The Memory Police

The Memory Police
Japanese Title: 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na kesshō)
Author: Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 274

The Memory Police is set on an island isolated from the rest of the world. The island is large enough to support a hospital, a university, and even a publishing company with a bustling lobby, but its community is small enough to be able to gather together for significant events. Like her parents before her, the narrator has lived on this island her entire life, and she takes its idiosyncrasies for granted.

The narrator’s island is cozy, with lovely bakeries and gardens. No one seems worried about money, and the narrator is able to live in a comfortable house despite the fact that the only work she does is writing novels that, by her own admission, no one reads. The novel focuses on the small details of everyday life, and it’s only gradually that the peacefulness and nostalgia of the narrative begin to unravel.

Every so often an object will “disappear.” Almost overnight, whatever has disappeared will not just vanish from the world, but from people’s memories as well. It’s never entirely clear how this works, but no one questions it. In some cases, such as perfume and photographs, the objects that disappear must be discarded, usually by means of being ritually thrown into a river or incinerated. In other cases, such as when the concept of “fruit” disappears, all the fruit on the island literally falls from the trees to the ground. Once something disappears, all perception of it disappears as well, and people aren’t able to recognize something that’s disappeared even if they’re looking at it. Even idiomatic expressions change, as in the case of “to hit two creatures with one stone” after birds disappear. The world of the narrator is limited, but her attention to detail is precise, so even small disappearances carry an emotional weight.

Some people don’t lose their memories, however, and this is where the eponymous memory police come in. This is also where the novel becomes dystopian, with midnight arrests, people suddenly going missing, families fleeing, and all records of these incidents buried deep within an impenetrable bureaucracy. The narrator’s mother, who worked as a sculptor and kept a variety of disappeared objects hidden in a cabinet, was an early casualty of the memory police, leaving the narrator an orphan.

The narrator gradually realizes that her editor is also immune to disappearances, and she resolves to keep him safe by hiding him in a sealed room in the basement of her house while his pregnant wife flees to a rural area north of the city, ostensibly for the sake for her health. As her editor continues to read and comment on her manuscript in secret, an intimacy develops between him and the narrator, which is reflected in the strange and surreal excerpts from her novel interspersed throughout the main story.

As the novel progresses, the rate of disappearances increases, an alarming trend that is exacerbated by environmental disaster. At the end of the story, the concept of “disappearances” is followed to its logical conclusion in an undeniably disturbing yet surprisingly soft and gentle manner.

The Memory Police is dystopian horror fiction reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s also a meditation on the ghosts that quietly follow us without ever attracting our notice. There may be no memory police in the real world, but we still forget things all the time, and we forget them so thoroughly that we don’t even realize we’ve forgotten them. The narrator is just as susceptible to these small disappearances as everyone else, but what sets her apart is that she understands the value of remembering and the importance of preservation. By maintaining a diversity of small narratives, the larger narrative represented by the memory police – namely, that which is not productive must be aggressively forgotten – can be resisted. The novel works on multiple levels as historical and political allegory, but it’s also universal and deeply personal.

The Memory Police was originally published in 1994, but it feels contemporary, fresh, and relevant. There are no specific cultural markers in the text, and most characters names are abbreviated as single letters, which confers an air of timelessness to the story. If any work of Japanese fiction might be recommended to a broad general audience with no knowledge of Japan, it would be this novel. The Memory Police is brilliant and extraordinary, and it refuses to be forgotten.

Killing Commendatore

Title: Killing Commendatore
Japanese Title: 騎士団長殺し (Kishidanchō Goroshi)
Author: Haruki Murakami (村上春樹)
Translators: Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 704

If you read Haruki Murakami’s 2010 novel 1Q84 and thought, “Wow! I could use more dream rape and magical wormhole pregnancy in my life,” then Killing Commendatore is bespoke tailored to your interests. If you’re put off by that sort of thing, you may be put off by more of the same in this novel, not to mention several detailed discussions of the bodies of 12-year-old girls from the perspective of an adult man. If you fall into either of these groups, you know who you are, and you probably already know how you feel about the new Murakami book. If you’re still undecided about whether to jump into a 700-page slipstream adventure, however, this review is for you.

