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.

GO

Title: GO
Japanese Title: GO
Author: Kazuki Kaneshiro (金城 一紀)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2000 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 165

GO is an unabashedly sincere adolescent power fantasy. The novel’s teenage protagonist and first-person narrator, Sugihara, is not only intelligent and an intellectual, he’s also a powerhouse in a fight and respected by the other boys in his school. He reads weighty philosophical books and has an astounding knowledge of music and movies. A beautiful and popular girl named Sakurai is head-over-heels in love with him and has been since she first saw him. His father, an independent businessman and grizzled former boxer, treats him as an equal, and his mother and her friends adore him. Sugihara isn’t gay, but all of his close male friends still ask him out on dates and would do anything for him. There’s just something special about Sugihara, who is the perfect idealization of the teenage boy we’d like to think that we were or could have been.

The plot of GO is exceedingly simple. Sugihara switches schools between middle and high school, struggles to fit in to the new school’s culture, meets a beautiful girl and falls in love, starts studying to get into a good university, encounters a problem in his romantic relationship that leads to tension in his family life, overcomes his conflict with his father in a cathartic argument, and is then approached by his girlfriend with a sincere apology that repairs their relationship.

What makes GO interesting and worth reading, however, is the fact Sugihara is a Zainichi Korean, a person born and raised in Japan by Japanese-speaking parents who is not, legally speaking, Japanese.

Sugihara and his family begin the novel as Chōsenjin, or Zainichi Koreans who hold North Korean citizenship. Although his father was born on Jeju Island in South Korea, he was an active member of the North Korean Marxist Chongryon organization for most of his life and declared his family’s citizenship accordingly. The family officially switches their citizenship to South Korea when Sugihara is fourteen because his mother wants to visit Hawaii. Of course they can’t travel to the United States with North Korean passports, so they join the Mindan, the organization for South Korean residents.

Sugihara’s citizenship changes along with that of his family, but he wants nothing to do with what he calls “their Hawaii adventure.” What he decides to do instead is attend a Japanese high school. Up until that point he had gone to a Korean high school run by the Chongryon, where (male) students are given a strict Marxist education. Sugihara doesn’t care anything for Hawaii, but his citizenship changing overnight sparks a desire to be a part of the wider world. In his mind, this needs to start with attending a mainstream Japanese university. To do so, he needs to enter a Japanese high school, so he studies his butt off and, to the surprise of his classmates and the infuriation of his Chōsenjin teachers, he passes.

When he was younger, Sugihara toughened his fists against the Japanese boys who would chase after Koreans trying to pick fights, and he manages to earn the respect of his classmates at his Japanese high school by beating up a student who tries to pick a fight with him there. This student ends up being a yakuza boss’s son, and his defeat causes him to respect Sugihara as a peer. It’s at one of this young man’s lavish birthday parties that Sugihara meets Sakurai, who had once seen him playing basketball and decided to pursue him. Their relationship proceeds relatively normally, but Sugihara can’t quite bring himself to tell Sakurai and her family that he’s not actually Japanese.

I have to admit that I’m of two minds about this novel.

On one hand, I think Sugihara is obnoxious, and the story he tells about himself is utterly contrived. Every time a conflict arises, Sugihara handles it by being A Super Cool Guy™, which isn’t particularly interesting in terms of plot or character development. I’m also not a fan of Sugihara’s narcissism, which is so overwhelming that it doesn’t leave any room for him to acknowledge that any of the other characters might have an interior life of their own. Sugihara’s relationship with his girlfriend, for example, mainly consists of him lecturing her on his taste in entertainment media. When she expresses an extremely racist viewpoint at a critical moment, there is absolutely no reason for her to have done so save that her entire function is to serve as a plot device in a story that revolves entirely around Sugihara.

On the other hand, the author provides plenty of context for Sugihara’s bravado, citing numerous instances of discrimination that Sugihara and his family have to deal with within Japanese society, a difficult situation that isn’t made any easier by the harsh emphasis on ideological purity within the Chōsenjin community. If everything in Sugihara’s society is telling him that he’s literal garbage, can’t he be forgiven at least a little for indulging in a power fantasy as he narrates his own life?

