in order to focus on the drama of the mundane.

Some characters appear in more than one story, such as the narrator’s friend Kanae, who has a strong personality and goes on to live a storied life. Kanae’s sister, whose dream is to become a psychic medium, also finds herself at the center of several strange occurrences, as do a number of the narrator’s friends and acquaintances. The progression of stories jumps backwards and forwards through time, but the reader is nevertheless able to develop a sense of the social landscape of the small town and its population.

Since each story is only about two to six pages long, it’s fun to dip into the collection a bit at a time to see what’s new in town. By the end of the book, you almost feel as though you live there yourself. If you’re in the mood for a vacation to a place where anything could happen, People From My Neighborhood is your ticket to a bizarre yet relaxing experience.

One Love Chigusa

One Love Chigusa
Japanese Title: 愛しいちぐさ (Itoshii Chigusa)
Author: Sōji Shimada (島田 荘司)
Translator: David Warren
Publication Year: 1988 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Red Circle
Pages: 102

Content warning for misogyny, stalking, and pedophilia.

The novella One Love Chigusa was originally published in 1988 as an homage to Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of manga, on his sixtieth birthday. The author, Sōji Shimada, is internationally famous for his murder mystery novels. One Love Chigusa is a combination of Shimada’s close attention to the cat-and-mouse dynamics of pursuit and Tezuka’s vision of a future in which advanced technology has failed to inspire humans to rise above their baser natures.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to reveal that, as a cyberpunk novella written in the 1980s by a male author, One Love Chigusa is unapologetically misogynistic. The protagonist’s misogyny isn’t a side effect of his hardboiled personality; rather, it’s his defining trait and a guiding theme of the story. This sexism isn’t handled critically but is taken entirely for granted, and main plot of the novella involves the protagonist stalking a young woman. I am no stranger to difficult male characters engaging in problematic romance, but One Love Chigusa has little more to offer than a tedious reiteration of sexist sci-fi tropes.

The story is set in Beijing at the close of the twenty-first century, when medical technology has progressed to such a degree that doctors are able to save 25-year-old Xie Hoyu, the victim of a traffic accident that all but destroys his body. Xie’s limbs are replaced with prosthetics, as are most of his internal organs, and the visual images stored in his memory are recorded onto a hard drive that he can browse through in order to recover his sense of self. After two weeks in the hospital, Xie is given a short refresher lecture on how to use public transportation and released back into society.

Xie quickly discovers that there are glitches in his perception of the world. Specifically, he now sees all women as “red-faced demons” tagged with video game style health bars that represent their level of wealth. At first he’s surprised, but it doesn’t take him long to understand that he is finally able to see the true and essential nature of women:

Whatever he said, they screamed, got angry and thought only of themselves. A girl who was gentle, had a nice personality, didn’t have a temper, and was restrained and mild-mannered – he couldn’t remember meeting one like that even from his days as a child.

In fact, the reader learns, Xie’s accident resulted from the fact that he drove into incoming traffic because he was upset that his girlfriend selfishly left his apartment after he punched her in the face. Women are awful, obviously, and technology allows Xie to see them for the monsters they are. Is there no hope for Xie now that he’s realized all adult women are nothing more than “mechanical”?

Then, miraculously, Xie spots a random woman on the street whom he instantly knows is pure:

Such a wonderful face! Here, in this rubbish dump, was a woman of such purity – so gentle, looking with such kindness on the world around her. He hadn’t realized this was possible.

Xie clearly has no choice but to stalk her:

Today she was wearing tight-fitting trousers. Not the skirt that she had had on before. So it would be easier for her to run off – although he doubted whether it would actually be that easy for her to outrun him. While he was thinking all of this, Xie took up a position about twenty metres behind the woman and walked onward with silent steps.

There are pages and pages and pages of this. Here’s another representative example:

Eventually, they emerged back on the main street once more, and a movie theatre came into view. She walked up the street in front of it. Taking care not to get too close, Xie followed her. He could see her attractive legs from below.

The first third of One Love Chigusa is thus devoted to establishing its central conflict: Will Xie ever be able to capture the only pure girl in a city full of disgusting whores who only care about money? The second third is concerned with the process of Xie stalking this girl through a Beijing constructed of crude stereotypes, and the final third involves Xie catching the object of his obsession and pressuring her to become sexually involved with him despite her protests.

If you’re even marginally familiar with cyberpunk tropes, especially those of the Born Sexy Yesterday variety, you can probably guess exactly where this story goes. More than any sort of homage to the deep humanism of Tezuka’s treatment of robots, technology, and society, One Love Chigusa feels like a budget knockoff of the movie Blade Runner, which had just been released five years earlier.