I’ve read some intensely negative reviews of Killing Commendatore, but I don’t think the novel is all that bad. The weird and creepy sexual bits are indeed weird and creepy, but they’re really not that frequent, that important, or even that noticeable within the context of the larger story, which is about finding oneself and creating connections with other people through the struggle of artistic expression.

The nameless narrator is a 36-year-old painter who has separated from his wife, Yuzu. His friend from art school, Masahiko, offers to rent him a small villa in the hills of Kanagawa Prefecture that belonged to his father, a famous Japanese-style painter named Tomohiko Amada. The narrator, who left his apartment in Tokyo and now needs somewhere to live, takes Masahiko up on his offer. He also accepts a part-time teaching position at a local art center that Masahiko sets up for him.

The narrator specialized in abstract art in school, but he currently makes his living by painting the sorts of formal portraits that hang in a company president’s office. He’s quite good at it, and his commission fees have risen as he’s established a reputation for himself as a talented and reliable artist. When Yuzu tells him that she wants a divorce, he informs his agent that he will no longer accept portrait commissions, and he emphasizes this point by throwing away his cellphone. Unfortunately, once he is alone and untroubled in Tomohiko Amada’s isolated mountainside villa, he finds that he can no longer paint anything.

The narrator therefore spends his time doing what Murakami narrators tend to do, reading and cooking and listening to music, until one day he hears a sound in the attic. The commotion was caused by a harmless owl, but the incident leads the narrator to discover a painting that Tomohiko Amada hid without showing anyone, Killing Commendatore. The painting transposes a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni into the Asuka Period (552-645), and it fascinates the narrator, who takes it downstairs and puts it in his studio.

Before too much time passes, the narrator’s agent contacts him with a strange commission request. A man named Wataru Menshiki, who lives in a mansion across the valley from the narrator’s villa, wants his portrait painted, and he’s willing to pay a large sun of money for the privilege. The narrator is initially hesitant, but he enjoys Menshiki’s company, so he agrees. Menshiki retired from the tech industry after a lengthy court case, and he now lives a life of leisure and good taste, which the narrator appreciates. Although Menshiki isn’t a bad person, he does have an ulterior motive in pursuing a friendship with the narrator, and their relationship gradually grows more intense as Menshiki attempts to draw the narrator into a convoluted plot.

As an aside, I think it’s worth saying that many of the overtly sexual elements of Killing Commendatore are nothing more than window dressing. The narrator has a series of brief affairs while he’s separated from his wife, and he also has several conversations with a preteen art student who demands that he provide her with a frank evaluation of her physical appearance. All of this makes sense in context, and none of it ever really goes anywhere. In comparison, Menshiki’s long and drawn-out seduction of the narrator becomes genuinely erotic as the narrator’s attention is drawn to Menshiki’s eyes and hair and hands and smell. Both men are presumably straight, but the one truly dynamic relationship of the novel springs from the attraction between Menshiki and the narrator, not any of the heterosexual encounters either man has experienced, which are recounted without affect.

After the narrator spends more time with Menshiki and the Killing Commendatore painting, he begins to hear a bell ringing in the woods behind his house at night. He goes to investigate only to find that the sound is originating from under a pile of rocks in the woods. He tells Menshiki about the strange occurrence, and Menshiki hires a landscaper to bring in a bulldozer to remove the rocks, thereby uncovering a mysterious hole. There’s nothing in the hole aside from an old Buddhist ritual implement; but, later that evening, a two-foot-tall vision of the Commendatore from Tomohiko Amada’s painting shows up in the narrator’s studio speaking in riddles and claiming to be a metaphor. The narrator takes this in stride, as it doesn’t affect him much at all during the first half the novel, which focuses on the development of his relationship with Menshiki.

In the second half, the narrator’s preteen art student disappears into thin air, and he feels a sense of responsibility toward her. He intuits that the girl’s disappearance is somehow connected to Menshiki, who is somehow connected to Commendatore, who is somehow connected to Tomohiko Amada, who is somehow connected to the hole on his property. The exact nature of these connections is never made explicitly clear, but the narrator does end up going on an adventure to rescue the girl, in the process learning more about the old painter and his enigmatic neighbor.

