Record of a Night Too Brief

Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Japanese Title: 蛇を踏む (Hebi o fumu)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 1996 (Japan)
Press: Pushkin Press
Pages: 158

Record of a Night Too Brief collects three short stories that the book’s cover copy describes as “haunting” and “lyrical” in their depiction of young women experiencing “loss, loneliness and extraordinary romance.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it in no way describes the actual stories in question, which are less “haunting” than they are grotesque and less “lyrical” than they are unapologetically strange. Instead of trying to treat them as romance, I believe it’s much more fulfilling to approach their absurdity in the spirit of intellectual play.

The title story, “Record of a Night Too Brief,” is a sequence of nineteen of the unnamed narrator’s dreams. Each of these dreams is two or three pages long, and they are linked only in that every other scenario features a young woman whom the narrator is either pursuing or in the process of merging with. If there is a unifying theme or plot, it is lost on me, but the power of these dreams comes from their vivid imagery. To give an example (from page 11):

Several dozen ticket collectors stood in a row, and once we passed through, showing our tickets, the tall object came into view.

It was a singer, who stood as tall as a three-storey building. From where I was, I had a clear view of the beauty spot under her jaw, and the rise and fall of her breasts.

“The beauty spot is artificial,” the girl informed me, gazing up at the singer, enraptured.

The singer was producing notes at different pitches, as if she were warming up. When she sang high notes, flocks of birds took flight from the branches of the ginko trees. When she sang low notes, the earth heaved, and small furry creatures emerged from underground and crawled about.

…and so on. It’s all very random, but one can’t help but become swept up in the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting parade of surreal images.

The next story, “Missing,” is set in an apartment complex that functions according to its own arbitrary and bizarre set of customs and rituals. One of the rules of this community is that each household can only have five members. If a sixth member is added for any reason, then someone has to disappear. This recently happened to the narrator’s family after her older brother was engaged to be married. Because his fiancée would have become the sixth person, he disappeared, and the narrator’s other older brother stepped in to fill his position. His fiancée, Hiroko, has no idea that this has happened, as the rules are different in her own apartment complex, where certain members of certain families literally shrink. Meanwhile, the narrator continues to hear the voice of the older brother as he (or his spirit) skulks around the apartment. No explanation is given for any of this, as everyone takes these occurrences for granted.

The final story, which provides the title of the original Japanese publication, is “A Snake Stepped On.” This story is about a young woman who one day finds herself living with a snake. This snake takes the form of an older woman who insists that she is the narrator’s mother. As she accustoms herself to life with a snake, the narrator begins to realize that many of the people around her are also living with snakes, including the local Buddhist priest whom she thought of turning to for an exorcism. Following the conventions of magical realism, the tone of this story is mundane, with the possibility of being devoured by a snake – or becoming a snake oneself – treated as merely another everyday occurrence.

Record of a Night Too Brief is a short collection of curiosities that are fascinating in their novelty. The fantastical qualities of each story allow for various interpretations, and they will no doubt intrigue different readers for different reasons. As contemporary fairy tales, the stories in this collection spark and inspire the imagination.

The Black Cat Takes A Stroll

the-black-cat-takes-a-stroll

Title: The Black Cat Takes a Stroll: The Edgar Allan Poe Lectures
Japanese Title: 黒猫の遊歩あるいは美学講義 (Kuroneko no yūho arui wa bigaku kōgi)
Author: 森 晶麿 (Mori Akimaro)
Translator: Ian M. MacDonald
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Bento Books
Pages: 146

Let me preface my review of The Black Cat Takes a Stroll by saying that this book is misogynistic pseudo-intellectual garbage.

I’ve tried to keep my tone sane and reasonable, but I don’t want to mislead anyone into wasting their time reading about something that celebrates notions of male dominance and superiority. If you know this sort of thing won’t appeal to you, it’s probably best to skip this review.

The Black Cat Takes a Stroll is a collection of short horror-themed mystery stories centered around “the Black Cat,” a genius 24-year-old professor. The narrator is a first-year PhD student specializing in Western literature. She became friends with the Black Cat when the two were undergraduates together, but now the narrator is the Black Cat’s personal assistant, or “sidekick,” as she calls herself. She has decided to write her dissertation on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and the book opens with the Black Cat mansplaining the narrator’s research to her.