The novella also has a secondary plot that occupies a total of perhaps five pages. Xie sometimes hears a strange voice speaking directly into his mind, and its origin is a mystery. Can you figure it out? Here’s a clue: “Thunderstorm, crashes of thunder. Kite, kite, kite. Crashes of thunder. Electricity, kite, Benjamin Franklin.” If you’ve read Shimada’s other work, you’re probably familiar with how silly, improbable, and ridiculously over the top the solutions to his mysteries are, and this is no exception.

Spoilers follow:

It turns out that electricity is an alien lifeform that has been waiting for AI to develop on earth. Unfortunately, the implications of this revelation, which is allotted about two pages, are not explored in any detail. Likewise, Xie’s identity as a cyborg is not allowed any room to grow beyond his inability to physically see women as anything other than soulless machines. Meanwhile, Chigusa is a gynoid owned by a factory, but the story completely fails to address (or even mention) issues related to human rights, nonhuman rights, or any of the ethical dilemmas involved in creating and owning sentient beings. As per the “born sexy yesterday” trope, the reason Xie falls in love with the girl he’s stalking is because, despite having a sexy adult body, she has the mind of a child:

When he looked at Chigusa’s profile, her expression was that of a curious child, absorbed in her thoughts. She was trying hard to understand something.

Like a child, Chigusa doesn’t understand what Xie wants from her. She tells him – quite clearly, multiple times – to leave her alone, but she’s too pure and innocent to resist his persistent advances and passively allows him to do what he wants. Literally:

Chigusa didn’t appear shy at all; she simply let him do what he wanted.

It’s not assault if the girl doesn’t explicitly say “no,” right? Or if she only says “no” a few times at the beginning, right?? Don’t worry, it’s just her inexperience; she’ll definitely learn to love you if you keep touching her and following her home. As The Mary Sue summarizes the tropes discussed in the video I linked to above:

The male character in these films is usually a “straight, red-blooded” man who finds himself alone and disenfranchised. He “either can’t find or doesn’t want a woman from his own world, a woman who might be his equal in matters of love and sexuality.”

And yet, the woman who is Born Sexy Yesterday falls head-over-heels for him, just because he knows how to act like a normal, everyday human being (something she doesn’t know how to do). “It’s precisely her naivety and her innocence that allows her to see something special in him,” summarizes McIntosh, “something that other, less innocent or more experienced women, cannot.”

This emphasis on sexual innocence and power imbalance is the heart of what makes Born Sexy Yesterday so troubling. “The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority,” McIntosh says, “It’s a fantasy based on fear: fear of women who are men’s equal in sexual experience and romantic history, and fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women.”

The “antisocial dude falls in love with a gynoid with no agency” story is as old as Pygmalion, and One Love Chigusa doesn’t do anything new or interesting with the concept. I’ve already read a few reviews of this book that call it brilliant and intellectually challenging, which is a little sad. I suppose, if you’ve never read a story about robots before, these tropes might be new to you, but One Love Chigusa doesn’t offer anything besides these tropes – there is no worldbuilding, no answers to the questions raised by the story, and no characterization beyond “antisocial stalker” and “gynoid with the mind of a child.” There’s no social commentary beyond the author’s vaguely xenophobic choice to set the story in Beijing, and any potential critique of the dehumanizing nature of late-stage capitalism is subverted by the narrative’s overt misogyny.

Meanwhile, female writers from Mary Shelley onwards have written not just about sapient artificial intelligence but also about how romance might work when one or more parties in a relationship is not human. This is a gorgeously well-developed genre full of longing, tragedy, theological and ontological reflection, and terabytes of spicy eroticism. As novelist Joanna Russ argued back in 1983, however, none of this counts because it was written by women. So it stands to reason that, for some people, One Love Chigusa might indeed be the first time they’re encountering a story that asks whether an AI can have a heart.

Still, even if the ideas in One Love Chigusa were actually groundbreaking, would that really justify a story about an openly misogynistic adult man stalking a young girl? The unabashedly positive reviews of this novella remind me of how noted sexual harasser Isaac Asimov was allowed to drive women away from the sci-fi community well into the 1980s:

Over the course of many decades, Asimov groped or engaged in other forms of unwanted touching with countless women, often at conventions, but also privately and in the workplace. Within the science fiction community, this is common knowledge, and whenever I bring it up in a room of older fans, the response is usually a series of nods.

In other words, the problem isn’t one creepy sexpest; the problem is the community of men who saw this behavior happening right in front of their eyes and did nothing to stop it. Similarly, One Love Chigusa isn’t a problem in and of itself; rather, the problem is the community of publishers and reviewers who will happily read a hundred pages of stalking and misogyny without acknowledging that these thematic and narrative elements might be upsetting and offensive to many readers.

