The Woman with the Flying Head

Author: Yumiko Kurahashi (倉橋由美子)
Translator: Atsuko Sakaki
Publisher: M. E. Sharpe
Publication Year: 1997
Pages: 159

Yumiko Kurahashi was a member of the generation of female writers whose work began appearing in the early 1960s. She continued writing into the 1990s, by which time she had produced a number of collections of short stories. Kurahashi is notable for her absurdist imagination, as well as the cleverness with which she blends multiple literary traditions from Noh drama to Greek tragedy.

The Woman with the Flying Head was published in 1997 by the academic press M. E. Sharpe (which has since been incorporated into Routledge) and collects eleven stories that were originally published between 1963 and 1989. Some of these stories are playful, and some are creepy, but all are fiercely intellectual reflections on both carnal and creative desires.

There’s a fair amount of taboo sexuality in these stories, including incest and bestiality, not to mention sexual entrapment and murder. It’s important for the reader to understand that these stories are explorations of concepts and ideas, not mimetic representations of three-dimensional characters. In the opening story, “The Extraterrestrial,” why do a brother and sister have sex with the alien that hatched out of the egg that mysteriously appeared in their bedroom one morning? It doesn’t matter; what matters is the experimental space generated by the scenario.

You can have a lot of fun with Kurahashi’s stories once you accept the author’s writing on its own terms. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys close reading and analysis, there’s a lot to read and analyze. It’s also entirely possible to enjoy the stories as sex comedies and interpersonal dramas constructed on a scaffolding of absurdist thought experiments. Kurahashi has won numerous literary awards for her work, and this collection is prefaced with a serious and thoughtful introduction by the translator, but “supernatural sci-fi erotic dark comedy” is probably the most accurate label to apply to the author’s distinctive genre of fiction.

The intellectualism attributed to Kurahashi partially stems from her references to a wide range of world mythologies. Although her narrators tend to be terrible and problematic men, the real stars of the show are the demonic women who torment them. Far from being symbols of female resistance or empowerment, the majority of Kurahashi’s female characters are demons in the traditional sense. They are to be feared and abhorred instead of admired, and they tend to reflect the anxieties of a patriarchal society even as they playfully mock fears regarding female sexuality.

The demon in the 1985 story “The Witch Mask” takes the form of a Noh mask that has been passed down as an heirloom in the narrator’s family. This style of mask, the horned hannya, is used to represent women who have turned into demons after succumbing to powerful emotions. The narrator’s mask is particularly frightening because its hunger literally consumes its victims with desire.

The male narrator of the story is fully aware of the danger of the mask, but the cursed object still captivates him. He places the mask on the face of each of his lovers and watches their bodies writhe as it consumes them. He refers to his obsession with the beautiful mask as “an irresistible desire” before finally applying it to the face of his fiancée, whom he loves dearly. He attempts to justify this murderous act by confessing that he “was haunted by an idea – the call of the demon… the desire to put the witch mask on a beautiful face.” 

“House of the Black Cat” is also about a hungry demon. This demon alternates in shape between a regular-sized housecat and a human-sized catwoman. The cat in its humanoid form is strangely alluring to the story’s human protagonist, Keiko, as she watches it go about its day in a video made by her husband’s friend Kamiya. The video becomes pornographic as the cat “devours” her human partner, who bears a strong resemblance to Kamiya himself. It seems that Kamiya disappeared shortly after lending Keiko’s husband the video. Although Keiko is never able to conclusively determine his fate, she suspects that the cat killed him so that she could feed him to her children, four black kittens. “House of the Black Cat” is about forbidden sexuality; but, as is the case with many of Kurahashi’s stories, it’s also about the creative drives that inspire artists to test the boundaries of consensus reality.     

The stories collected in The Woman with the Flying Head are strange, fantastic, and thought-provoking. Kurahashi’s writing is filled with vivid imagery and suggestive symbolism that blend together to create fantasies that are both horrible and darkly fascinating. A decent comparison might be Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales of Misogyny, or perhaps even Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, but Kurahashi’s voice is absolutely unique. I always find myself returning to The Woman with the Flying Head every October for Halloween, but these creepy little stories are perfect for whenever you want to take a step back from the grind of mundane reality to channel some playfully demonic energy.  