This is how each of the six stories in the book plays out: something strange happens within the narrator’s circle of friends and acquaintances, she doesn’t understand what’s going on, and so she goes to the Black Cat, who delivers a condescending lecture about literature and philosophy. The mysteries are bizarre and absurd, and they tend to be more reminiscent of the “erotic grotesque nonsense” of the Shōwa-era dark fantasist Edogawa Ranpō than they are of the dark yet largely linear logic of Edgar Allan Poe, yet the Black Cat still draws on his knowledge of European intellectual traditions to explicate the psychology of the people involved.

In the first story, “To the Moon and Back,” the narrator has come into possession of a hand-drawn map that doesn’t seem to correspond to the neighborhood it purports to represent. Although the provenance of this map clearly suggests the circumstances of its creation (the narrator found it carefully preserved and tucked away in her mother’s dresser drawer, which would lead most people to the immediate conclusion that it was given to her by a former lover), the Black Cat is more interested in discussing abstractions relating to mapmaking. His mental process is explained by the narrator as follows: “Applying Bergsonian aesthetics to literary criticism is the Black Cat’s specialty. Upon returning from Paris, he published a paper titled, Dynamic Schema and the Poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé that caused a sensation” (12). Through a series of complicated mental gymnastics, the Black Cat is able to apply a diluted mishmash of schema theory to arrive at the obvious conclusion, ie, the secret letter in the narrator’s mom’s underwear drawer is from the narrator’s mom’s secret lover. Good job, son! Handshakes all around.

The more intriguing story underneath the plot of “To the Moon and Back” concerns why the narrator’s mother had a secret lover to begin with. According to the narrator, her mother is a successful academic specializing in Japanese literature, a job that has not been easy for her. As the narrator says, “Japanese universities are feudal institutions. To succeed in the ivory tower of academe, a woman has to work at least twice as hard as her male colleagues – which only makes my mom seem that much more amazing” (15). Because the narrator has entered graduate school because of her respect and admiration for her mother, I wanted to know more about this woman and her relationship to her daughter, but the author never allows the narrative focus on the Black Cat to waiver for more than a few paragraphs.

This is a major shortcoming in all of the stories in the collection, in which female characters function solely as plot devices and abstract concepts for the Black Cat to play with. To add insult to injury, the Black Cat loves to cite real-life Western scholars and theorists, but never in the entire book does he mention an actual female writer.

I mean listen, we’ve all read Sherlock Holmes and watched the Iron Man movies, and we all love narcissistic yet brilliant male characters, but the misogyny underlying The Black Cat Takes a Stroll frequently results in awkward and uncomfortable situations that serve to underscore the author’s disdain for women. To give a representative example, in the fourth story, “The Hidden Flower,” the Black Cat manipulates the narrator into a situation in which she will be raped by his uncle so that he can prove a point to her. His uncle doesn’t take the bait, and so the Black Cat brings the narrator home with him and hypnotizes her so that she won’t remember what happened. He can’t stop himself from bragging about the incident after the fact, however, because he still wants the narrator to understand the point he’s trying to make. Instead of being like, “Wow, it’s super not cool that you set me up to be sexually assaulted for the sake of winning an argument and then tried to gaslight me,” the narrator is comforted by the level of control the Black Cat is capable of exerting over her. At the end of the story, she says, “My head slumps onto the Black Cat’s shoulder. Safe and secure, I feel I could sleep forever” (96-7).

It’s entirely possible that I could be misreading or overreacting to “The Hidden Flower,” but honestly, I’m not too terribly interested in going through it again. In any case, this is merely one of the many examples of the Black Cat’s patronizing attitude regarding the narrator and her subsequent worship of him. Here’s another example from the first page of the story…

This stuff crumbles the moment I touch it with my chopsticks. Sesame tofu isn’t meant to crumble. It’s supposed to be gooey. I’m baffled.

“A bit like the paper you just presented,” observes the Black Cat seated beside me. He’s alluding to the fiasco that I’ve just succeeded in putting out of my mind. The guy is a fiend – a genius, true, but nonetheless a fiend. Then again, maybe that’s the nature of geniuses. (73)

No, no it’s not. This guy is nothing more than a garden-variety asshole, and it’s painful to see the narrator fawn over him.

The Black Cat Takes A Stroll is an unironic romanticization of male misogyny within an academic context, and I hated every page. If you’re a woman who has seen male colleagues promoted ahead of you, and if you’re sick of being told your business by insufferable male douchebags, and if you’re frustrated by the societal assumption that men know more about your mind and body than you do, then the stories in this collection might hit a little too close to home. The gut punches this book delivers are frequent and unyielding, and I couldn’t read more than five pages at a time. Even if you’re not as sensitive to overt sexism as I am, I still don’t think the mysteries presented by the author (such as the mystery of the letter in the mother’s underwear drawer) are all that original or compelling.