Interspersed throughout Sugihara’s personal story of how he’s awesome and smart and tough and attractive is the story of his family circumstances. This secondary story begins at the start of the novel…

My father came to Japan with a brother who was two years younger than he was. This brother – my uncle, that is – returned to North Korea during the repatriation campaign that began in the late 1950s. The campaign essentially touted North Korea as an “earthly paradise,” encouraging persecuted North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland and forge a life with their compatriots. At the time, most North Koreans had a vague suspicion that nothing good ever came out of anything called a campaign, but thinking it might be better than Japan, where they faced discrimination and poverty, many went back to North Korea anyway. My uncle was among them. (5)

…and reaches something resembling a conclusion when Sugihara gets in a fistfight with his father after his girlfriend dumps him. To me at least, Sugihara’s parents are far more interesting characters than he is, and his relationship with his father is much more compelling than his relationship with Sakurai. Sakurai is a one-note airheaded racist because teenage girls only exist as plot devices, but Sugihara’s father provides a much more nuanced portrayal of the subtle tensions and outright conflict that can arise between national, ethnic, and personal identities.

As someone who belongs to a culture where immigrant literature is an established genre, it was an interesting experience for me to read the story of a second-generation immigrant in a society that is known for its relative ethnic homogeneity. I’ve encountered numerous discussions relating to Zainichi Koreans, but I’ve never read anything quite like GO. Kazuki Kaneshiro, a Zainichi Korean himself, is writing from a firsthand perspective, and his narrator’s deliberate resistance to received narratives about who Zainichi Koreans are and what their place in Japan is supposed to be is extremely powerful.

I suppose that GO can be read as a story of star-crossed lovers, but the relationships with the most emotional impact involve the friendships between high school boys, the frustrated affections between different generations within immigrant families, the misunderstandings between different socioeconomic classes, and the historical tensions between Korea and Japan. If you can get past the casual sexism of the central love story, GO has a lot to offer anyone interested in international literature or, more broadly speaking, coming-of-age stories in general. If nothing else, its narrator’s triumphantly oppositional attitude and cheerfully competitive shōnen manga-style life narrative is a refreshing alternative to more serious literary depictions of the helpless pathos and dysfunctionality of immigrant communities in Japan.

The Great Passage

Title: The Great Passage
Japanese Title: Fune o amu (船を編む)
Author: Shion Miura (三浦 しをん)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 2017 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 217

The Great Passage is one of the kindest and most gentle books I’ve read during the past year. Despite the fact that it tells the story of a seemingly tedious enterprise, namely, the compellation of a dictionary, I found myself blazing through the novel because I had to find out whether or not the editors would manage to get their dictionary published. I then went back and read the book again so that I could take my time enjoying the quality of the writing and the translation.

The novel’s story is centered around Mitsuya Majime, a man who loves words but has trouble communicating with other people. Majime is initially placed into the Sales Department of Gembu Books, a large publisher based in Tokyo, but he flounders there like a fish out of water. His ineptitude comes to the attention of Masashi Nishioka, an extroverted and smooth-talking young man who, through a strange twist of fate, has been assigned to the Dictionary Editorial Department. Nishioka brings Majime to the attention of Kohei Araki, the editorial section chief, who immediately heads over to the Sales Department, notices Majime as soon as he steps into the room, and hires him on the spot.

By the end of the first chapter of The Great Passage, a dream team has been assembled. Majime is a philologist who is more than happy to check and double-check words and definitions, Nishioka recruits experts to write definitions for specialist words and placates the egos of grumpy professors, and Araki oversees the minutiae of editorial operations while running interference with the corporate bosses. Also on the team are Professor Matsumoto, an elderly academic who has devoted his life to the creation of a new dictionary, and Mrs. Sasaki, who is nominally an administrative assistant but pulls her weight around the office by picking up the slack of her male colleagues.

As Majime and his new coworkers deal with the mundane work and bureaucratic challenges involved in the compilation of a dictionary, a love story unfolds between Majime and a young chef named Kaguya, who lives in the same communal boarding house where Majime has rented a small room since college. Both Majime and Kaguya are shy and serious people, but they’re able to bond with each other through the auspices of Také, their chatty landlady, and Tora, the large tomcat that roams through the building at night. The couple is well-suited to one another, and their romance progresses quietly and without incident – with one major exception.

Majime, unsure of how to confess his feelings to Kaguya, decides to write her a love letter. As might be expected of the sort of person whose life’s passion is dictionary editing, his love letter is a garbled mess of rare words and convoluted literary allusions. Majime allows his extroverted colleague Nishioka to read the letter; and, although he tells Majime that the letter is perfect as it is, it causes Nishioka no small amount of amusement. It’s partially because of this ridiculous letter that Nishioka begins to feel a protective affection for Majime and resolves to do everything in his power to aid the budding dictionary editor in his goals. Later on in the story, when Nishioka is transferred to another department, he leaves a copy of the letter hidden in the dictionary editorial office so that his successor, a stylish young woman named Kishibe, will be better able to understand and appreciate Majime’s quirky but earnest personality. At the end of The Great Passage, after the main story concludes, there is a nine-page abbreviated excerpt of this letter with humorous annotations from Nishioka and Kishibe that are overflowing with silly jokes and heartfelt goodwill.