So We Look to the Sky

Japanese Title: ふがいない僕は空を見た (Fugainai boku wa sora o mita)
Author: Misumi Kubo (窪 美澄)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: Arcade Publishing
Pages: 267

So We Look to the Sky is a compulsively readable collection of connected stories that follow the soap opera lives of five characters, each of whom might be generously described as “a hot mess.” I don’t know what the reviewer from the Japan Times was given to read when they described So We Look to the Sky as “pressingly real” in the blurb that appears on the book’s cover, because each of the stories is an absolute train wreck of improbable situations. This is not a condemnation – far from it! I very much enjoyed So We Look to the Sky. If you’re expecting a sensitive portrayal of real life, though, it might be best to look elsewhere so that you can better appreciate the ridiculous fun this book has to offer.

The events in So We Look to the Sky begin are set into motion when a high school student named Takumi is picked up by a young housewife at a comics convention. She invites him to her apartment for cosplay sex, and things progress from there. The depiction of this sex is unabashedly explicit, with the word “cock” appearing for the first time of many on the fourth page of the book.

Takumi’s mother runs a midwife clinic out of their home; and, after assisting her during a difficult birth, Takumi breaks off his partnership with the housewife because he starts seeing her body as an animalistic sack of flesh filled with minuscule eggs. This is all well and good, except the housewife’s husband has already taped Takumi having sex with her. And then the husband puts the videos online.

This is all according to the plan of the housewife’s mother-in-law, who uses the sex tapes as a tool to pressure her precious baby boy’s otaku bride into going to America for fertility treatments so that she can stop being useless and have children already. Meanwhile, pornographic photos of Takumi’s cosplay sex are circulated throughout his school, much to the dismay of his former girlfriend. It turns out that the girlfriend has a shut-in brother, who left college after joining a cult. It was a sex cult.

All of this transpires in the first fifty pages of So We Look to the Sky, which only becomes more outlandish as it goes along. There’s a new twist about once every fifteen to twenty pages, with the stories tackling themes like poverty, suicide, child abuse, sexual abuse, queer sexuality, and natural disasters with good-natured glee. It’s difficult to take any of this seriously as social commentary, but it’s a lot of fun to read.

So We Look to the Sky opens as a raunchy sex comedy. As a raunchy sex comedy, it is very entertaining. I wouldn’t classify the book as “erotica,” but there’s a lot of explicit fucking. Polly Barton’s lively translation leans into the awkwardness and self-reflexive humor of these scenes, which function as vehicles for character development fortified with relatable secondhand embarrassment. If ever a work of Japanese fiction in translation deserved a cover designed by Chip Kidd, it’s this one.

I don’t mean to hate on the people who contributed the painstakingly sincere promotional blurbs that appear on the book’s cover, but I think it’s important to emphasize that So We Look to the Sky is not “an intricate portrait of women, family, love, and friendship.” If you come to this novel expecting serious literary writing that can be compared to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.  

As something of a content warning, the fourth story takes a sensationalist and almost Dickensian approach to extreme poverty, with the twist being that the gay man who wants to help at-risk teenagers by starting a scholarship-assisted tutoring program is actually a pedo. As I wrote earlier, the entire book is a big trashy soap opera, so this development makes sense in context, but your mileage may vary.

The fifth and final story, “Pollen Nation,” is a clear standout as the strongest and most interesting in the collection. This story is about Takumi’s mother, who has to deal with the death threats and hate mail being sent to her maternity clinic as she cares for her son, who has become a shut-in. Along with her capable assistant Mitchan, Takumi’s mother manages to keep the clinic running despite the demands of her difficult clients, who run the gamut from first-time mothers obsessed with micromanaging their diets to clueless husbands who blame their ignorance about pregnancy on everyone but themselves.