I’ve read a few reviews that claim that the second half of Killing Commendatore is not as strong as the first, which is fair. Personally, however, I appreciate that Murakami leaves so much up to the reader’s interpretation, which may or may not be affected by a familiarity with the divided worlds and split personalities of the author’s other novels. Any homage to The Great Gatsby that may have been intended in the close friendship between the “everyman” narrator and the rich and ambitious yet slightly sinister Menshiki falls apart when both men start to spend more time in holes, which the reader can never quite tell are literal or metaphorical. As Menshiki says in reference to the pit in the narrator’s yard,

“Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.”

Killing Commendatore reminds me of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story, which is also about the deep strangeness of imagination. The truth both writers attempt to express is that the whole mess of artistic creation can be extraordinarily violent and disturbing, and that the process can sometimes result in a powerful sense of disconnect from consensus reality. Nevertheless, it’s still necessary to brave this unpleasantness in order to achieve personal growth. As Menshiki puts it,

“There’s a point in everybody’s life where they need a major transformation. And when that time comes you have to grab it by the tail. Grab it hard, and never let go. There are some people who are able to, and others who can’t. Tomohiko Amada was one who could.”

The major question of the novel is whether the narrator can become one of these people as well. Will he insist on clinging to the dreams of his youth while going nowhere? Will he embark on a series of random, half-hearted projects that he doesn’t really believe in? Will he keep painting portraits without changing his style? Will he, like Tomohiko Amada, create a masterpiece that’s too personal to show to anyone? Or will he be able to descend deeper into the well of his mind so that he can find a better way to communicate with people through his art? And, if he tries, what will happen to him if he fails? Just how large is his risk of becoming like Menshiki, whose shadow is so dark that the reader is never allowed to look at it directly?

I feel that Killing Commendatore can be read at two levels. The first level is a slipstream adventure saga complemented by a handsome, seductive, and sympathetic villain. The second level is a psychological profile of the creative process, which is frustrating and demanding and never straightforward. The first level is reminiscent of early Neil Gaiman without the overt elements of urban fantasy, but I found that the second level resonated more with me personally. Killing Commendatore isn’t 700 pages of pretentious navel gazing, however; there are ghosts and wayward girls and hauntings and mysteries and even a religious cult out in the woods with the narrator, and both halves of the novel are nothing if not compulsively readable.

Sweet Bean Paste

Title: Sweet Bean Paste
Japanese Title: あん (An)
Author: Durian Sukegawa (ドリアン助川)
Translators: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Pages: 216

Sweet Bean Paste is a novel about the trauma of discrimination and the stress of living in an unjust society, but the experience of reading it will help you remember the pleasure of being able to readjust your perspective, even if doing so is initially awkward and unpleasant.

Sentaro Tsujii is a young(ish) man who runs a stall called Doraharu that sells dorayaki, pancakes filled with sweet paste made from adzuki beans. Although Doraharu is owned by his former boss’s widow, Sentaro works by himself all day every single day of the year. When he finally decides to put up a “Help Wanted” announcement, a 76-year-old woman named Tokue Yoshii shows up and offers to work for only 200 yen an hour. Sentaro declines, thinking that he doesn’t want to be bothered by an old woman hanging around, but he quickly changes his mind when he tries her homemade red bean paste, which is unlike anything he’s ever tasted.

Doraharu is located in an open-air shopping arcade called Cherry Blossom Street, which is slowly losing foot traffic as customers gravitate to suburban shopping centers. Nevertheless, thanks to the deliciousness of the bean paste Sentaro makes with Tokue, the stall experiences a brief period of prosperity. It’s especially popular with students on their way home, and Tokue chats with the girls as she helps Sentaro. She becomes particularly friendly with an otherwise standoffish middle-school student named Wakana. Once Tokue finally draws Wakana out of her shell, the girl asks her about her hands, something Sentaro has wondered about as well.