The dictionary itself, titled Daitōkai (translated as “The Great Passage”), eventually emerges as its own unique character in the story. The editorial staff regularly meets to discuss what sort of material belongs in an effective dictionary, as well as how an ideal definition should be structured. Unlike the numerous Japanese dictionaries that will have proceeded Daitōkai, Majime and his colleagues want their work to accurately reflect the concerns and interests of the people who live in contemporary Japan. To give an example…

“Dictionaries do tend to be written from the male perspective,” Professor Matsumoto said mildly. “They’re mostly put together by men, so they often lack words having to do with fashion and housework, for example. But that approach won’t work anymore. The ideal dictionary is one that everyone can join in using together, men and women of all ages, interested in all matters of life.” (34)

There is also some light discussion regarding the constructed nature of gender and sexuality implicit in certain words, and the staff ultimately takes a progressive view on many issues. They conclude, for example, that “love” need not be defined as the romantic attraction between a “man” and a “woman.” Kishibe, who initially worked in the editorial department of a women’s lifestyle magazine, is surprised to have been transferred to the staff of a dictionary, but she quickly realizes that what she considered to be common knowledge for a young professional woman serves as a valuable area of expertise to a staff largely comprised of middle-aged men. As she begins to devote herself to the project, Kishibe gains a mounting sense of appreciation for the endeavor…

Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago – a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart… Words gave things form so that they could rise out of the dark sea. (164)

Special mention must also be made of the fine work of the translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter. The conversations surrounding Japanese words, their synonyms, and their cultural contexts never feel awkward or forced, and even a reader with no familiarity of Japanese language and culture will be able to enjoy the linguistic play and fine distinctions of meaning. Moreover, the oddities of Japanese corporate culture are glossed over masterfully so that the reader is able to understand the relationships and tensions between professionals without getting bogged down in a mire of titles and hierarchies and formal modes of address.

Although The Great Passage may seem like a novel that will only be of interest to a niche audience, its appeal is far more expansive. This is a book for people who love words. It’s a book for people who love reading. It’s a book for people who love translation. And, in the end, The Great Passage is a celebration of people who love books.

Oh, and also! The novel was adapted into an anime, which is available in the United States through Amazon’s streaming service.

Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.

Ms Ice Sandwich

Title: Ms Ice Sandwich
Japanese Title: ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Misu Aisu Sandoicchi)
Author: Mieko Kawakami (川上 未映子)
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 92

Ms Ice Sandwich is a novella that gradually opens a door into the interior world of its protagonist, a boy living with his mother and grandmother in a commuter suburb. This boy is fascinated by a woman who sells sandwiches at the grocery store outside the train station, whom he calls “Ms Ice Sandwich” because of the ice-blue eyeshadow she always wears. Her makeup emphasizes her eyes, which she has had surgically altered to appear larger. The narrator, who is a strange little kid, becomes preoccupied with trying to capture Ms Ice Sandwich in art, obsessively drawing her facial features line by line and eyelash by eyelash.

The boy also gravitates toward Tutti, a girl in his class who was given this nickname (by the narrator himself, no less) after she once farted in class. Like the boy, Tutti is a bit strange, and she’s obsessed with gunfights. The boy learns that she lives alone with her father, who has filled their apartment with shelves of DVDs and makes time to sit down and watch a movie with her every week. Tutti’s love of gunfights stems from her interest in cinematic choreography, and the boy appreciates her ability to mimic calmness in the face of danger in the same way that he’s awed by the no-nonsense attitude of Ms Ice Sandwich in the face of customer rudeness.

Meanwhile, the boy’s mother is a weird one herself. Although the boy isn’t entirely sure what she does, she seems to be a self-employed spiritualist and fortune teller, and she’s recently had part of their house remodeled to resemble a caricature of a Western palace complete with a red carpet, foreign furniture, heavy curtains, and statues of angels. While the boy’s grandmother is bedridden in the back of the house, his mother spends an inordinate amount of time online, typing on her phone even when she’s out shopping. Like Tutti and Ms Ice Sandwich, however, the boy’s mother isn’t actually a bad person, and she loves her son in her own way.