What I appreciate about “Pollen Nation” is its no-nonsense treatment of the topic of pregnancy in Japan, which is generally stylized as either divine or monstrous in both popular and literary fiction. Regardless of the political discourse surrounding pregnancy, somebody’s got to deliver the babies, and it’s refreshing to see this experience portrayed as a matter of normal everyday life.     

So We Look to the Sky is the sort of outrageous Japanese popular fiction that I’d love to see more of in translation. The book has very little redeeming literary value, but who cares? It’s difficult to look away from the characters as they make terrible decisions while still doing their best. Despite the awful situations these ridiculous people manage to get themselves into, everything somehow works out in the end, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a story.

Where the Wild Ladies Are

Author: Aoko Matsuda (松田 青子)
Japanese Title: おばちゃんたちのいるところ (Obachan-tachi no iru tokoro)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 271

Where the Wild Ladies Are collects seventeen short stories about the everyday lives of ghosts, demons, and yōkai in contemporary Japan. Although all of these stories are a bit strange, their tone is light and comedic, and all the hauntings are consensual.

My favorite story in the collection is “Quite a Catch,” which is about a young woman named Shigemi who has found herself in a romantic relationship with the ghost of a skeleton she inadvertently pulled out of the Tama River in Tokyo while fishing with a friend. The ghost, Hina-chan, appears outside of Shigemi’s apartment to thank her for dredging her bones from the riverbed. Shigemi is alarmed at first, but before long she and Hina-chan are chatting while watching television, not to mention bathing and sleeping together. Hina-chan’s nightly visits are a best-case scenario for the narrator, who has always wanted companionship without having to live with a spouse or roommate.

As the story notes in the back of the book explain, “Quite a Catch” is based on the comedic folktale Kotsutsuri (Skeleton Fishing) about a man who, after having heard a friend’s story about being thanked by the beautiful ghost of a drowned skeleton, goes to the river in an attempt to snare himself a supernatural girlfriend of his own but ends up fishing up the skeleton of the villain of a famous kabuki play.

Other stories in the collection feature other well-known figures from Japanese drama, lore, and legends narrated from unusual perspectives. “On High,” for example, is about a ghostly princess who haunts the beautiful hilltop Himeji Castle while it’s in the process of undergoing extensive renovations in the name of “historic preservation.” Meanwhile, “Enoki” is narrated by a sacred tree that is both frustrated and amused by the humans who insist on praying to it for various blessings, while “A Fox’s Life” is about a woman who’s been told she resembles a fox so often that she finally decides to go up into the mountains and become one.

“Smartening Up” is the first story in the collection, and it’s an excellent introduction to the author’s playful voice as she expresses the central theme of learning to embrace your weirdness and imperfections. The narrator begins the story obsessed with the darkness of her hair, spending a considerable amount of time and money on hair removal treatments while wishing she were born blond. On returning home after a rigorous session at an aesthetic salon one evening, she finds her aunt waiting for her in her apartment. This is something of a surprise, as her aunt had committed suicide in the wake of a failed love affair. Even more shocking, this aunt tells the narrator that she knows all about how she’s come to hate her appearance after being dumped. There’s nothing wrong with her hair, her aunt insists, especially since the fault lies with the piece of trash who cheated on her. The aunt assures her that her black hair is gorgeous, and that there’s no need for her to feel gross and ugly.

This story is loosely based on the Dōjōji legend, specifically the kabuki play Musume Dōjōji (The Maid of Dōjō Temple). The original story, in which a lustful woman is spurned by a celibate monk and turns into a giant snake to pursue him, is almost laughably misogynistic. The kabuki version, on the other hand, celebrates the woman’s serpentine transformation as an act of beauty and magic, with the dancer twirling in a robe that shines silver with the gorgeous gleam of scales.

