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.  

Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Title: Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan
Editors: Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel
Essays: 12, with an Introduction by the editors
Publication Year: 1999 (America)
Pages: 317

This book, while undeniably academic, is perhaps the most important resource for students of contemporary Japanese literature. Included in this book are twelve essays by prominent scholars on the biggest names in post-war Japanese literature. There are essays on political writers like Ōe Kenzaburō and Nakagami Kenji, feminist writers like Ohba Minako and Takahashi Takako, and contemporary popular writers like Murakami Haruki and Banana Yoshimoto. Each of these essays aims to look at the writer as a whole, considering his or her major works and themes, while at the same time attempting to evaluate his or her place in the larger body of modern and postmodern Japanese literature. Every essay is a sound piece of scholarly work, and none of the analyses rely on theory unfamiliar to a college graduate.

Because these essays are so general and yet so rigorous in their approach, I would like to recommend the collection to general readers, as well as specialists, who have cultivated an interest in a particular writer. You won’t be disappointed by what you find. The short introductory essay is also a wonderful introduction to the state of Japanese literature at the turn on the 21st century.

Here is a list of the writers treated by the essays, as well as the authors of the essays themselves. An astute observer (such as myself, haha) will notice that many of the essayists are their subjects’ primary translators, a fact which attests to their close relationship with the authors and their works.

1. Ōe Kenzaburō (Susan Napier)
2. Endō Shūsaku (Van C. Gessel)
3. Hayashi Kyōko (Davinder L. Bhowmick)
4. Ohba Minako (Adrienne Hurley)
5. Takahashi Takako (Mark Williams)
6. Nakagami Kenji (Eve Zimmerman)
7. Kurahashi Yumiko (Atsuko Sakaki)
8. Murakami Haruki (Jay Rubin)
9. Murakami Ryū (Stephen Synder)
10. Shimada Masahiko (Philip Gabriel)
11. Kanai Mieko (Sharalyn Orbaugh)
12. Yoshimoto Banana (Ann Sheif)