Life Ceremony

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
Pages: 244

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.

Dead-End Memories

Japanese Title: デッドエンドの思い出 (Deddo endo no omoide)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Year: 2003 (Japan); 2022 (United States)
Press: Counterpoint
Pages: 221

Dead-End Memories collects five short stories whose purpose is to comfort and uplift the reader. None of the characters are bad people, and none of them does anything wrong. When people suffer, they do so off-camera, and only then in rose-tinted hindsight. Banana Yoshimoto’s fiction occasionally contains elements of darkness, and this is undeniably the case in Dead-End Memories. Nevertheless, the five stories in this collection are filled with light and sweetness.  

The opening story, “House of Ghosts,” is classic Banana Yoshimoto. A young woman who aims to take over the management of her family’s restaurant falls in love with a young man whose parents are forcing him to inherit a local bakery. The couple bonds over home cooking, but the young man must leave soon to study in France. Also, his apartment is haunted. Thankfully, the ghosts of the former tenants, a long-married couple, aren’t bothering anyone, and they indirectly inspire the young woman to move forward without regrets by reminding her that life is long and full of opportunities. It’s all extremely wholesome.

The second story, “‘Mama!,’” is equally wholesome. The narrator, a junior editor at a large publisher, is poisoned at the company cafeteria by a man who was targeting a former lover. As she recovers, the editor remembers how she was rescued from her abusive mother and raised by her kind and loving grandparents. This early childhood trauma makes it difficult for her to recognize her fatigue, and she returns to work only to break down in tears on the job when she visits a writer’s house to collect his manuscript. The narrator’s boss is very understanding and grants her a month of paid leave. Having realized how precious life is, the narrator uses this holiday to marry her boyfriend and go on a honeymoon in Hawai’i. As in “House of Ghosts,” the most intimate and harrowing moments of the narrator’s suffering are glossed over in order to emphasize the process of healing.

The theme of healing carries through the other three stories in Dead-End Memories. In “Not Warm at All,” the narrator looks back fondly on a childhood friend who was murdered by his mother, while the narrator of “Tomo-Chan’s Happiness” finds herself nurturing a quiet attraction to a co-worker despite being sexually assaulted as a teenager. Meanwhile, the narrator of the title story, “Dead-End Memories,” is attempting to come to terms with a partner who seems to be doing his best to ghost her out of a serious long-term relationship. Perhaps because her situation is relatable to so many people, Yoshimoto is more comfortable allowing this story’s narrator to describe her emotional pain, albeit only with the support of the kind and handsome manager of the bar where she works. The jilted narrator ultimately decides that she has the right to move on and find her own happiness:

Maybe this has been a good thing after all. What I’m going through is only like being perched on a soft cloud and peering through a small gap at other people’s lives. The important thing is to keep your eyes open, because what you choose to pay attention to defines your world.

Despite the title of the collection, the stories in Dead-End Memories are about how painful experiences help us grow and mature as people. This may sound cliché; and, to be fair, it is. That being said, I would argue that Yoshimoto’s ability to address serious trauma with such a delicate touch is precisely why her writing continues to resonate with readers. Spending time with Dead-End Memories is like being assured by a close friend that bad things happen to everyone, but that everything will be okay in the end. Banana Yoshimoto’s stories are gentle and comforting and healing, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

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.