Tokue reveals that she once had Hansen’s disease, and Sentaro realizes that she must live in Tenshoen, a sanitarium just outside of town. Until 1996, Hansen’s patients were secluded from the rest of society by law despite the fact that the illness has been cured and is no longer transmissible. When Wakana’s mother finds out who Tokue is and where she lives, however, she spreads the information around the community. The flow of business at Doraharu dries up, and Tokue voluntarily quits her job.

Sentaro served a prison sentence after being arrested in possession of recreational marijuana as a college student; and, as someone who was prevented from realizing the ambitions he held as a young man, he sympathizes with Tokue’s plight as a target of irrational discrimination. Wakana, a social outcast herself, regrets the part she’s played in how events have unfolded, and she agrees to accompany Sentaro on a trip to visit Tokue at Tenshoen, where they learn things about their community that they’d never suspected.

The savory center of Sweet Bean Paste is the slow development of the relationship between Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana, but the novel is ultimately about learning to find beauty and meaning in an unfair world despite knowing that some injustices may never be corrected. This theme occasionally results in a cloying level of sentimentality, but its emotional straightforwardness is balanced by the narrative itself, which offers no easy answers or conclusions.

Something I appreciate about Tokue is that, even though she’s a generally positive and upbeat person who doesn’t see herself as a victim, she expresses genuine sorrow and resentment at forces beyond her control, and the reader is occasionally made to feel uncomfortable in her presence. Meanwhile, Sentaro has a history of alcoholism and depression, and Sweet Bean Paste portrays the lived experience of these conditions with the respect and sensitivity it deserves. Although the novel doesn’t normalize illness, it humanizes it.

Sweet Bean Paste is not moralistic or didactic, however, and its major accomplishment is doing what all good fiction does, which is to allow the reader to experience the world from another point of view. Sukegawa excels at narrating from different positions while subtly shifting the reader’s viewpoint away from the emphasis on able-bodied “health” conveyed by so many aspects of mainstream culture and society. Readers looking for a happy ending may be disappointed, but the novel’s wholesomeness lies in its positive outlook on life. This is a small story about ordinary people, but it’s filled with hope and sweetness.

The Last Children of Tokyo

Title: The Last Children of Tokyo
Japanese Title: 献灯使 (Kentōshi)
Author: Yōko Tawada (多和田葉子)
Translator: Margaret Mitsutani
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2018 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 138

In the future – but not long in the future – Japan has secluded itself from the rest of the world. The environment is saturated with toxic substances, it’s dangerous to go near the sea, and most animals have disappeared from the wild. Humans still live on the Japanese archipelago, but their society has changed. Adults born in our own time live long lives and continue working well past their hundredth birthdays, while children born in the present of the novel have trouble retaining nutrients from food and are often too weak for sustained physical activity. Young and healthy people in their sixties and seventies do everything in their power to immigrate to Okinawa or the north of Japan, where agriculture still thrives, while Tokyo suffers from depopulation.

A novelist named Yoshiro still lives in Tokyo, where he cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei is fascinated by pictures of animals that have recently gone extinct, while Yoshiro similarly spends his time looking back on the gradual shifts and changes in Japanese society. Each of Yoshiro’s memories is a sustained flight of magical realism that often has very little to do with the conventions of science fiction or dystopian fantasy. The Last Children of Tokyo is not about social critique through the medium of apocalypse, nor does it have much of a plot. Rather, it’s a reflection of everyday life in contemporary Japan in a mirror that’s mostly accurate but has a few interesting distortions.

Some of these distortions offer a speculative interpretation of how daily life has changed as a result of Japan’s recent demographic shifts.

The names of some of the older holidays were changed: “Respect for the Aged Day” became “Encouragement for the Aged Day,” while “Children’s Day” was now “Apologize to Children Day”; “Sports Day” was changed to “Body Day” to avoid upsetting children who were not growing up big and strong; so as not to hurt the feelings of young people who wanted to work but simply weren’t strong enough, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.” (43-44)

Other distortions magnify current practices out of proportion, making them seem like harbingers of social collapse.