The boy is perhaps ten or eleven years old, and Kawakami’s first-person narration skillfully captures his close attention to small and seemingly insignificant details, which are contrasted against a larger cluelessness concerning how the world works. The narrator doesn’t really know what’s going on with his mom, or his grandmother, or Tutti’s dad, or even Ms Ice Sandwich, but he nevertheless observes them with care and compassion. He is content to observe the movements of the people in his life until Tutti startles him out of his passivity, saying,

“When you say see you tomorrow to someone, it’s because you’re going to keep seeing them. It’s like at school you see everybody because they go to school every day. But when you graduate and you don’t go to school anymore, it stops and you don’t see everybody any more. If you want to see somebody, you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them any more. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.” (75)

Ms Ice Sandwich has no real plot or denouement, but Tutti’s words spark a small but significant shift in the narrator’s worldview that allows him to more fully appreciate the fact that his mother, his grandmother, and Ms Ice Sandwich all have lives that exist independently of his presence. Judging from the cover copy it might seem as if this is a novella about a boy’s sexual awakening, but the story actually hinges on a far more subtle emotional revelation. Thankfully, the narrator’s perspective is so singular and well-crafted that Ms Ice Sandwich‘s message about the ephemerality of human connection is never in any danger of becoming trite and sentimental.

According to the colophon, “This piece was published in the literary journal Shincho first in 2013, and in 2014 it was included in the novel Akogare, which is a combination of two stories: ‘Miss Ice Sandwich’ and ‘Strawberry Jam Minus Strawberry.'” At roughly ninety pages, Ms Ice Sandwich is short enough to read in one sitting, but it’s still substantial enough to feel like a self-contained world. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and I’m impressed by the fantastic work that Pushkin Press has put into its ongoing series of translations of quirky Japanese novellas.

your name.

Content warning: discussion of body swapping, gender dysmorphia, and social dysmorphia

Title: your name.
Japanese Title: 君の名は。(Kimi no na wa.)
Author: Makoto Shinkai (新海誠)
Translator: Taylor Engel
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 192

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

your name. is a novelization of director Makoto Shinkai’s your name., an animated film that tells the story of Mitsuha, a high school girl from rural Gifu prefecture who wishes she could be a boy in Tokyo in her next life. After an incredibly vivid dream in which she wakes up as Taki, a high school boy living in downtown Tokyo, she discovers it’s not a dream at all – and Taki is also switching bodies with her. As the two teenagers try to navigate each other’s lives and relationships, only able to communicate with each other by writing notes in each other’s cell phones when they switch, they begin to unravel a mystery involving Mitsuha’s town.

First, a note about the style of the book: the film was not created for an unfinished book series, nor was it a post-release novelization. Rather, the novel was written in the late stages of the film’s production but released before the film debuted in Japan. In his afterword, Shinkai writes,

In other words, it’s a novelization of the movie, but actually, as I’m writing this afterword, the movie hasn’t been finished yet. They tell me it will take another three months or so to complete. That means the novel will go out into the world first, so if you asked me which is the original work, the movie or the novel, I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” (Kindle location 2177)

As a result, the novel doesn’t have to backfill the character’s internal monologue, nor does the film have to focus on getting the characters’ internal dialogue to come across visually; both works fill in gaps in the other.

The film’s biggest strength is, by and large, bringing the imagery and emotions of the characters to life. In a film, narrative exposition can get in the way of acting and using visual cues to explain emotions of the characters. While the movie is heavily visual and expresses the subtlety of its characters’ emotions by showing instead of telling, the novel (as well as the translation) gets off to a rough start because the writing style is overly descriptive in light novel/YA novel fashion. Shinkai’s attempts to describe physical reactions and facial expressions while simultaneously describing the characters’ underlying emotions sometimes make the opening chapters seem clunky. However, the novella really hits its stride after the third chapter. With the difficulty of the exposition out of the way and the setting and characters established, Shinkai’s writing shines and the pace picks up.

What I really love about the book, in addition to the mystery of why Taki and Mitsuha start and stop switching bodies, is how both characters come to experience themselves differently because of swapping bodies. Mitsuha gets to explore her sexuality – she, not Taki, is the one that sets up the date with his coworker Okudera-senpai in the hopes that she herself will get to go on it as Taki. This is a contrast to a common plot line in body-swap fiction: that one of the two swapped people has a date and is scared of being expected to kiss or have sex with the other person’s partner for a variety of reasons, chiefly the consent of all three parties.

Another body-swap trope that Shinkai averts is that Taki doesn’t learn to be more emotional just by being in Mitsuha’s body. Instead, he learns from her actions, especially how she treats Okudera-senpai while in his body. Eventually, he says, he’s given up on pretending to be her and just acts like himself when he’s in her body, though he notices that he has her memories and that he experiences emotional and visceral reactions to people in her life, such as feeling comforted by seeing her grandmother and friends and angry when meeting her father.

