Diary of a Void is about a woman in her mid-thirties who lies about being pregnant and decides to run with it. Emi Yagi’s short novel isn’t quite a comedy, but it’s sharp and insightful and a lot of fun to read.
Shibata is a relatively normal person whose hobbies include going to live shows and drinking with friends. She works at a small distribution company that specializes in cardboard paper cores. Even though she’s been working at the company for a few years, her male colleagues still expect her to handle menial jobs such as making coffee and distributing mail. These chores are especially annoying when she’s trying to complete her actual work by a deadline, and she often ends up staying at the office until late in the evening.
Shibata is a full-time salaried employee, but her colleagues treat her like a part-time “office lady” simply because she happens to be female. She finally snaps when her manager stops by her desk and interrupts her to ask that she clear the dirty coffee cups from a meeting room. Why can’t the men in her office take their own coffee cups to the kitchen, Shibata wonders. If the manager has enough time to pester her, why can’t he pick up the cups himself? Why can’t he ask one of her junior colleagues?
After her manager bothers her about cleaning the cups one too many times, Shibata tells him that she’d prefer not to. The smell of cigarettes in the meeting room makes her nauseous, she says, because she’s pregnant. Not only does her manager take this statement seriously, but everyone in Shibata’s office suddenly starts treating her like a human being instead of a servant. She therefore decides to keep the lie going, a decision that seems less like a malicious falsehood and more of a reasonable survival strategy.
Despite the novel’s title, it’s hard to think of Shibata’s imagined pregnancy as a “void.” She applies for a maternity badge and keeps a pregnancy diary in order to lend credence to her story, but she’s not lying to herself. What Shibata is doing is finally leaving work early enough to cook dinner instead of scrounging for leftovers from the nearly-empty shelves of a late-night supermarket. She makes time for get-togethers with friends and subscribes to Amazon Prime to catch up on all the movies she’s always wanted to watch. She treats herself to nice meals on the weekends, and she makes friends at a local “mommy aerobics” class to stay in shape.
During the day, Shibata has an easier time at work, where her colleagues have finally started to make the effort to share the office chores. At night, she goes on long walks and reflects on her life and what it might mean to be a mother. Toward the end of the novel, Shibata encounters a friend from her aerobics class who has taken to walking with her sleepless infant late at night in order to prevent the baby from making noise. This exhausted woman delivers a cri de coeur about the state of motherhood in Japan, and every single word she says is true. I won’t spoil Shibata’s response, but it’s very good.
The author’s depiction of Japanese workplace culture is fascinating in its specificity while still being relatable to anyone who’s suffered through an office job, and the reader doesn’t have to be female to appreciate Shibata’s frustration with gendered double standards, which put the male characters in a number of awkward situations as well. In the end, Shibata isn’t a sage or a saint – she’s still the sort of morally dubious person who would lie about being pregnant. Some of Shibata’s takes on social issues aren’t great, and she occasionally comes off as unfairly judgmental, but her realness keeps her grounded as a narrator.
Save for a few choice depictions of clueless men at Shibata’s office and equally clueless expectant mothers, Diary of a Void isn’t particularly satirical or comedic, but nor is it heavy or depressing. Like Shibata herself, the reader occasionally has to run with the story of a fake pregnancy without asking too many questions. Still, Diary of a Void is an interesting journey with a fun ending. The novel resists sentimentality at every turn, and I found it gratifying that no life lessons are learned by Shibata or anyone else. Shibata is a great character, but the reader is the one who experiences a major change in perspective. Translators David Boyd and Lucy North convey Shibata’s dry wit and merciless observations with pitch-perfect tone and style, and the closing line is an absolute banger.
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.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa Normal people quietly go about their lives on a sleepy island where memories collectively vanish a bit at a time. But what happens to the people who can’t forget?
Masks by Fumiko Enchi Two cultured and handsome men compete for the affections of a beautiful young widow while her devious mother-in-law manipulates their relationships from the shadows.
The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is intrigued by the Woman in the Purple Skirt – so intrigued that she follows her every move and investigates every detail of her private life.
All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe Pursued by debt collectors, loan sharks, and yakuza henchmen, a woman vanishes, leaving behind a trail of false identities and broken lives.
The Eighth Day by Mitsuyo Kakuta A desperate woman, spurned by her married lover, kidnaps his child and goes on the run. Now an adult, the kidnapped child has no memory of this and must piece together what happened from interviews and newspaper clippings.
Penance by Kanae Minato A young girl is assaulted and killed in a small rural town, and the murderer is never caught. Years later, a series of letters from the girl’s mother forces her former friends to reflect on what they knew and what they could never tell anyone.
The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike A family moves into an inexpensive apartment next to a graveyard, but their hopes for a new life are shattered as strange and inexplicable things begin to happen in their building.
There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura A woman suffering from burnout leaves her white-collar position and goes to a temp agency, requesting that she be placed in an “easy” job. There’s no such thing as an easy job, however, and it stands to reason that companies who are desperate for temp workers have shady ulterior motives.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata An unmarried woman finds joy and meaning in the comfortable routine of working at a convenience store. When pressured by her family and friends to quit her job and find a partner, how far will she go to prove that she’s “normal”?
Real World by Natsuo Kirino A teenage boy from an affluent Tokyo suburb kills his mother in a fit of explosive rage. The friends of the girl next door decide to help him escape and gradually succumb to the darkness at the core of their seemingly perfect lives at a prestigious private high school.