He heard the phrase “Baby Carriage Movement” from Marika for the first time. This was a movement to encourage mothers to push their baby carriages around town every day as long as the sun was shining. Mothers who woke up unbearably miserable every morning, feeling helpless, hungry, about to pee all over themselves with no one to help them, whether because of a moist, clammy dream they’d had the night before, or because being cooped up all day with a squalling infant stimulates memories of the mother’s own infancy, went out to push their baby carriages until they came to a coffee shop with a “baby carriage mark” in the window, where they would find books and magazines to read and other mothers to talk to. (67)

Nevertheless, Tokyo is still a center of population, and Yoshiro can’t bring himself to leave the city as social services crumble, public transportation breaks down, and people resort to eating weeds. Even in decline, it seems, Tokyo is still home to many vibrant communities.

Though Tokyo was now impoverished, new shops still bubbled up from the depths to open up like flowers; just sitting on a park bench, you never got tired of watching the people go by. Walking around the city made the gears in your brain start turning. People had begun to realize that these simple pleasures were the most delicious part of the fruit we call everyday life, which is why even though their houses were small and food was scarce, they still wanted to live in Tokyo. (60-61)

In The Last Children of Tokyo, the city of Tokyo is less of a physical location than it is a collection of people who, as a society, have developed a fascinating set of collective quirks. The novel has very little plot to speak of, allowing the reader to take in the sights as its narration slowly meanders between times and places. The last forty or so pages shift to Mumei’s perspective as he becomes involved in a secret plan to leave the Japan, but there’s no sense of urgency regarding the matter; and, like the rest of the novel, the ending is meant to be enjoyed for its atmosphere. Tawada’s writing is given form by its abstractions, most of which can be interpreted by the reader in multiple ways and pursued in multiple directions. As a result, The Last Children of Tokyo is neither a particularly hopeful nor a particularly grim novel. It’s an odd book and an entertaining thought experiment, and Tawada playfully invites her readers to join her on a journey through a Tokyo that doesn’t exist – at least, not yet.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Title: The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Japanese Title: 旅猫リポート (Tabineko ripōto)
Author: Hiro Arikawa (有川 浩)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2015 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 247

A man named Satoru Miyawaki is on a journey across Japan, visiting old friends as he looks for someone to adopt his pet cat, Nana. After Satoru’s parents died in a car accident, he went to live with his aunt Noriko, who moved for work every few years. Although he never stayed in one place for long, Satoru was able to make a number of close friends; and, as he drives north, he visits a friend from elementary school, a friend from middle school, and a pair of friends from high school. His final destination is Hokkaido, where his aunt has settled down.

Satoru adopted a stray cat after it was hit by a car, and he gives it the name Nana because a bend in its tail makes it look like the number 7 (nana in Japanese). As a former stray, Nana has his pride, but he decides to stay with Satoru because Satoru asks him respectfully if he wants to be his cat. The reader knows this because about half of the narration in The Travelling Cat Chronicles is from Nana’s perspective. As Satoru reconnects with old friends, Nana makes astute observations about their lives, their habits, and the nature of their relationships with Satoru. He also interacts with the pets of Satoru’s friends, who share insights of their own.

Satoru’s friend from elementary school, Kosuke, has taken over his father’s photography shop, but business isn’t doing well, and he’s separated from his wife. Satoru manages to convince Kosuke to follow his dreams, transition into pet photography, and reconcile with his wife by talking to her about adopting a cat of their own. The next person Satoru visits is Yoshimine, a friend from middle school who has left the city to become a farmer. Yoshimine has just adopted a kitten; and, in any case, he correctly suspects that Satoru doesn’t actually want to leave Nana behind. Afterwards, Satoru visits his high school friends Sugi and Chikako, who run a pet-friendly inn near Mount Fuji. Sugi and Chikako already have pets of their own, including a dog named Toramaru, who immediately takes a disliking to Nana. Needless to say, Nana is not adopted by anyone, which suits him just fine.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not so much a travelogue as it is a sustained reflection on Satoru’s childhood, which was shaped by his relationships with his friends, whom he bonded with over various incidents involving pets. All of Satoru’s memories are wholesome, and his friends are unfailingly kind. Nana is loyal and protective of Satoru, and he is a patient and considerate travel partner. When the pair finally arrives in Hokkaido, they encounter nothing but gorgeous green fields and delicious fresh foods. The reason Satoru feels that he can no longer care for Nana is sad (albeit predicable); but his aunt Noriko, who has always disliked cats, is a sweet and open-hearted person who learns to love and appreciate Nana.