The narrator’s aunt reminds her of the time they saw this play together and then admits that she’s still figuring out what her own secret power is. As the narrator considers the matter, she realizes that her own power is indeed in her hair. She begins eating hair-fortifying foods like liver and seaweed, helping her hair to become as monstrous and powerful as the snakes commanded by Medusa. She hides her demonic hair during the day but allows it to come out at night, brushing it to a high sheen and thinking about what sort of special skills she will learn in the future as she grows more comfortable wielding her magical power.

This may sound sentimental and a bit self-helpy, but the tone is actually very tongue-in-cheek and down to earth. The narrative voice, which is expertly captured through Polly Barton’s translation, is highly engaging. Many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are were inspired by rakugo comedic storytelling, which is meant to be a bit salty and ridiculous. A set of brief notes concerning sources and inspirations is provided at the end of the book, but it’s absolutely not necessary to be familiar with the original legends to appreciate and enjoy the stories in the collection.

Although many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are revolve around the theme of supernatural female empowerment, there’s no man-hating here – far from it. There are plenty of interesting male characters, including a time-traveling and dimension-hopping wizard who was inadvertently roped into the job and decided, like any good salaryman, just to stick with it. Although the reader doesn’t figure this out until late in the collection, all of the stories are loosely linked, with the various male and female characters managing to get along with each other in relative harmony.

Between the creative contemporary re-imaginings of folklore, the strong female friendships, the queer monster romance, and the general disdain for boring office jobs and awful bosses, the target audience of Where the Wild Ladies Are is specifically me, and I feel very seen and catered to. Still, Where the Wild Ladies Are should resonate with a broad readership. I suspect that a lot of anime fans and yōkai enthusiasts will be highly entertained by the collection, and the stories will appeal to anyone of any gender who enjoys clever comedy about how wild it is to live in the modern world.

People From My Neighborhood

People from My Neighborhood
Japanese Title: このあたりの人たち (Kono atari no hitotachi)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上 弘美)
Translator: Ted Goossen
Publication Year: 2019 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Granta
Pages: 121

The unnamed first-person narrator of People From My Neighborhood lives in a town that was rural when they were a child but has since developed and gentrified as farmers sold their land. Young people now commute to Tokyo, but a number of interesting people – and creatures – remain in the area. Some of the stories in this collection of microfiction are about the supernatural, but many are about people who are just a little odd or different.

There’s the taxi driver, for example, who spends all night driving around the ghosts of three women who supposedly died in the old tenement housing he refuses to vacate. There’s the self-appointed principle of a dog training program who spends all day loafing around the local park and sharing gossip. A child named Hachirō rotates between families in three-month intervals determined by lottery, as his parents already have fourteen kids. An elderly man who lives in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of town is called “Grandpa Shadows” by the local children because he has two shadows, one of which is rowdier than the other.

Then there is the mysterious diplomat who comes to town and provokes panic by going fishing in a lake that doesn’t exist. A princess keeps a beautiful garden and may or may not be responsible for a handful of murders and mass poisonings. One day a temporary mountain of sand appears along with a temporary god, and one day gravity simply disappears for a few hours.

My favorite story is “The White Dove,” in which a high school student picks up a peculiar avian creature during a fieldtrip. She takes the creature home, and it undergoes several metamorphoses before transforming into a sweet-tempered middle-aged man. He has a great destiny to fulfill, but this is largely irrelevant to the girl, who has a healthy sex drive and can think of far better uses for the man-shaped creature who now lives in her house. Although I’m always a fan of monster romance, what I love about this story is the way it sidelines the spectacular in order to focus on the drama of the mundane.

Some characters appear in more than one story, such as the narrator’s friend Kanae, who has a strong personality and goes on to live a storied life. Kanae’s sister, whose dream is to become a psychic medium, also finds herself at the center of several strange occurrences, as do a number of the narrator’s friends and acquaintances. The progression of stories jumps backwards and forwards through time, but the reader is nevertheless able to develop a sense of the social landscape of the small town and its population.

Since each story is only about two to six pages long, it’s fun to dip into the collection a bit at a time to see what’s new in town. By the end of the book, you almost feel as though you live there yourself. If you’re in the mood for a vacation to a place where anything could happen, People From My Neighborhood is your ticket to a bizarre yet relaxing experience.