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The illustration above is by James of ShelfWornDrawn, whose work can be found on Instagram (here) and on Tumblr (here). You can commission a portrait of your own library via his Etsy page (here).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Japanese Title: 獣の奏者 I 闘蛇編 (Kemono no sōja ichi: Tōda hen) and 獣の奏者 II 王獣編 (Kemono no sōja ni: Ōjū hen) Author: Nahoko Uehashi (上橋 菜穂子) Translator: Cathy Hirano Illustrator: Yuta Onoda Publication Year: 2006 (Japan); 2019 (United States) Publisher: Henry Holt Pages: 344
The Beast Player collects the first half of a four-book epic fantasy series set in a world of warrior kings and monsters. The story follows a young woman named Elin as she befriends a winged wolflike creature and attempts to save her kingdom from a cataclysmic disaster.
Elin’s mother Sohyon cares for serpentine megafauna called Toda, which serve as symbols of the authority of a tribe of warriors called the Aluhan. After an ailing Toda dies in her care, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death. Sohyon flees with her daughter and sacrifices herself so that Elin can escape on the back of a Toda. Upon waking in a far-away land, Elin is adopted by a reclusive scholar who keeps bees at his hermitage in the mountains. When he is called back to the capital, he offers to formally adopt Elin as his daughter, but she chooses to enroll in a school for people who care for creatures called Royal Beasts.
The bulk of The Beast Player is about Elin’s time as a student at this fantasy vet school. She bonds with an injured Royal Beast cub named Leelan and saves its life, which is nothing short of miraculous. As you can imagine from the name “Royal Beast,” these animals are politically important to the Yojeh, a matriarchy of priestess-queens. Both the Royal Beasts and the Toda are considered to be untamable and only controllable by means of brute force. Elin nevertheless discovers how to communicate with Leelan through music, just as her mother secretly communicated with Toda. This unfortunately puts Elin in a politically fraught situation. By the end of the novel, the twenty-year-old Elin has become unwillingly involved in a conspiracy over imperial succession, with a war between the Yojeh and the Aluhan looming on the horizon.
Although Elin is a child and teenager throughout most of the novel, The Beast Player is not middle-grade fiction. The story takes time to get started, and it’s not always easy to read. The first one hundred pages are filled with fantasy terms, names, and political factions that neither Elin nor the reader understands. Everything gradually begins to make sense, but only if the reader has enough patience to make it through the confusing and chaotic scenes at the beginning of the novel. Even as an adult reader, I found my head swimming with the fantasy politics at first, especially during the chapters that didn’t feature Elin. Once I made it through the opening salvo of decontextualized names and places and political titles, however, I fell in love with the world of the novel.
Elin is obviously a very special girl – the brightest witch of her age, one might say – but the adults are equally interesting characters. Joeun, the scholar who adopts Elin after her mother’s death, is a kind man who nurtures his young charge’s interest in the natural world. Esalu, the headmaster who administers the school attached to the Royal Beast Sanctuary, is just as curious and compassionate as Elin and risks both her career and her life to protect her student. Damiya, the Yojeh’s cousin who orchestrates a political coup, is suave and sinister and makes an excellent villain.
Cathy Hirano’s translation is nuanced and evocative and brings the small and vivid details of The Beast Player to life. Yuta Onoda’s spot illustrations are lovely as well. Neither the Toda nor the Royal Beasts are explicitly described in the text, and Onoda’s illustrations sketch a few hints of the animals while leaving them largely up to the reader’s imagination.
If you’re interested in getting a more precise visual sense of Elin’s world, a fifty-episode anime called Beast Player Erin (獣の奏者 エリン) was broadcast on NHK throughout 2009, and a manga drawn by Itoe Takemoto was serialized and collected in eleven volumes between 2008 and 2016. Although Beast Player Erin was briefly available on Crunchyroll, neither the anime nor the manga versions of the story are currently available in English.
I think it’s worth copying and pasting the Japanese title of the series into a search engine to get a glimpse of what these characters and their environments look like, especially if you’re an adult sharing the novel with a younger reader. The Beast Player is definitely “Asian” fantasy modeled on imperial China (with hints of Korea and Japan) instead of medieval Europe, and the characters’ costumes are quite interesting and colorful.
I also believe the reader’s understanding of the setting of the story will be greatly enhanced by seeing just how mountainous the terrain is supposed to be. One of the ongoing mysteries of the novel is the exact nature of the apocalypse that caused Erin’s people to hide the secret that communication with Royal Beasts and Toda is possible, and the revelation at the end of the book might be a little confusing if the reader isn’t able to envision the size and scale of the mountains bordering the Yojeh’s empire.
No prior cultural knowledge is necessary to enjoy The Beast Player, just a willingness to accept a slightly different style of fantasy, as well as the patience to wait as the threads of the story unspool at their own pace. The Beast Player won the Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence in young adult literature in 2020, and rightly so. The worldbuilding is marvelously detailed, the characters are sympathetic despite their flaws, and the fantastic creatures are suitably awe-inspiring.
Elin’s story continues in The Beast Warrior, which is a slightly more mature novel about adult protagonists in their thirties. I found The Beast Warrior extremely engaging and entertaining, and I would highly recommend this two-volume series to fans of epic fantasy grounded in the beauty and wonder of the real world.
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.
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.