I’m happy to see that a book like The Black Cat Takes a Stroll has been published in English translation – it’s good to see work coming out that isn’t associated with the current big names familiar to English-language readers. It’s also wonderful that novella-length genre fiction from Japan is finding its way into English, and I think that Bento Books is doing something interesting and important. Still, between misogynistic light novels and misogynistic suspense fiction, I feel that there’s a definite bias in the material that has come out in the past few years, and The Black Cat Takes a Stroll doesn’t add anything new to the landscape of contemporary Japanese fiction in translation.

Review copy provided by Bento Books.

Tokyo Decadence

Tokyo Decadence

Title: Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories by Ryu Murakami
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Publication Year: 2016
Pages: 280

Tokyo Decadence contains fifteen stories drawn from five of Murakami Ryū’s collections published between 1986 and 2003. As translator Ralph McCarthy explains in his acknowledgments, he has been translating his favorite Murakami stories since the late 1980s, and now he’s finally able to publish them thanks to the blessing of the author and the encouragement of Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press.

The first story in Tokyo Decadence, “Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This,” has a passage at the beginning that reads as follows:

It’s probably safe to say that everyone sitting here is looking for some sort of sin tonight. The circumstances are different for each, of course, but everyone has the same general destination in mind. No one gets drunk in order to raise their moral standards.

It’s probably safe to say that no one opens a collection of Murakami Ryū’s short fiction in order to raise their moral standards. If you’re looking for some sort of sin, you’ve found yourself the right book. All of the stories in Tokyo Decadence are surprising and unique, but they all move toward the same general destination – sex and drugs and blood and tears.

This first story takes the form of an elaborate fetch quest across the seedy underbelly of Shinjuku in which the protagonist must exchange promises for favors. His goal is to get one of his former lovers to testify in court that they were sleeping together so that another of his former lovers doesn’t claim common law marriage and sue him for divorce. The point seems to be that people are terrible and selfish creatures, but it’s a lot more fun arriving at this conclusion than you’d expect.

The second story, “I Am a Novelist,” involves another strange situation in which a man posing as a bestselling writer gets a girl at a hostess club pregnant. When her manager insists that he meet the young woman, she quickly admits he’s not the person she slept with, but the writer still takes her out to dinner. She tells the writer that she’s a fan of his work, so he tries to get her to fall in love with him instead of his impersonator. It doesn’t work (obviously), and the novelist ends up finding out that he was just a minor character in someone else’s story.

In other stories, a trucker loses his wife and his job and becomes a host at a gay club, a guy with no self-esteem invades a woman’s home and smashes her television, and a young prostitute buys herself a topaz ring to remind herself of a musician whose world she can never enter. In “Penlight,” a call girl with serious issues talks about her imaginary friend to a guy she meets at a bar, who is interested in her body, but in the way you think (unless you happen to be thinking of horrific murder and cannibalism). A few of these stories are drawn from Murakami’s 1988 collection Topaz, which became the basis for the 1992 film Tokyo Decadence, which was directed by the author and banned in a handful of countries precisely because it’s the sort of movie you’d expect to have been directed by the author.

If you’ve read Murakami’s work before, you know what to expect. Since all of these stories are twenty pages or less, however, there’s no slow buildup to the carnage. That being said, the violence is tempered with irony, black humor, and intriguing characterizations that elevate the stories above simple splatterfests.

In contrast, the three stories drawn from the 1995 collection Ryu’s Cinematheque are vaguely autobiographical.

In “The Last Picture Show,” the 18-year-old narrator is living in Kichijōji and trying to make it big with his blues band. His upstairs neighbor, who is obviously a yakuza, wants to pay him to pick hydrangea leaves in Inokashira Park to dry and then sell as marijuana to American soldiers. In “The Wild Angels,” the 18-year-old narrator has started a relationship with a woman who works as a hostess, which makes him feel like less of a man, so he starts shooting heroin. In “La Dolce Vita,” the college student narrator hooks up with an older woman who lives in Yokosuka and gets her drugs from the American army base, which doesn’t end well.

To me, these coming-of-age stories were nowhere near as interesting or amusing as the murder stories, but they provide an interesting picture of the 1970s that serves as a counterpoint to the stories of the other Murakami; these stories forgo nostalgia in favor of an emphasis on the grittiness and despair and self-indulgent navel gazing of fringe counterculture.