Parade

Parade
Japanese Title: パレード (Parēdo)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上 弘美)
Illustrator: Takako Yoshitomi (吉富 貴子)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Book Design: Wah-Ming Chan
Publication Year: 2002 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 82

Parade is a short story that takes place during Hiromi Kawakami’s 2001 novel Strange Weather in Tokyo, which is about a woman in her late thirties who falls in love with her former high school teacher, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Parade stands on its own, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Strange Weather in order to appreciate Parade, which is strange and delightful.

Parade opens with the narrator, Tsukiko Omachi, preparing noodles at Sensei’s house. He asks her to tell him “a story of long ago,” and she responds by relating something that happened during her childhood as they spend a lazy afternoon together.

When she was a kid, Tsukiko woke up one day to find two small people sitting beside her bed. They were about her size, and they had long noses, small wings, and bright red skin. Tsukiko decided that they were probably creatures from Japanese folklore called tengu. The two tengu followed Tsukiko to school, but no one seemed to notice them.

When Tsukiko arrives at school, however, she realizes that a few of the other children are accompanied by creatures of their own, such as a badger and a long-necked rokurokubi. The children followed by these creatures can see them, but they remain invisible to everyone else. None of the children find this odd, and Tsukiko’s mother – who once had a fox of her own – treats the issue in a matter-of-fact manner.

These creatures turn out to have less of an impact on Tsukiko’s life than a bullying incident in which Tsukiko’s classmate Yuko is ostracized by the other girls at their school. Yuko has a healthy response to this, ignoring her classmates while still being friendly with other kids her age outside of class. Tsukiko is uncomfortable with the situation, however, and her tengu begin to fall ill.

The situation resolves itself, but there’s no sentimental moral or life lesson to the story, just children behaving in the way that children tend to behave. Instead, the otherness of the tengu serves as a means by which Tsukiko begins to understand her own subjectivity as someone who has never thought of herself as “a tengu person” yet has somehow come to be associated with them. At the same time, she becomes more aware of the subjectivity of other people who are paired with mythological creatures of their own, as well as the subjectivity of people who can’t see them but have no trouble accepting that they exist. There’s no direct allegory implied, but the imagery of Parade is compelling enough to resonate on multiple levels.

Soft Skull Press’s paperback publication of Parade is a lovely physical object, with a velvet-touch cover and finely textured pages. It also features creative interior design work by Wah-Ming Chan and a gallery of abstract illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (who has also published work in a number of josei magazines, although you won’t see any manga influences in Parade). The book measures about 4 by 6 inches, the perfect size for a short commute or a small gift. Although younger children may not understand the implications of the frame story (namely, Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship), Parade is suitable for all ages, and I can imagine that it might inspire a few fledgling writers to tell “a story from long ago” of their own.

The God of Bears

The God of Bears
Japanese Title: 神様 (Kamisama)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上弘美)
Publisher: Chūōkōronsha (中央公論社)
Publication Year: 1998
Pages: 205

At the age of 36, Hiromi Kawakami submitted a story titled “The God of Bears” (Kamisama) to the Pascal Short Story Literary Newcomers Prize competition sponsored by Asahi Net, one of Japan’s largest internet service providers. “The God of Bears” was the winning entry, and it was first published online in 1994. “The God of Bears” was later published in print in 1998 in a collection of the same name, which won the prestigious Murasaki Shikibu Literary Prize of that year and the Bunkamura Deux Magots Literary Prize in the following year.

The God of Bears contains nine short stories set in contemporary Japan and connected by an unnamed narrator who encounters a variety of curious people and creatures during her daily life. In the title story, the narrator is invited out on a picnic by a bear who has just moved into their apartment complex. The narrator’s interactions with the bear over the course of a lazy afternoon illustrate both how familiar and how alien he seems as he attempts to adjust to life in human society. Other stories involve similarly supernatural yet mundane creatures, as well as normal people who find themselves in extraordinary situations.