The book also deals with a number of existential questions. For example, what is consciousness and how tied to ones body is it? Does the spirit live on apart from the body? Related, but not explicitly spelled out, is to what degree sexuality and gender identity are consciousness or a physical body. As a queer nonbinary person who experiences social dysphoria (being read as the wrong gender in social contexts) but not usually body dysmorphia (the feeling that something about your body is wrong), the book and film versions of your name. raised a lot of questions for me. Would I experience body dysmorphia if my body looked differently than it does? Would I experience body dysmorphia if I woke up in someone else’s body? Would I experience social dysphoria to be called by the wrong pronouns but not the ones I was assigned at birth? Would it matter if the other person were built similarly to me or if they had a very different body shape? If I were in a binary person’s body, would it be weird to be called by the wrong pronouns? For cisgender people, who have the luxury of knowing their own gender and rarely have their gender questioned, would swapping bodies seem awkward but not dysmorphic or dysphoric?

Moreover, Taki and Mitsuha are two thin, conventionally attractive, and able-bodied cisgender teenagers. How would the narrative vary if one of them had a disability, or if one were trans or openly queer, or much younger or older? (For example, what if Taki and Mitsuha’s grandmother switched places?) your name. doesn’t answer Taki’s questions about memory or mine about gender, but the gentle manner in which it raises these questions is less of an existential crisis and more of a catalyst for self-reflection.

Along with the human characters, Mitsuha’s hometown Itomori is practically a character itself. Itomori is based on the city of Hida in Gifu prefecture, which is one of my favorite vacation spots. The descriptions of the town in the book and the visualization of the town in the film are vivid and gorgeously rendered, taking me right back to traveling to Hida-Takayama in the fall. While Mitsuha hates Itomori and dreams of moving to Tokyo, Shinkai avoids both painting rural Japan as either superior or inferior to urban Japan. Mitsuha’s complaints are ones many young people have: there are not many jobs, there are no cafes or places to hang out, and everyone knows your business, especially when your family is heavily involved in town politics (her estranged father is the mayor) and religious life (she and her sister are shrine maidens at her grandmother’s family shrine). However, there is merit in the traditions of the town, which preserve not just history for history’s sake, but important cultural and historical information.

Mitsuha’s grandmother, who is the head of the town shrine, repeatedly tells Mitsuha and her younger sister Yotsuha that the meaning underlying the shrine dances, braided cords, and festival rituals were lost when the original shrine and all its old records were destroyed in a fire two hundred years ago. What Taki realizes when he drinks ritual sake at a sacred location deeper in the mountains is that the braided cords and dances all told the story of how a meteorite created the crater lake in Itomori and destroyed the town a thousand years ago. With the records gone, the rituals survived without meaning, and this lacuna between history and folklore becomes crucial to the plot of Mitsuha and Taki’s story. As Shinkai’s focus expands beyond the two teenagers out into the larger environment they inhabit, I thought about not just the local dances of the places I had lived in and visited but also the tsunami markers on Aneyoshi.

your name., while not perfect, is an easy fantasy read that deals with open-ended questions of gender, memory, and rural depopulation. If possible, I recommend reading the novel as well as watching the movie, as Shinkai’s prose exploration of Mitsuha and Taki’s interiority complements and deepens the impact of the gorgeous artistry of his film.


L.M. Zoller is a nonbinary writer and former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. All zir favorite manga and anime seem to involve gender fluidity and sword fighting. Ze blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

The Nakano Thrift Shop

Title: The Nakano Thrift Shop
Japanese Title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudōgu Nakano Shoten)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop, which is run by a middle-aged man named, unsurprisingly, Mr. Nakano. While she watches the store and works the till, a young man around her age, Takeo, accompanies Mr. Nakano on buying trips. The trio is occasionally visited by Mr. Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist of independent means. The twelve loosely connected stories in The Nakano Thrift Shop are about the strange and silly things that happen to this odd group of characters, whose small dramas for the most part seem to exist outside of the specifics of time and place.

Hitomi is short-tempered and cagey, Takeo is passive and uncommunicative, and Masayo is chatty and expansive, but it is the stubborn and befuddled Mr. Nakano whose mishaps and shenanigans serve as the focal point or punchline of each story. In the second story, “Paperweight,” Mr. Nakano bribes Hitomi to go visit Masayo and get gossip about her new lover, which sparks a friendship between the two women. In the third story, “Bus,” Mr. Nakano travels to Hokkaido on a buying trip and becomes involved in a one-sided love affair, amusing Hitomi with the messages he sends back to the shop. In other stories, an unusual customer provides a break from the store’s daily routine. For example, in the ninth story, “Bowl,” a young man tries to get rid of a valuable antique bowl, which he believes has been cursed by an ex-girlfriend. The Nakano Thrift Shop is more of a downmarket store, so Masayo forces Mr. Nakano to pass the bowl over to a specialist ceramics dealer with whom he happens to be in the process of breaking off a romantic relationship.