The last third of Tokyo Decadence eases up on the drug use but maintains its focus on sex and emotional violence. Some of the stories reference each, and I got the sense that I was only being glimpses into a larger narrative. I dearly wish we lived in a world in which Ralph McCarthy was able to publish his translations of entire Murakami collections instead of selected stories, but each piece included in Tokyo Decadence shines brightly enough on its own merits that the reader is not disappointed by the relative lack of context.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tokyo Decadence. The collection portrays the Japan of the bubble and postbubble decades as a place where anything in your wildest dreams and darkest nightmares could happen. Murakami’s fiction is a love letter to the infinite possibilities of urban life delivered with style and panache. Just be warned – Tokyo Decadence is not for the faint of heart.

Tokyo Decadence will be released on March 15, 2016. A complete table of contents can be found on its page on the Kurodahan Press website.

Review copy provided by the noble and selfless people at Kurodahan Press.

Biogenesis

Biogenesis

Title: Biogenesis
Author: Ishiguro Tatsuaki (石黒 達昌)
Translators: Brian Watson and James Balzer
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 1994, 2000, and 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 240

Biogenesis collects four stories by Ishiguro Tatsuaki, who is both a practicing medical doctor and an acclaimed writer of horror-themed science fiction.

The book is dominated by the first story, “It is with the Deepest Sincerity that I Offer Prayers…” which takes the form of a scientific report (tables and endnotes and all) on a species of winged mice that have suddenly disappeared from their habitat in Hokkaido. The report focuses on the activities of Dr. Akedera Nobuhiko, an AIDS researcher employed under somewhat shady circumstances to “preserve the cellular and genetic information” of the vanishing species. Akedera was apparently so fascinated by what he found in the process that he insisted on undertaking ecological research as well, recording accounts of sightings and deaths.

Akedera was able to draw a number of unsettling conclusions from this data. First, the winged mice seem to die in waves. Second, there are unusual patterns regarding their movements and seasonal behavior. Third, many of the people who have documented and captured winged mice attest to a strange glow either emanating from their bodies or otherwise present when and where they gather. Finally, live mice are most often found and photographed by or in the prescence of human children.

Akedera is sent back to Tokyo, but he continues to involve himself with research and preservation efforts, which result in the discovery that cultures of winged mice cells exhibit startling tendencies and may even possibly be immortal. What exactly is going on with this species – and what exactly drove Akedera’s intense interest?

The dry tone of the story’s scientific prose forms a gorgeous ironic contrast to the fantastic nature of what it relates, and the reader is encouraged to employ her own analytical acumen to excavate a number of details from between the lines. The typeface used for this story, which lends it the air of an unpublished manuscript, is a nice metadiegetic touch.

The second story in the collection, “Snow Woman,” begins with a clinical description of hypothermia. The narrative quickly moves to a discussion of a medical condition called “idiopathic hypothermia,” in which an individual’s stable body temperature is about 15°F lower than normal, which suggests “the possibility of an extended lifespan due to lower metabolism.” This information serves as an introduction to a scholarly account of the discovery of the condition and the mysterious death of the army doctor who published the first paper about it in the 1920s. This doctor, Koho Yuhki (which is the name he published under in German), had been stationed at a mountain clinic in Hokkaido, where he had been instructed to investigate cures for frostbite.

At a certain point during his studies, Yuhki was presented with a woman who had entered a coma after falling asleep in her woodshed in subzero conditions. Although she regained consciousness, her body temperature never rose above 86°F, and any attempts to return it to normal were met by a dangerous drop in her blood pressure. The scientific community considered Yuhki’s published findings a hoax; but, in 1997, a number of army documents were declassified, revealing that his case study was even stranger than it seemed.

“Snow Woman” is written almost exactly like a scholarly essay, so much so that Ishiguro almost managed to convince me that “idiopathic hypothermia” is real. Seriously, I had to google it.

The science fiction subgenre of providing rational explanations for seemingly supernatural phenomena is not new, but Ishiguro handles the “science” elements more deftly than any other writer I’ve encountered. The metadiegetic elements he incorporates into each story imbue the experience of reading them with an extra touch of thrill and wonder, as if you yourself have stumbled onto a rare and bizarre scientific breakthrough, perhaps by having slipped ever so slightly into a parallel universe in which such things were truly possible.

The third and fourth stories in Biogenesis are equally intriguing, but I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. Ishiguro’s fiction is as much about the art of science as it is about the pleasures and potential of the unexplainable, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more of his work finds its way into English soon.