The tone of The Travelling Cat Chronicles is warm and gentle, and both the humor and the tragedy of the novel are relatively light. It’s an easy novel to read, and its focus is on healing and the pleasures of living simply and in the moment. Some readers may find the story contrived and overly sentimental, and some pet owners may be disappointed by the lack of depth in the writer’s portrayal of the experience of living with a cat. Nevertheless, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a lovely story of friendship and the affection that people share with their companion animals. The watercolor chapter header images by Shuai Liu are a delightful addition to the English translation of Hiro Arikawa’s bestselling novel, a cinematic adaptation of which will arrive in Japanese theaters in October 2018 (link).

Convenience Store Woman

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Japanese Title: コンビニ人間 (Konbini ningen)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 163

Keiko Furukawa is 36 years old and has been working at the same convenience store for almost two decades. She loves the job, which suits her perfectly. Keiko has never fit in and constantly finds herself at a loss for how to talk with other people, but human interaction is governed by detailed rules and a prewritten script in the perfectly ordered world of the convenience store. “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated,” Keiko explains, adding that she appreciates this sense of distance from unnecessary social and emotional disturbances (60). The structured environment of the convenience store provides Keiko with a safe space in which she can perform work that she finds satisfying, meaningful, and helpful to other people.

At its core, Convenience Store Woman is a novella about the dignity of a job that many people find trivial and demeaning. Keiko takes obvious pride in the convenience store where she has worked since it opened eighteen years ago, and it’s not difficult to share her enthusiasm as she cheerfully describes seemingly banal tasks such as preparing food, restocking shelves, and greeting customers. Unlike the confusing and conflicting expectations imposed on her by the outside world, Keiko knows exactly what needs to be done in the convenience store, and she knows exactly when and how to do it. She often remarks on the feeling of satisfaction her experience and competence give her. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Keiko declares…

It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning. (4)

Keiko pays close attention to the smallest details of the self-contained environment of the store, and her keen powers of observation allow her to appreciate the personalities and behavioral quirks of the customers. She does not judge or discriminate against anyone who enters the store and does her best to unobtrusively ensure that they are comfortable. She applies the same keen focus of her attention to her coworkers, mimicking their comments and speech patterns so that they find her friendly, companionable, and – most importantly – normal.

Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have an overarching plot, but its story is propelled forward by small scenes of conflict resulting from the friction between Keiko’s contentment and the expectations of other people. A crucial incident occurs during a backyard barbeque during which the husbands of Keiko’s high school friends have too much to drink and start laying into her for remaining in the same dead-end job without getting married. “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects,” Keiko later rationalizes as she thinks back on the conversation. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of” (80). Keiko comes to the unfortunate realization that, by remaining unmarried and childless at 36, she has begun to stray so far outside of normative social expectations that she risks ostracization.

Partially because of this incident, Keiko feels pressured into inviting a thirty-something NEET named Shiraha to live in her apartment. Shiraha briefly worked at the same convenience store as Keiko but had been dismissed because of his poor performance. He had also, it turns out, been stalking some of the customers, and he continues to hang around the building even after he’s fired. Keiko views this as a threat to the harmony of the convenience store, so she takes it on herself to drag him to a family restaurant and try to talk sense into him. During this conversation, Shiraha echoes many of Keiko’s anxieties regarding social belonging, saying that he risks ostracization himself if he remains unmarried.

Although Shiraha is thoroughly unpleasant, Keiko invites him into her apartment and treats him like a pet, happy to tell the people in her life that a man has moved in with her. The circumstances aren’t ideal; but, as Keiko explains to the reader, “Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now” (94). The “impasse” Keiko faces has nothing to with wanting to advance in life; rather, the complications that arise from Shiraha’s presence trigger a crisis that forces Keiko to choose between becoming the person she is expected to be and her own unique sense of happiness.