Over the course of the book, Hitomi enters into a romantic relationship of her own with Takeo. This romance never makes much progress, however, as Hitomi demands action and attention while Takeo doesn’t like talking on the phone and is content simply to allow life to happen to him. Like everything in The Nakano Thrift Shop, their relationship is lowkey and laidback, and it ebbs and flows without any sort of drama.

For the reader, the pleasure of these stories lies in peeking into the lives of these characters as they drift through the changing seasons while comfortable in the stability of their friendships. Even though unusual things occasionally happen, no one is ever strongly affected by these events. For instance, in the first story, “Rectangular #2,” an odd man named Takadokoro comes into the store to sell artistic nude photos. Masayo tells Hitomi that the pictures are of Takadoroko’s former student. Takadokoro has the potential to be a truly creepy (or pathetic) character, but the warm narrative tone of The Nakano Thrift Shop treats him as just another person in the neighborhood. He doesn’t bother anyone, and no one is bothered by him. After all, everyone is a little weird once you get to know them.

In the final story, “Punch Ball,” the Nakano shop has closed, and the characters have all gone their separate ways. Hitomi takes various office jobs as a temp worker while she studies for her bookkeeping certification exam. Her current distance from the carefree atmosphere that suffused the earlier stories puts them into perspective, and her former freedom from the pressures of the corporate world now seems much more meaningful. Now that she spends her days sitting at a desk in front of a computer, social interactions are no longer improvised and unique, and friendships are no longer so easily formed. There’s a playful innocence to Hitomi’s time in the Nakano shop that only becomes apparent in retrospect.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a short and pleasant book that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Briefcase (which was published as Strange Weather in Tokyo in the UK). Although it’s a wide leap removed from the darker themes and imagery of some of Kawakami’s other work that has appeared in translation, it’s mercifully free of the sentimentality and melodrama of Yoshimoto Banana novels. As Hitomi seems to be in her mid to late twenties, it’s up for debate whether The Nakano Thrift Shop can be classified as “girls’ literature” (shōjo shōsetsu), but reading these stories conveys a vicarious sense of what it feels like to be a young woman chilling out and having fun in a trendy Tokyo suburb.

Syndrome

Title: Syndrome
Japanese Title: シンドローム (Shindorōmu)
Author: Satō Tetsuya (佐藤 哲也)
Illustrator: Nishimura Tsuchika (西村ツチカ)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fukuinkan Shoten
Pages: 315

This guest review is written by Max Rivera (@makkusutl on Twitter).

Thanks to a recommendation from a writer whose work I follow closely, I had the pleasure of reading this tiny monster of a book, whose story is comprised of elements widely regarded as “classic” or even “cliche” in Western science fiction films: a meteorite that crashes down onto a small town, a group of kids whose unquenchable curiosity leads them to a mysterious discovery, bicycle rides at night, and meta-references to prominent sci-fi cinematic works such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Super 8.

Syndrome‘s synopsis is as simple as it gets: a meteorite crashes down on an unnamed city, causing a lot of turmoil. As days pass, the city becomes ensnared in a spiral of surrealism, mystery, and suspicion. The unnamed protagonist is an average yet gloomy high school student who hates the fact that this happened, as his fragile peace of mind is disturbed by the clash of what is normal and what is not. At first glance, it would seem Syndrome is a rehash of a number of works its readers have seen or read in the past, but there are two unmistakable elements that place this book a cut above the rest: its technically accomplished prose and its depiction of the perspective of its protagonist.

Syndrome‘s story is divided into seven chapters that represent seven days. On Day One, when the meteorite lands, things are relatively calm, but the reader can already perceive a faint sense of eeriness stirring, as can the protagonist. The gradual transition from normal to bizarre is highlighted by the detached sentence structure used by the author. Descriptions of landscapes, occasional thoughts, and conversations often lack any human trait; they are intriguing but feel almost numb. The prose bears almost no emotion whatsoever, which lends it an addictive and breakneck pace.

As the protagonist and his ostensible friends Hiroiwa and Kuraishi investigate the crash site and attempt to unveil what’s going on, the characters become more self-aware of their situation. Kuraishi is particularly knowledgeable and also happens to be a die-hard cinephile. He doesn’t directly break the fourth wall, but he acknowledges that the meteorite scenario is a classic trope of Western science fiction movies. For example, Kuraishi mentions The Blob (1958) and its 1988 remake, discussing how it became Steve McQueen’s feature film debut. Later on, Kuraishi compares what’s happening in the town to H.G. Wells’s 1953 film The War of the Worlds and Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation. It’s amusing to the reader to watch Kuraishi ramble on about all this while the protagonist and Hiroiwa have no idea what he’s talking about, especially since he is stereotypically nerdy, which is perhaps a meta reference in itself. The author, a veteran at the renowned Hayakawa SF imprint, thus gives the reader a taste of his extensive cinematic knowledge.