The Book of Tokyo

The Book of Tokyo

Title: The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction
Editors: Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks, and Masashi Matsuie
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Comma Press
Pages: 180

In his introduction to this collection of ten short stories, editor Michael Emmerich writes:

In a sense, you might say that the stories of this anthology unfold within a landscape more imagined than real – that they create a Tokyo of their own by drawing on a rather abstract sense of the moods of certain sections of the city, or on a vision of Tokyo and the smaller areas it comprises that is more conceptual than physical. (x)

This is a perfect description of The Book of Tokyo, which offers the reader less of a detailed illustration of an urban landscape than it does a vivid sense of the energy and potential generated by a city inhabited by 13.5 million people, every one of whom has a story.

In Furukawa Hideo’s “Model T Frankenstein,” a monster that may or may not be a shapeshifting goat escapes one of the Izu Islands on a ferry and makes his way to Tokyo to assume a new identity as a ‘Japanese.’ He has to kill a few people along the way, but he eventually makes a home for himself in Shinjuku. In “Picnic,” Ekuni Kaori sketches a relationship between a disaffected couple whose hobby is to have designer picnics in a park by their house, an activity that makes them marginally less alienated from one another. Kakuta Mitsuyo’s “A House for Two” is an ode to the trendy comforts of urban living. The pleasure the narrator derives from walking through the city has its roots in her relationship with her mother, whom she whom once bonded with over luxurious foreign clothes and who now commands a greater share of her affections than any man ever could.

The cosmopolitanism of Tokyo is on full display in Horie Toshiyuki’s “The Owl’s Estate,” in which the male narrator, a sushi chef and secondhand book dealer, finds himself in a strange rundown building in West Ikebukuro inhabited by foreign girls of dubious employ. In the end, though, there’s nothing particularly French or Australian or American about the way these girls enjoy drinking and laughing and being silly with each other. The single father protagonist of Yamazaki Nao-Cola’s “Dad, I Love You” must navigate his way through a maze of foreign brand names, cuisines, and business owners over the course of his day before coming home to his daughter, who encourages him to keep going with the joy she finds in things that transcend culture, such as how large the full moon looks in a clear night sky. The young woman who narrates Kanehara Hitomi’s “Mambo” doesn’t even care where she’s going when she gets into a taxi with a stranger; she’s just looking for adventure in the city.

Yoshimoto Banana’s “Mummy” encapsulates the theme of the entire collection, which is that every random encounter between strangers is accompanied by a galaxy of possibilities. A female undergrad agrees to be walked home by a male graduate student studying Egyptology. He cautions her that there’s a killer loose in the neighborhood, and it would be unsafe for her to go out alone. She suspects that he might be the murderer, but her physical attraction to him is so strong that she resigns herself to her fate. Although the grad student isn’t a criminal, he does turn out to be a complete weirdo, and the narrator has to forcibly restrain herself from judging him and the course his life takes after they go their separate ways. When surrounded by so many potential paths, she asks herself, how do you know that your own is “necessarily the correct and happiest one” (52)?

My favorite story in the collection is Kawakami Hiromi’s “The Hut on the Roof.” The main setting is an izakaya pub, where the divorced narrator, an English teacher, eats and drinks and hangs out with older men from her neighborhood. After becoming close to them through the process of exchanging casual but repeated interactions, she eventually learns the story behind the peculiar living arrangement of a local fishmonger who has befriended her. The story doesn’t have a plot, exactly, but it conveys an almost palpable sense of living your own individual life surrounded by people whom proximity has drawn into a loose yet friendly community.

Don’t let the cover fool you – despite the flying cranes and Shintō gate and temple and Chinese lanterns, the The Book of Tokyo is refreshingly contemporary. None of the stories translated for the collection was published before 2000, and reading them feels like walking through the twenty-first century just as much as it feels like walking around Tokyo. As Emmerich notes, it’s difficult to pin down the “Tokyo-ness” of these stories, but the reader who encounters them can’t help but be drawn into the living and breathing atmosphere of a huge and dynamic city.

The editing and story selection of The Book of Tokyo is excellent. I was so impressed that I ended up ordering several other titles in Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series, which include The Book of Gaza, The Book of Rio, and The Book of Liverpool.

Review copy provided by the wonderful people at Comma Press.

Ground Zero, Nagasaki

Ground Zero Nagasaki

Title: Ground Zero, Nagasaki
Japanese Title: 爆心 (Bakushin)
Author: Seirai Yūichi (青来 有一)
Translator: Paul Warham
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 182

Although Seirai is a relative newcomer to the Japanese literary scene, having won the Akutagawa Prize for his story collection Seisui (Holy Water) in 2001, he was born in 1958 and was 47 years old when Ground Zero, Nagasaki was first published in November 2006. Although its stories are all set in contemporary Japan, Ground Zero, Nagasaki is deeply engaged with themes of personal and historical legacy.