I did not enjoy One Love Chigusa. It’s unoriginal and unimaginative, and the strong focus on misogyny and stalking was a bit too much for me. Though I wasn’t surprised by the story’s inevitable turn toward pedophilia (in the form of the sexualization of an AI with the mind of a young child), I still found it gross and disturbing.

I imagine that One Love Chigusa will be of interest to sci-fi fans who are nostalgic for the good old days of the genre before it started becoming more open and accessible to women and minorities. The less said about this group of people, the better.

People teaching classes about Japanese speculative fiction may find One Love Chigusa to be a useful example of the sort of intellectually lazy sci-fi that so many Japanese creators – including Osamu Tezuka himself – have sought to challenge and overturn through work that is genuinely original and progressive. There’s a lot to unpack in this novella, from the gender politics to the fact that the story’s future dystopian society is located in China instead of Japan. One Love Chigusa might also form the core of a serious discussion about what sort of Japanese science fiction tends to be translated into English. That being said, I don’t personally feel that “should robots be treated as more worthy of empathy and compassion than women” is a particularly fruitful discussion point in 2020.

I would normally never write about this sort of regressive and misogynistic science fiction, but I received a review copy of One Love Chigusa from Red Circle through an independent PR agent they hired to promote the book. I’ve enjoyed the other handsome little chapbooks released by the press, and it’s a shame that this particular book is – as its protagonist says about women – a rubbish heap. If you’ve enjoyed the stand-alone Japanese short stories and novellas published by Keshiki, Pushkin Press, and New Directions, then I encourage you to check out the books released by Red Circle – just not this one.

Overlord: The Undead King

Overlord, Volume 1: The Undead King
Japanese Title: オーバーロード 1 不死者の王 (Ōbārōdo 1: Fushisha no ō)
Author: Kugane Maruyama (丸山くがね)
Translator: Emily Balistrieri
Illustrator: so-bin (@soubin)
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2016 (United States)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 246

Overlord is about a normal man from near-future Japan who becomes trapped in an MMORPG. It’s a typical isekai story, but there’s a twist. Instead of valiant hero who must learn to fight monsters, the protagonist is the monster, and his goal is nothing less than to take over the world.

The premise of Overlord is fairly standard. An MMORPG called Yggdrasil that was developed to take advantage of an immersive “neuro-nano interface” is scheduled to go offline after a successful twelve-year run, but a max-level player and guild master who calls himself Momonga (after a supremely adorable species of flying squirrel) decides to stay logged in until the last second. Momonga is not forced out of the system but remains inside the virtual world, and he quickly realizes that he’s unable to leave. He has no friends or family outside of Yggdrasil, so this is not as distressing for him as it could be. Nevertheless, he decides to “take over the world” in an attempt to find other players who may have become similarly trapped inside the game.

I’m not sure I can recommend Overlord to someone looking for a more literary type of fantasy. To begin with, there’s a fair amount of geeky talk concerning game mechanics like quickcasting and debuffer immunities, especially early in the novel. Overlord assumes that its reader is already familiar with MMORPG culture and the conventions of the isekai genre. If none of this is new to you, however, the way the novel fast travels through issues that aren’t pertinent to the immediate plot (such as “where am I” and “how did I get here”) is a welcome change of pace.

This novel is an unabashed power fantasy. Not only is Momonga inhumanly strong on his own terms, he now possesses all of the magical treasures left behind by his guildmates. On top of that, all of the powerful level bosses in the dungeon formerly occupied by his guild are tripping over themselves to swear allegiance to him. Momonga can heal the sick, raise the dead, summon dragons, and make all of his subordinates (male and female) swoon at his very presence.

There’s a bit of boob grabbing and panty wetting, but it’s very silly and feels perfunctory, almost as if it’s something that the author felt he needed to check off a list. For the most part, Momonga is a decent person who’s not particularly interested in romancing the (dubiously?) sentient NPCs who were originally created by his friends. He’s a “demon king” in title and appearance only – although he doesn’t hesitate to kill an entire battalion of mercenary soldiers who attack a civilian village later in the novel.

The real power fantasy explored by Overlord has very little to do with swords and sorcery, however. Rather, the novel is essentially a story about what it means to be a good boss. All of the fantasy-themed gaming business aside, what Momonga needs to figure out is how to become an effective leader who is able to work efficiently while maintaining the respect of his subordinates. The decisions he makes concerning matters such as when to intimidate people and when to let things slide are interesting, and they form the core of the story, whose conflicts have fairly low stakes – at least in the opening volume.