All of these loose strands contextualize each other as days grow darker and reality begins to mirror fantasy. By then, the reader has already begun to tell that the protagonist’s state of mind is unique, to say the least. He becomes ever more suspicious of his surroundings, his so-called friends, and even his family. For him, anyone and anything outside what he considers “his mental zone,” namely, people who are outspoken and act based on their instincts, are “dangerous” people to be wary of. There’s a strong contrast between the protagonist’s standard narrative style and the narration that occurs when he gets lost in his obsessive thoughts, which are represented by longer sentences and textual stacks of repeated concepts. This type of prose achieves a dreamlike effect, and the two narrative styles intertwine in ways that portray a fascinating human dichotomy. As there is little recognizable emotion in the writing, which is close to a stream of consciousness, the impassive first-person perspective generates an illusion that the reader is being sucked into the black hole of the protagonist’s mind.

The ending of the novel is fitting, given how the story works: we don’t know what comes next, nor do we have a feeling that everything is over. In truth, Syndrome doesn’t have a beginning or an end, per se. Instead, it’s an epistolary account of a mentally-troubled teenager who watches everything around him fall apart.

Syndrome is a wormhole into the unknown. Once you start reading it, the book won’t let you go.

* * * * *

Max Rivera is a freelance writer from Mexico City. He is currently majoring in Translation & Interpretation and Literature. As a former resident of Japan and aficionado of Japanese fiction, the Japanese publishing world, and pop culture, he often publishes reviews and cutting-edge articles on these subjects through several outlets, such as his personal blog on Tumblr and the popular Japanese media blog Tanoshimi. He loves cold weather, books, and cats way too much.

Dendera

Title: Dendera
Japanese Title: デンデラ (Dendera)
Author: Satō Yūya (佐藤 友哉)
Translators: Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 360

Dendera is not an easy book to read. Although the cover copy describes the story as being set in “a utopian community” of old women, this is no tale of feminist empowerment. Rather, every page practically bleeds with suffering and human misery, and the only salvation for any of the characters lies in death.

In the Village, there is a strictly enforced rule that everyone must Climb the Mountain when they reach the age of seventy. Men and women who reach this age are carried on the back of their oldest child, who leaves them in the wilderness so that they may ascend to Paradise. That time has come for Kayu Saitoh, and she is ready – all she wants is to lie down and rest. As the snow falls around her on the Mountain, she embraces the sensation of her body becoming cold, knowing that when she sleeps, she will not wake in this world.

Right before she passes out, however, Kayu Saitoh is rescued and taken to Dendera, a settlement formed on the Mountain by all the women who were abandoned by their families and left to die of exposure. Dendera is little more than a collection of flimsy huts, but the community of fifty women has supported itself for more than three decades. These women don’t want to die, and so they rescue each other, eking out a meager living from the harsh environment.

The leader of Dendera is a woman named Mei Mitsuya, who founded the settlement because, as she says herself, “I had no intention of dying.” Mei Mitsuya hates the Village, but simply staying alive is not revenge enough for her. Her ultimate goal is therefore to accumulate enough resources to attack and destroy the Village. This is easier said than done, however, as life is not easy on the Mountain, especially for a small group of older women. They barely have enough to eat, and it is only by monitoring the community’s food supply that Mei Mitsuya is able to maintain her control over the other women.

Kayu Saitoh, who is resents being robbed of the opportunity to die a “pure” death, feels no gratitude toward Mei Mitsuya or any feeling of investment in Dendera. This sense of detachment allows her to see the power dynamics of the community, especially the tension between the “hawks,” which is what Mei Mitsuya’s faction calls itself, and the minority group of “doves,” who seem to want nothing more than for the village to prosper. This conflict is subtle, however, as the main concern of the Dendera inhabitants is feeding themselves. After all, no one has much energy to spare for anything besides hunting, scavenging, and rudimentary farming, not to mention the care of those too senescent to care for themselves.

Unfortunately, the old women aren’t the only ones going hungry, as this particular winter has been especially fierce. A large bear who has established her territory on the Mountain is starving, as is her cub. She eventually becomes desperate enough at attack the human settlement, which throws the tiny society into complete disarray. As Kayu Saitoh watches everything fall apart around her, she begins to catch glimpses of Dendera’s dark secrets. The bear is a terrible enemy, but this creature is far from the most frightening threat besieging the community.