Each of the six stories in this collection is about the physical and emotional damage suffered by Christians living in Nagasaki in the wake of the atomic bombing. The memory of the atomic bomb is extremely subtle in most of the stories, but it’s never completely absent. Even more powerful than any real or imagined trauma generated by the bomb, however, are the moral dictates of Christianity, which demands that its adherents bear witness to suffering.

The second story, “Stone,” is narrated from the perspective of the brother of a Diet member who is being forced to resign from office because he hired his girlfriend as his secretary. While his brother is giving a talk to local business association at a hotel in Nagasaki, the narrator, a 45-year-old man who calls himself “Adam,” waits in the lobby, where he is approached by a female journalist named Shirotani. Adam is on the autism spectrum, and his conversation with Shirotani is almost frustratingly elliptic.

It gradually becomes clear that Adam’s mother is dying. She has sent Adam to intercept his brother in order to ask that the politician care for him, as he can’t live by himself. Shirotani, who has a brother like Adam, is sympathetic, but the author does not allow this story to become sentimental. Instead, the reader is hit with the full force of Adam’s sexual attraction as he fantasizes about the journalist: “If she wouldn’t marry me, at least I could carry her smell around with me. I would bury my face in her panties and inhale her woman’s scent to my heart’s content” (33). Adam’s mother has punished him for such thoughts in the past, asking him how he could dare to entertain such un-Christian notions “‘after our ancestors went to the stake with pure thoughts and prayers on their lips'” (32).

Adam’s brother Kutani is caught in a the grips of a similar moral vise. He entered politics for the most noble of reasons: to ensure that a doctrine of peace was represented at the highest levels of the Japanese government. The woman with whom he has cheated on his wife had come to him looking for a job after her husband’s family cast her out with her newborn son, who was born severely handicapped. Kutani explains to Adam that he initially wanted to help her as he wants to help all of his constituents, but that he couldn’t help falling in love with her. He says: “‘As long as I had her in my arms, nothing else mattered. Even if war had broken out and nuclear bombs were exploding all over the world, I probably wouldn’t have cared'” (41). His adherence to Christian doctrine, which has guided him along his path as a politician, allows no leeway for his identity as an individual. His affair with his secretary is merely an indication of a deeper emotional dissonance that has also estranged him from his mother and brother, who need him to be a person instead of a politician.

As Kutani struggles with his conscience in the penthouse suite of the hotel where he will offer his resignation, his brother is overwhelmed by feelings he doesn’t understand. After Adam leaves the hotel, he is afraid that his body will turn to stone in response to the emotional overload as it has in earlier catatonic episodes triggered by stressful situations. The story ends with Adam begging God to not leave him alone without a family and without ever having experienced intimacy, his longing for comfort inseparable from his sexual desire.

Another story that I found especially trenchant is “Shells,” which is also told from the perspective of a highly unreliable narrator. Six months ago, the narrator’s daughter Sayaka suddenly came down with a fever and ended up dying of a brain hemorrhage. Since then, he has become convinced that the ocean has been rising during the night, covering entire sections of the city and leaving behind cowrie shells and other assorted sea creatures in his highrise apartment. His delusions became so powerful and persistent that his wife has left him and his brother has placed him under outpatient psychiatric care.

While walking in his neighborhood one day, the narrator encounters an old man named Nagai who tells him that his late sister used to be friends of a sort with Sayaka. His sister had become senile, and the narrator’s daughter was the only one who would listen to her rambling stories. The narrator, overcome with gratitude, invites Nagai back to his apartment, where the old man tells him that his sister spent her entire life trying to forget the day of the atomic bomb, when she was forced to leave her siblings behind in a burning house as she fled with her mother. Nagai’s sister had once spoken to him about the sea of flames engulfing the city, saying, “‘I wish the sea would wash over it all,'” suggesting that she wished her memories would be washed away as well (146).

The narrator, who has his own fantasies of the sea, feels a connection with this woman, but he is terrified of losing his memories, specifically his memories of his daughter and the love he felt for her, which he describes as “the best and brightest, the truest feeling I have ever had” (117). He realizes that the shells that the ocean leaves behind for him every evening after the flood recedes are akin to physical manifestations of his memories, but this insight does not weaken his conviction that the city of Nagasaki sleeps under the waves every night. He tries to convince Nagai that his visions are real but fails. The story ends with his understanding that the saltwater coming in from the bay is not a purifying force like the Biblical deluge but rather indicative of a spiritual wasteland in which God allows the innocent to suffer and perish.