In the second story, “Summer Break,” the narrator spends a few weeks working at a pear orchard, where she adopts a trio of small tree spirits. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. One of these creatures is introverted and oddly neurotic, and its anxiety over its short lifespan resonates with the worries of the narrator, who feels as if the world is slipping away from her. Both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with depression, but the conclusion of “Summer Break” embraces healing and self-acceptance.

The stories collected in The God of Bears are suffused with symbolism and subtext, and their themes emphasize appreciation for the natural world and a nuanced understanding of difference. The narrator is an engaging presence whose mood hovers between gentle amusement and dry cynicism, and she leads the reader along a trail of strange experiences while sharing her unique perspective on the fantastic events that befall her.

The God of Bears has the potential to speak to a broad audience of both casual and serious readers. Readers of contemporary Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa will be drawn in by the quiet elements of the fantastic and the distinctive but non-intrusive narrative voice. The folkloric nature of many of the stories, combined with the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the narrator, will also appeal to fans of anime and manga. Kawakami’s work is rich in visual imagery that lends itself to the development of a rich world for readers to explore, and the stories in this collection are filled with joy and wonder at the delightful weirdness of everyday life.

Aside from the title story, which can be found in the 2012 anthology March Was Made of Yarn, The God of Bears has not yet appeared in English translation.

 

The Lonesome Bodybuilder

The Lonesome Bodybuilder
Japanese Titles: 嵐のピクニック (Arashi no pikunikku) and 異類婚姻譚 (Irui kon’in tan)
Author: Yukiko Motoya (本谷 有希子)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Years: 2015 & 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 209

The Lonesome Bodybuilder collects eleven stories originally published in two books by the celebrated author Yukiko Motoya, whose writing has been winning prestigious awards in Japan for more than fifteen years. I’m a fan of Motoya’s work, and I was looking forward to the day when it would appear in translation. I couldn’t have asked for a better rendition into English than Asa Yoneda’s lively and engaging translation, and The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a wonderful introduction to the work of a fascinating writer.

The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is an eighteen-page journey. The protagonist feels as if her husband is ignoring her, so she takes up bodybuilding. She ends up becoming serious about it, but her husband fails to notice the dramatic changes of her body. After a traumatic incident in which she’s too afraid to use her physical strength to stop a dog from attacking another dog outside the home goods store where she works, she begins to embrace the idea that her training has no practical purpose other than to make her feel good about the way she looks. This sense of agency leads her to confront her husband, who finally makes an effort to be a better partner. At the end of the story, the narrator has started to build her self-confidence as well as her muscles, and she’s even beginning to consider adopting a dog of her own.

While the narrator of “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” learns to strengthen her connections with the people around her, “The Dogs” is a surreal celebration of self-imposed isolation. The narrator lives in a cabin in the woods that she’s borrowing from a friend while she does a vague sort of work that involves tweezers and a magnifying glass. She lives with dozens of bright white dogs that emerged from the forest and now share her space and sleep with her at night. When she goes to a nearby village for groceries, she learns that people have been going missing, and she fantasizes about what it would be like if everyone were to disappear. Her wish comes true as winter sets in and snow begins to fall, leaving her alone with dozens of mysterious dogs. The narrator treats all of this as if it were perfectly natural, and it’s clear that she couldn’t be happier.

The longest story in the collection, “An Exotic Marriage,” appears to be a straightforward account of a mundane marriage, but it gradually devolves into troubled confession regarding a genuinely bizarre situation. Several people close to the narrator have remarked that she has begun to physically resemble her husband, an observation that she finds disturbing. Although he’d already been married once, her husband seemed like an ordinary person until they moved in together, at which point he stopped making any attempt to hide his idiosyncrasies. He watches variety shows on television for hours on end before eventually transferring the target of his obsessive attention to a mobile game that the narrator tries and fails to understand. His unapologetic monomania leads him to quit his job; and, as he spends more time at home and becomes even more eccentric, his appearance begins to shift. The narrator is understandably concerned about what it might mean that she’s come to look like him, but she’s at a loss for how to keep her sense of self intact. At the end of the story, she realizes that her husband’s transformation is more dramatic than she suspected – and that he may not be human at all.

The stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder toe an odd and uncanny line between slipstream horror and emotional comfort food. Although some of the situations the protagonists find themselves in are strange and uncomfortable, Motoya’s writing doesn’t convey any particular sense of dread. The lighter stories play games with popular culture, humorously exploring questions such as “What would it be like to be a generic minor character in a video game?” and “What if your anime girlfriend were real?” As a collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder carries on a conversation about the tenuous relationships people forge with difference, and most of the narrative tension comes from the ways in which this difference manifests in various identities, ontologies, and communication styles that may not always be compatible or even fully comprehensible.

Each of the eleven stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder is interesting and unexpected, and Asa Yoneda’s skillful translation of Motoya’s sparkling prose is a joy to read.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride: The Golden Yarn

The Ancient Magus’ Bride: The Golden Yarn
Japanese Title: 魔法使いの嫁 金糸篇 (Mahōtsukai no yome: Kinshi hen)
Editorial Supervisor: Kore Yamazaki (ヤマザキコレ)
Translator: Andrew Cunningham
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Seven Seas
Pages: 349

The Golden Yarn collects eight short stories set in the world of The Ancient Magus’ Bride, an urban fantasy manga series that was adapted into a three-part anime OVA in 2016 and a television series that aired in 2017. Even though I’m only a casual fan of the franchise, I still found this collection delightful. Each of the stories stands on its own, and the book is accessible even to people entirely unfamiliar with the manga or its animated adaptations.

The first story, “Frozen Flowers,” is by Kore Yamazaki, the artist who created the Ancient Magus’ Bride manga. Like the other stories in The Golden Yarn, “Frozen Flowers” offers a glimpse into the world of the series without assuming any prior knowledge. In this story, a centaur named Hazel visits his aunt Marie, who was born with two feet instead of four. Marie looks like a normal human, but she has the heart and mind of a centaur, and she wants nothing more than to run under the open sky with the rest of her herd. Because of her appearance, however, she’s ostracized by her fellow centaurs and lives alone in an isolated area in rural England. It’s difficult for Hazel to understand why Marie doesn’t try to pass as human, but he still accepts her and offers her his friendship and kindness.

“Frozen Flowers” introduces the main theme of The Ancient Magus’ Bride, which is the various relationships people negotiate with difference. Some of these relationships are healthy and affirming, as in “Frozen Flowers,” while others are toxic and exploitative.

There’s a strong current of horror running through the stories in The Golden Yarn. It’s most present in Jun’ichi Fujisaku’s “The Man Who Hungered for Trees,” in which the assistant to a genius video game programmer uncovers the sinister roots of his supervisor’s talent. The programmer makes small blood sacrifices to the spirits of marijuana bushes in exchange for energy and inspiration, but the plants are hungry for larger prey. As you might imagine, this doesn’t end well for anyone involved.

All of the stories in The Golden Yarn were contributed by authors associated with various light novel series. I was especially impressed with “The Sun and the Dead Alchemist,” which was written by Kiyomune Miwa, the author of the steampunk zombie-hunting series Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (which was adapted into an anime in 2016). Miwa haunts similar grounds in this story, which describes the bittersweet romance between a necromancer and a young woman whom she inadvertently destroys with her magic.

An interesting aspect of this collection for me, as an American, was the opportunity to look at Europe and America from an outside perspective. For example, the venerable Yuu Godai, the author of the long-running Guin Saga series of dystopian fantasy novels, contributed a piece called “Jack Flash and the Rainbow Egg,” which is about a fairy who lives in New York but is obsessed with Japanese popular culture and sets up a detective agency to earn human money in order to buy dōjinshi. Godai’s energetic adventure story is a fun take on American culture, but what I found even more intriguing than a New York run by magical secret societies is the fantasy of twenty-first century Great Britain as a mystical land of rolling green fields, garden cottages, and magical creatures. I suppose The Golden Yarn is sort of like Harry Potter without the overt allusions to class conflicts and real-world fascism, but none of the stories shy away from the darker side of human nature.