If you want to read about old women being evil to each other in a wilderness setting, Dendera is your book. I found myself fascinated by this story, especially when it became clear that there was a deeper mystery underlying the basic struggle for survival. I appreciate just how unapologetically mean and selfish each of the women is, and this darkness of characterization served to render their rare moments of kindness and cooperation shine all the brighter. I also enjoyed the interludes of narration from the bear’s perspective, which don’t attempt to attribute her with human characteristics but still engender a strong sense of sympathy for her own struggle to survive.

Although the story isn’t set in any particular time or place, it might be possible to read Dendera as an allegory for the precarity faced by a rising number of older people in Japan, especially in the context of the plethora of (relatively) recent news media stories about people who fall out of touch with their families and effectively “disappear” only to then be found in their houses or apartments weeks after they die. That being said, the story has a certain quality of timelessness that allows it to function as a study of human character that transcends any specific social or historical context. I could easily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys highbrow horror fiction, regardless of whether they know or care anything about Japan.

Dendera is gritty and compelling human drama. The story takes a number of interesting turns before moving in a surprising direction as it builds up to an ending that is magnificently transcendent. The unrelenting unpleasantness of its subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste; but, if your stomach is strong enough, Dendera is a thoroughly satisfying novel.

Indian Summer

Title: Indian Summer
Japanese Title: 小春日和(インディアン・サマー)
Koharu biyori (Indian samā)
Author: Kanai Mieko (金井 美恵子)
Translators: Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Cornell East Asia Series
Pages: 149

Nineteen-year-old Momoko has managed to pass the entrance exam of a university in Tokyo, and her mother has decided that she will stay with her aunt, a middle-aged novelist who lives in the Meijiro neighborhood of West Tokyo. Momoko’s aunt is a free spirit with a difficult personality, but that’s just fine with Momoko, who is more than a little quirky herself. Momoko occasionally goes to class or goes out drinking, and her aunt occasionally gets her act together and publishes something, but mostly they hang around the house together being useless.

Kanai Mieko is known for her surreal and often disturbing fiction, but there are no dark or upsetting themes in Indian Summer. In their introduction to the novel, translators Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley describe it as “girls’ literature,” meaning “not simply the new or older ‘chick lit’ or the juvenile fiction and romance targeted at female audiences but more widely any literature that has attracted the sustained interest of (and has often been produced by) ‘girls’ (young women and their sympathizers).”

Indian Summer was published in 1988, the same year as Yoshimoto Banana’s famous girls’ literature novella Kitchen, and both stories reflect the heady energy of the consumer culture at the end of the bubble years. Unlike Kitchen, however, Indian Summer has more of a satirical bite, with Momoko expressing a lazy disdain for the sort of concerns celebrated by women’s magazines, such as clothing and romance. One target of Momoko’s annoyance is her divorced father, who lives in Tokyo and works as a hotel manager. He makes a series of clueless attempts to bond with his daughter by taking her out to nice stores and fancy restaurants and offering fashion advice, but Momoko is not impressed. Her main concern is avoiding the girlfriend for whom her father left her mother, but this “girlfriend” turns out to be a beautiful young man. To Momoko’s complete lack of surprise, gay romance turns out to be just as tawdry and boring as straight romance, for which she has zero patience.

Momoko lets off steam with her college friend Hanako, whose father is also an embarrassment, especially in his insistence that his precious daughter is too good for things like a part-time job. Neither of the girls particularly cares what any men think of them, however, and in their lack of concern they are passively supported by Momoko’s aunt, who just wants to drink and write. These three women drift through their days together, not marching to the beat of any drum at all as they enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes they talk about their lives, and sometimes they talk about books and movies, but mostly they just chill out. Because of the charm and wit of Kanai’s writing, this is a lot more interesting than it sounds, but there’s no denying that Indian Summer is a light and refreshing novel that isn’t meant to challenge its reader.

Interspersed between the chapters of the novel are Momoko’s aunt’s essays on everything ranging from motherhood to abortion to Roland Barthes to the foibles of bourgeois women. These short interludes are inspired by the aunt’s day-to-day life with her niece and provide a sort of parallax view on the events of the story. While Momoko tends toward a negative assessment of the world around her, her aunt’s opinions are more tongue-in-cheek, but the two women are still very much alike in their casual nonchalance.

Because of its inclusion of these “non-fiction” essays, and because of its lack of a clearly definable plot, Indian Summer is a strange little book that’s difficult to categorize. That being said, Kanai’s writing is a lot of fun and genuinely humorous. I would recommend this short novel to people who enjoy the breezy sort of fiction characteristic of 1980s Japan but who would appreciate something a bit more grounded and intelligent than the romance and science fiction from that decade that had previously appeared in translation.