Obviously Ground Zero, Nagasaki is not light reading, and I found that I had to let a week or two pass between the stories, each of which stayed with me long after I had closed the book. Reading Seirai feels a lot like reading Ōe Kenzaburō, yet his style is pellucid where Ōe’s is confoundedly literary. Seirai’s narrators are not philosopher poets citing The Great European Male Thinkers in casual conversation, but this does not make them any less complex and compelling; their proximity to the mundane and mimetic “realness” serves to emphasize how the lasting reverberations of Nagasaki’s violent history have touched the lives of even the most unassuming of its citizens.

I would be remiss if I did not conclude this review by stating that Ground Zero, Nagasaki has the best book design I have seen in a long time. A faded image of the black circle on the cover, an inverse of the red rising sun of the Japanese flag, is on every page of the book, a reminder that the proverbial gross insult to human dignity in the room can never be ignored. Each chapter begins with a progressive series of diagrams illustrating how to fold an origami crane, indicating that somewhere inside this terrible mess is hope. These illustrations suggest that the reader, by sharing the experiences of these stories with the author, is in effect performing a symbolic act of prayer resembling the dedication of a chain of paper cranes to the atomic bomb victims. Kudos to designer Julia Kushnirsky!

Is Ground Zero, Nagasaki worth the $35 asking price for the hardcover? Yes, I think so.

Will the stories in this book be of interest to anyone outside of the academic field of Japanese literary studies? Absolutely. It’s not easy to read this book, but that’s a major part of what allows it to dig so deeply into the reader.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

Yellow Rose

Yellow Rose

Title: Yellow Rose
Japanese Title: 黄薔薇 (Kibara)
Author: Yoshiya Nobuko (吉屋 信子)
Translator: Sarah Frederick
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 1923 (Japan)
Publisher: Expanded Editions

I’m absolutely thrilled to write that one of Yoshiya Nobuko’s stories has finally appeared in a readily available English translation. “Yellow Rose” is drawn from Yoshiya’s acclaimed collection Hana monogatari (Flower Stories), which first appeared in print in the 1920s and has been a major guiding influence in shōjo manga, literature, and aesthetics. Thankfully, Yoshiya’s fiction is not just important from the perspective of literary history but also a true delight to read.

The short story “Yellow Rose” is about Katsuragi Misao, a twenty-two-year-old college graduate who accepts a teaching post at an all-girls prefectural academy “a thousand miles distant from Tokyo” to avoid getting married. On the train departing from Tokyo she meets Urakami Reiko, who happens to be a student entering her final year at Katsuragi’s school. Reiko is running late; and, clutching a bouquet of yellow roses, she dashes across the platform to catch the train, just barely making it:

Perhaps because she had been running so fast her little chest beat wildly, sending the profusion of flowers in that single hand all a-tremble, and this quivering of the yellow rose bouquet moved in unison with the fluttering of the girl’s sleeves – it was a beautiful scene–

Reiko gets a grain of soot in one of her eyes, thus giving Miss Katsuragi a chance to be alone and in intimate contact with her as she administers aid:

The end of her ponytail stretched down below the pillow, and a wisp of stray hair lay on her white forehead; her cool eyes were both gently closed and just her lips moved with her breath like a flower – in the stillness of a moon perhaps her closed eyes were seeing a dream……ah, how lovely!

The two continue their association throughout the summer, and their romance blooms in a series of short vignettes, of which the following is representative:

Thus carries the sound of the bell down to the water at Kiyomigata shore. It must be from the Seikenji Temple bell tower in Okitsu –

The bell sound crosses the twilight waters……

Motionless on the beach shadows……two of them

Two shadows paused silently as if to let the sounds of the bell gently embrace them –

Twilight, the moon thinly visible at the yonder edge of the sky – as they neared the shore only the very faint tips of the breaking waves sported a faint whiteness, like frayed silk tassels.

Miss Katsuragi and Reiko make plans for the girl to attend Katsuragi’s alma mater in Tokyo before embarking on a journey to the United States together, but Reiko’s mother expects her to enter an arranged marriage immediately after her graduation in April. At the end of the story, as Katsuragi boards a ship to Boston alone, she abandons herself to her grief.