The Overlord light novel franchise has sold millions of copies in Japan. It was also adapted into an anime series in 2015, with its third season airing in 2018. The illustrator, @soubin, has a massive following on social media, not in the least because of his stylish fan art for anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Attack on Titan. The first volume of Overlord was originally serialized online, and it reads a bit like fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off. If you enjoy this type of writing, Kugane Maruyama’s novel is a decadent treat.

I should add that I’m extremely impressed by the quality of the hardcover edition of this book. Yen Press always does a fantastic job with its physical publications, but Overlord is something special. There’s a beautiful pull-out map at the beginning, character profiles at the end, and a full-color illustration on the cover page of every chapter. I have to admit that I’m not sure why Overlord has been singled out for this sort of “collector’s edition” treatment – aside from its massive popularity, of course – but I’m not complaining. Yen Press has currently published twelve volumes in the series, and each is as devilishly handsome as the last.

(Image from the Yen Press official Twitter account)

The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders
Japanese Title: EUGENIA (ユージニア)
Author: Riku Onda (恩田 陸)
Translator: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2005 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
Pages: 315

In 1973, in a small seaside town on the west coast of Japan, the prominent Aosawa family and their guests were poisoned with cyanide during a birthday party, an incident resulting in the death of seventeen people. Makiko Saiga, who was a child at the time, later interviewed people connected to the family for her senior thesis, which ended up becoming a true-crime bestseller titled The Forgotten Festival. Makiko never published another book and refused to give interviews, and the sole survivor of the Aosawa family, a young woman named Hisako, married and moved to the United States. When the man who delivered the poisoned alcohol to the party committed suicide, the police closed the case.

Thirty years after the incident, however, it becomes apparent that there may be more to the story. There are fourteen chapters in The Aosawa Murders, each narrated from the perspective of someone once connected to the Aosawa family or the publication of The Forgotten Festival. Makiko Saiga is polite yet evasive. Her research assistant knows that there are small departures from reality in her account but doesn’t know what to make of them. The detective who investigated the case is convinced that Hisako Aosawa is responsible for the murders but can’t quite prove it. Someone who knew the supposed culprit believes the young man was manipulated by a mysterious woman. A handful of other people, such as Makiko’s brother and the daughter of the Aosawa family’s housekeeper, offer additional intriguing anecdotes.

The Aosawa Murders is a slow burn. For the first two-thirds of the novel, the reader has no choice but to take each separate account as it comes while trying to pick out the connecting threads, which initially seem to be few and far between. The Aosawa Murders respects the intelligence of its reader by presenting information impartially and without cliffhangers, false leads, or red herrings. The circumstances surrounding the mystery are compelling enough to warrant sustained attention, but the carefully measured narrative pace allows the reader to take time with each account without being driven to rush forward.

When things begin to come together in the last hundred pages, the true brilliance of the story becomes apparent. The final two chapters focus on Hisako Aosawa (now Hisako Schmidt) and Makiko Saiga, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with both of them. After hearing so much about them from secondhand accounts, the down-to-earth reality of their actual personalities is refreshing. Regardless of what each of them may or may not have done, the author reminds us that both of these women are far more than archetypes in someone else’s story.

Although an astute reader will have formed several theories about what happened, the novel never presents a simple and neatly packaged explanation. The ending is fragmented and recounted in a jarring manner that serves as one of the strongest clues concerning the identity of the narrator who has presumably assembled the accounts that appear in the story. I can imagine that some people may find this sort of open-ended conclusion anticlimactic, but it was extremely satisfying to me.

I have to admit that I enjoy formulaic murder mysteries in which everything is neatly arranged and fits together perfectly at the end. The Aosawa Murders is not that type of story, however – not by a long shot. Instead, the novel is a sprawling puzzle that rewards the reader’s active attention and engagement. This is not a book that can be read in an afternoon. Thankfully, the strength of the writing and the quality of the translation encourage sustained reflection and speculation. I had an enormous amount of fun with The Aosawa Murders, and I would happily recommend it to anyone looking for an uncommon mystery written by a mature and confident storyteller.

To anyone concerned about such things, there is no overt violence, sexism, or misogyny in The Aosawa Murders. In addition, aside from a minor subplot involving a Buddhist priest, the story doesn’t contain any particularly “Japanese” elements, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Japanese society or police procedure in order to fully appreciate the characters and plot. In fact, I think The Aosawa Murders would make an excellent addition to a reading list of contemporary international mystery fiction.

A review copy of this book was kindly provided by Bitter Lemon Press. The quality of the publication is excellent, and I’m thrilled and delighted that Riku Onda’s work has made such a stunning debut in English translation.