Keiko reads as being on the autism spectrum, and her thought processes and behavioral patterns remind me a great deal of some of my friends and students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Keiko never explicitly identifies herself as being on the spectrum, however, and I get the impression that she would probably find the label distasteful. When she honestly informs a group of women that she has never been romantically attracted to anyone, they sympathetically respond that it’s become much more common and socially accepted to identify as asexual, and that they would understand if she were to come out as such, but Keiko finds this offensive.

I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. (37)

To Keiko, she is no one but herself, and she has no interest in serving as a representative for anyone else. Be that as it may, I think people who identify as asexual or on the autism spectrum will find a great deal of resonance in Keiko’s experience of being misunderstood and pressured to conform to arbitrary expectations, often “for her own good.” Toward the end of the story Keiko grows increasingly annoyed at the irrationality of the people who claim that they are trying to help her, including her own sister, who is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality – however messy – is far more comprehensible” (133). Regardless of Keiko’s opinion as the narrator of her own story, I feel that she does in fact perform advocacy, especially in her insistence that her personality and life choices are not a result of psychological trauma and that she is, in fact, healthy, happy, and strong.

In an enlightening interview with Fran Bigman at LitHub, Sayaka Murata talks about her own experiences of working as a convenience store cashier as she has continued to publish more than a dozen books during the past fifteen years. “For me and also for Keiko it is both a utopia and a dystopia,” Murata explains. “It is a utopia where you can make people happy, make friends, or feel less gendered.” Customers don’t have to put on an act (or fancy clothes or makeup) to walk into a convenience store, and foreign customers and employees are welcome. For an employee who is unwilling or unable to conform to corporate-dictated guidelines, a convenience store can be a dystopia, but clearly defined behavioral standards are exactly what Murata’s narrator needs in order to feel like a well-adjusted member of society. To anyone who’s ever felt that life might sometimes be a little easier if there were a rulebook, it’s easy to see the appeal of the utopian aspects of the convenience store environment.

Identity politics aside, Convenience Store Woman provides an entertaining glimpse into the mind and worldview of a fascinating character. Many parts of the novel are humorous, while others are uncomfortably cringe-inducing. More than any sort of social critique, however, Murata offers her readers finely detailed observations of the human beings inside a Japanese convenience store, which is a marvelous ecosystem unto itself.

A Small Charred Face

Title: A Small Charred Face
Japanese Title: ほんとうの花を見せにきた (Hontō no hana o mise ni kita)
Author: Kazuki Sakuraba (桜庭 一樹)
Translator: Jocelyn Allen
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 239

A Small Charred Face is a collection of three interconnected stories about vampires and the humans who love them. These vampires sleep during the day, fly by night, feed on human blood, can’t see their reflections, and never age during their 120-year lifespan. They also smell like grass and burst into bloom at the end of their lives, and they are called Bamboo. Their laws forbid them from befriending humans, but sometimes an outsider, alone and destitute on the margins of society, manages to catch the attention and the heart of a Bamboo.

The first and longest story, which frames the other two stories in the book, is “A Small Charred Face.” The story begins with horrific violence, with the narrator, a boy named Kyo, trying to escape a criminal organization that has just raped and killed his mother and sister. A Bamboo appears, hoping to feed on the bodies, but it ends up rescuing Kyo instead. The Bamboo, a young man named Mustah, takes him home to a seaside cottage where he lives with his partner Yoji. Kyo, who has grown up in wealth and privilege, is forced to adapt to life in the impoverished community, and Mushtah and Yoji convince him to disguise himself as a girl so that the people who killed his family won’t find him. Growing up as a girl in a household with two vampire fathers in a neighborhood ravaged by economic inequality, Kyo actually manages to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, but problems arise when a period of adolescent rebellion brings him to the attention of other Bamboo, who will not tolerate their existence becoming known to humans.