As with many of the stories contained within Yoshiya’s Hana monogatari, “Yellow Roses” ends in tears. The story’s focus is not on plot, however, but rather the beauty of the two young women and the depth of their feelings for one another. Entire paragraphs are spent on detailed descriptions of mournful eyes and chiseled cheekbones, and the poetry of Sappho is quoted at length. As in the above passages, Yoshiya’s writing is characterized by fragments and ellipses, which heighten the emotional impact of certain scenes while leaving the reader free to fill in the suggestive gaps in the text with her imagination.

“Yellow Roses” can be a quick and feather-light read, but the reader is rewarded for returning to the story a second time, as many of its passages can be appreciated as jewels in a beautiful setting – or roses in a stunning bouquet.

Although the story alone would be well worth the price of admission, this publication is graced by the addition of an extended translator’s introduction, a fascinating note on the cover illustration, an extensive selection of illuminating endnotes, and a meticulously curated list of selected English-language readings that functions as an invaluable resource to anyone interested in the history and inner workings of shōjo culture in Japan from the nineteenth century onward.

Translator Sarah Frederick’s introduction, which is roughly as long as the translated story itself, functions as something of an abbreviated textbook, touching on not merely the author and the story but also many aspects of the society and publishing culture that form its context. Frederick’s writing is not mired in the academic garble of postmodern theory but is immediately accessible to a casual reader as it paints a picture of a time and place in broad yet deliberate strokes. What I especially appreciate about this short essay is that it directly confronts the issue of female queer sexuality in Japan:

While it is not difficult to frame these desires via the flexible contemporary category of “queer,” it may be surprising to some readers that to invoke the word “lesbian” for Katsuragi and Urakami’s relationship, Flower Stories, or Yoshiya’s work and life more generally, has sometimes been controversial. I think this is a wonderful question to raise and discuss in a classroom or elsewhere using the story itself, and no translator’s introduction can “answer” it. […] While the term “lesbian” or loan word “rezubian” were not used in these stories or by Yoshiya herself in her lifetime, they are used literally here in reference to Sappho from Lesbos. More broadly, the claim that “lesbian” does not apply in the Japanese context or the prewar Japanese context (both arguments are sometimes made) leans far too much toward cultural essentialism and the false sense that Japan was cut off from the rest of the world, including its varied discourses on sexuality. The impression given by “Yellow Rose” and its milieu is rather the opposite: a highly cosmopolitan girls’ culture, aware of Sappho as a figure available to express the desire of one girl for another. It is engaged in active exploration of the rich but incomplete solutions posed by the possibilities of western philosophy, emotional poetry, and travel to America as sources for different ways of thinking about the realities and aesthetics of women’s lifestyles, desires, and conceptions of love.

The words in bold are my own emphasis, because I’ve been waiting for someone to state that very point as clearly and succinctly as Frederick for years now. Yes Virginia, there are queer women in Japan! The next time anyone asks me whether we can really call portrayals of homosexuality in Japan “gay,” as if the Japanese archipelago were home to a bizarre alien society completely removed from the cultural currents flowing across the rest of the world, I am going to quote this passage word for word.

The main appeal of “Yellow Rose” and its introduction really isn’t in any sort of political statement, however. Instead, the reader is invited to enter a sparkling, rose-colored world of radiant young women, their pure yet dangerous emotions, and the tragic pressures of a bygone era that prevent them from expressing their truest selves. As Frederick explains in her introduction, there is no better place to go looking for the roots of shōjo manga and literature. The translation itself expertly captures the language and cadences of the girls’ literature of writers such as Frances Hodsgon and Louisa May Alcott (whose work Yoshiya was almost certainly familiar with), so even the English feels pleasantly nostalgic. I therefore recommend “Yellow Rose” not only to serious academic types and hardcore shōjo fans but to even the casually curious. Within the short span of a train or subway ride, you can be transported into a glittering space removed – but never too removed – from the grittiness of the mundane. It’s quite an experience!

Yellow Rose is currently available exclusively as a digital text, and it can be purchased on Amazon’s Kindle store. It will also soon be available directly from the website of its publisher, Expanded Editions, a shiny new operation with two translations of vintage Japanese science fiction ready to download. Even if you’re not interested in Yellow Rose, be sure to check out Expanded Editions, which has done a fantastic job with its digital texts.

The manageable length and impeccable scholarship of Yellow Rose recommend it for classroom use. For educators hoping to incorporate the text into a printed or PDF course pack, Expanded Editions offers educational sales and will work directly with campus bookstores to make the material available to students. More information can be found on the relevant section of the publisher’s webpage.

Review copy provided by Expanded Editions.