Seven Seas has also published a companion volume, The Ancient Magus’ Bride: The Silver Yarn. Aside from the second half of “Jack Flash and the Rainbow Egg,” The Silver Yarn can be read independently, and its stories are just as engaging as those in The Golden Yarn. I can happily recommend both of these short story collections to any fan of historical fantasy and contemporary urban fantasy regardless of their level of familiarity with the Ancient Magus’ Bride franchise. Although there’s no explicit mention of sexuality, some of the stories are quite violent and disturbing, and the books are best suited to older teens and adults.

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.

The Girl Who Is Getting Married

Title: The Girl Who Is Getting Married
Japanese Title: もうすく結婚する女 (Mō sugu kekkon suru onna)
Author: Aoko Matsuda (松田 青子)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Strangers Press
Pages: 36

Aoko Matsuda’s The Girl Who Is Getting Married, published as a stand-alone chapbook by Strangers Press in the same series as Mikumari, is a lovely puzzle box of a short story. The unnamed narrator is going to visit “the girl who is getting married,” but who is the narrator, and what is her relationship with the girl who is getting married? Instead of revealing its answer, the question twists and turns in on itself as the possible answers fracture and multiply.

According to the “About the Author” section on the inside of the chapbook’s front flap, Aoko Matsuda has “translated into Japanese Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” There are many similarities in the tongue-in-cheek yet still unsettling weirdness that characterizes the short fiction of both authors, and it’s appropriate that Russell has written a short foreword to The Girl Who Is Getting Married. She aptly summarizes the uncertainty that lingers between the narrator and the girl who is getting married by explaining, “Each new paragraph shifts our understanding of their relationship. At some points they seem to merge into one girl, amoeba-like; at other moments, it’s tough to believe that they have ever shared a word” (9). Are they childhood friends? College roommates? Cousins? Sisters? A mother and her daughter? Casual acquaintances? Complete strangers? The exact same person?

The mystery of the narrator’s identity is ultimately less compelling than the odd rhythm and tempo of her narrative voice, however. As she gradually climbs the stairs to a fifth-floor apartment, she takes the reader along with her, step by step by step, with the expression “the girl who is getting married” repeated like a talismanic refrain. Just as the relationship between the two women shifts and changes, so too does the architecture of the building, which gradually begins to take on its own character. For example…

Special mention must be made of the stone staircase that rises up in the centre. It is a very large staircase, with a smooth, pale sheen. Even if it were the case that some other stone was used, I would like to assert quite definitely that this is marble. Although the staircase is flanked by rooms on both sides, its presence is so powerful that there would seem no exaggeration in suggesting that it is the reason for the building’s existence. Followed up and up by an obedient black hand-rail, the staircase is an unobtrusive white, a little grey in places, brining to mind the bones of a dinosaur. I do not know a great deal about dinosaurs so I cannot identify the exact type, but I am thinking of one with a very long neck. One that looks as though it would eat vegetation rather than meat a comparatively gentle one.

This is a dinosaur that, stretching out its elegant neck, will take me to the room where the girl who is getting married will be. (11-12)

Just as it’s difficult to grasp the identity of the narrator, it’s also impossible to visualize the building whose staircase she climbs, which is described in terms of the sensations it evokes. The girl who is getting married could be anyone, but the ascent to her apartment is like a description of a surrealist painting.

Matsuda plays with words to create and reshape concrete images and abstract illusions; and, in many ways, this short story feels like an extended prose poem. That being said, it doesn’t demand any unnecessary work from the reader, who is invited to explore the evocative emotional chiaroscuro of its dreamspace along with the narrator. The story is carefully translated and delightfully easy to read, and it’s a lot of fun to get lost in its labyrinth.

The Girl Who Is Getting Married can be ordered directly from Strangers Press, which ships internationally.