The second story (and the title story of the original Japanese publication), “I Came to Show You Real Flowers,” follows Marika, a female Bamboo from “A Small Charred Face,” several decades after her life intersects with Kyo’s story. Marika was transformed into a Bamboo when she was a teenager, so her mind and body remain those of a young woman. Marika adopts a human girl named Momo who has nowhere else to go, and together the two of them enact revenge on the men who prey on the weak and defenseless, which Momo luring them into a secluded spot so that Marika can swoop down, break their necks, and eat them. As Momo grows older, however, she begins to grow weary of being constantly on the run and surrounded by violence.

The third story, “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” is the origin story of Ruirui, who will go on to lead a group of Bamboo immigrants from China to Japan. This story is narrated from the perspective of Ruirui’s older sister, the fifth child of the Bamboo royal family. This nameless young woman describes how the Bamboo are respected and revered in the small and isolated rural community that surrounds their castle in the mountains, and how the princes and princesses are carefully brought up according to Confucian tradition. All of this changes with the Cultural Revolution, however, which brings outsiders to the village and spreads distrust among the villagers. Anyone who deviates from the narrow ideology of the Communist Party must be struck down for the good of the people, so even the seemingly invincible Bamboo find themselves is terrible danger.

Kazuki Sakuraba began her career by writing light novels; and, although A Small Charred Face contains scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault, it still feels like young adult fiction in many ways. The narrators are children (or have the minds of children), and their worldview is correspondingly myopic. Although the third story occurs during the Cultural Revolution, it’s difficult to ascertain when the first two stories are set. They might be set in the present, or in the near future, or at the end of the twenty-first century. Technology is never mentioned, nor are any events that would have led to the circumstances under which Kyo and Marika lost their families. What is “the Organization” that goes around murdering and raping women and children, and why doesn’t anyone have a cellphone? Is the story set in an alternate universe in which Japan descended into chaos at some point during the twentieth century; and, if so, what happened? Unfortunately, the narrators are not interested in anything other than their own teenage emotional drama, so they don’t even hint at the state of the society outside of their own circle of acquaintances. Meanwhile, they simply take it for granted that the people around them are routinely raped and murdered as a matter of course. The stories also decline to explore the nature and culture of the Bamboo, and there’s only a bare minimum of worldbuilding and trope exploration.

As frustrating as these limitations may be, I think they’re fair. The reader can only speculate about what happened to Japan in this fictional universe, but the Cultural Revolution was very real, and there’s no reason a fourteen-year-old who survived something like that would be able to understand the larger geopolitical currents that resulted in everyone around them being suddenly being dragged out into the street and killed. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched to think that something like this could happen in Japan – or that it could happen anywhere, for that matter.

What A Small Charred Face does – and what it does very well – is to allow the reader to share the experience of living on the absolute margins of society as an outsider. The vampires in these stories are a metaphor for difference, of course, but this metaphor is far from abstract. The Bamboo are openly in same-sex relationships, and they are openly immigrants, openly working awful night-shift jobs, and openly in economically precarious positions. Mustah is Brazilian, Yoji is Chinese, and Ruirui is a political refugee. Although these characters live in hand-to-mouth circumstances, none of them threatens Japanese society. On the contrary, they provide the love, hope, and comfort that Japanese society is not able to offer to its own children. Yes, the Bamboo are literal vampires who feed on the blood of humans, but the majority of them obtain the blood they need by working in healthcare-related industries, especially those that force people to work awful hours and don’t pay well. Given Japan’s aging population and the severity of its healthcare crisis, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I’m not generally a fan of young adult fiction, especially when it intersects the genre of supernatural romance, and I was not expecting to be as deeply moved by A Small Charred Face as I was. Sakuraba stages a trenchant social critique within the dystopian environment she has created for her vampires, but her characters are beautifully realized and full of heart. Their flaws are relatable, their kindness is believable, and their unhappy endings are a consequence of the profound injustices of our own world. If you believe in the transformative potential of young adult novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent, then I cannot recommend A Small Charred Face highly enough. And if you love monsters and see their difference as a reflection of your own, please rest assured that the gay romance in these stories is treated with sensitivity, as are feminist politics and gender fluidity.