The Nakano Thrift Shop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams

Vampire Knight Fleeting Dreams

Title: Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams
Japanese Title: ヴァンパイア騎士 煌銀の夢 (Vanpaia naito: Fureiru no yume)
Author: Fujisaki Ayuna (藤咲 あゆな)
Original Story: Hino Matsuri (樋野 まつり)
Translator: Su Mon Han
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2013 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 273

Yesterday I blew through this book in one sitting, and I was like, “Why am I reading this garbage?”

Today I’m sitting in front of my computer, and I’m like, “Why am I reviewing this garbage?”

Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams is like a McDonald’s Oreo McFlurry: it’s cheap, it has absolutely no substance, it’s terrible for you, and yet it’s bizarrely compelling.

If you’ve never heard of Hino Matsuri’s Vampire Knight, it’s a shōjo manga supernatural soap opera starring Kurosu Yūki (Yuki Cross in the translation), a high school girl who is the object of the obsessive romantic interest of both Kiryū Zero, a vampire hunter who was bitten and turned as an adolescent, and Kuran Kaname, an older (much older) Pureblood vampire who has known Yūki since she was a small child. While Zero and Kaname glower and brood, Yūki is the embodiment of pure-hearted sweetness. She’s clumsy, she’s stupid, she’s ineffectual, and everyone adores her. Many necks are bitten.

Sexuality is the big theme in the first half of the nineteen-volume manga series, while the intersection of politics and bioethics is the major concern of the latter half (in which everyone is still sexy, of course). Although things happen to Yūki, and although the reader learns more about her background, her character doesn’t really change over the course of the story; and, at the end of the manga, she is just as trusting and cheerful and willing to sacrifice herself for others as she was at the beginning. In essence, although she’s surrounded by adults, she herself never really grows up. It’s from this characterization that the third major theme of the series arises, namely, the preservation of innocence.

What’s really interesting to me about Vampire Knight is that the fantasy the reader is most expected to identify with is not related to being the object of sexual desire or being physically young and healthy forever; rather, the fantasy of Vampire Knight; is all about being protected. Unlike the Twilight novels, in which Bella begins as Sleeping Beauty and ends up as Jean Grey, Yūki does not become a symbol of love or immortality. Instead, the reader comes to associate her with being shielded. Yūki fails at everything she does, but she is always given a second chance, and then a third, and then a fourth. She experiences hardship, certainly, but nothing is ever her fault. Although Yūki’s complete lack of development can be frustrating to the reader, one might say that her true talent lies in not being tainted by the evils of the adult world.

Vampire Knight: Fleeting Dreams is a collection of six short stories written by Fujisaki Ayuna, one of the scriptwriters for the Vampire Knight anime series. Although the book does contain a dozen illustrations by Hino Matsuri, the smoldering eyes and parted lips of the manga are largely (but not entirely) absent, as are all but the briefest references to the political games and secret technologies that dominate the latter volumes of the series. What Fleeting Dreams focuses on is the fantasy of being protected and sheltered, whether it’s Yūki finally succeeding in her studies after being assigned a private tutor, Zero becoming a temporary bodyguard for a female vampire named Shien, or the human students of Yūki’s high school finding a sense of community through a school festival.

My favorite story in the collection is “A Maiden’s Melancholy” (Otome no yūutsu: Aru hi no Howaito Ririi), which is narrated by Zero’s horse, White Lily. Describing herself as “the maiden of the snowy white blossoms,” White Lily is devoted to Zero and will allow no other rider to approach her, a temperament that has resulted in her being labeled as “difficult.” One day, when Headmaster Cross (Yūki’s adoptive father) proposes that White Lily be “matched” with a stallion named Black Sword, she becomes enraged but is unable to communicate her displeasure to Zero, who doesn’t oppose the arrangement. It turns out that the only person who is able to understand White Lily’s feelings is Yūki, who reassures the horse that Zero and Headmaster Cross would never do anything to make her unhappy. What I like about this story is that it highlights Yūki’s narratively underutilized ability to protect those around her because of her empathy, not in spite of it.

Of course, I also enjoyed the fact that the narrator of “A Maiden’s Melancholy” is a horse who proclaims her love for Zero in twenty-point font. It’s a ridiculous situation, and the writer plays it for all it’s worth. To be honest, everything in Fleeting Dreams is way over the top, and its dark heart pumps purple prose. The text is double-spaced and sits in the center of enormous margins, so not even the layout editor is trying to trick you into thinking it’s serious. Although the stories are intended for an audience that has already completed the manga (or Ayuna’s previous three-part novelization of the manga), you really don’t have to have read even a single volume of the series to appreciate the appeal; Fleeting Dreams is like the best (and worst) fanfiction in that the source text almost doesn’t matter.

If you don’t go into this book expecting camp, or if you don’t enjoy campy romance fiction to begin with, I guarantee that you will dislike Fleeting Dreams. As I wrote at the beginning of this review, it’s garbage. Regardless, I’m overjoyed that Viz Media has published it in lovely physical and digital editions, because it’s always good to see more light novels for girls in English. Yen Press has the boys spoiled for choice, and we really need some pointy boy bits (look at those fingers on Hino’s cover illustration!) to balance out all the bouncing breasts currently on offer. Bring on the trashy young adult chick lit!

The Restaurant of Love Regained

Title: The Restaurant of Love Regained
Japanese Title: 食堂かたつむり (Shokudō Katatsumuri)
Author: Ogawa Ito (小川 糸)
Translator: David Karashima
Publication Year: 2011 (United Kingdom); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 193

The ad copy on the back cover of The Restaurant of Love Regained proclaims the book to be “for all fans of Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.” I think the comparison between the two books is apt. Both novels are short and fluffy stories of young women who attempt to ameliorate the pain caused by a recent loss through cooking. Both are meant to have a calming and healing effect on the reader. And finally, depending on the reader, the prose of both novels is either refreshingly light and bubbly or infuriatingly infantile. Before you read the rest of this review, you might first want to ascertain how Ogawa’s writing style affects you:

My dream of having my own place was now within reach. Things were still hard work, though. I still trod in [my pet pig]’s droppings at least once a day. I still had chestnuts falling on my head. And I still kept tripping over pebbles along the mountain paths and almost falling flat on my face. But the number of moments that filled my heart with joy far outnumbered those I’d felt while living in the city. Even the tiniest little thing had the power to make me feel happy. Like turning over a beetle struggling on its back and watching it walk away. Like feeling the warmth of a freshly laid egg against my cheek. Like seeing a droplet of water balance on a leaf’s surface, more beautiful than any diamond. Or like finding a Kinugasa mushroom at the entrance to the bamboo forest, carefully plucking it and taking it home to place in my miso soup, with its wonderful flavor and its underside as beautiful and intricate as hand-knitted lace. All of these things filled me with wonder and gratitude and made me want to kiss God on the cheek.

If you like this type of writing, the whole book is written like this. If you don’t like this type of writing, this whole book is written like this. Since the novel has apparently achieved “international bestseller status” and was even turned into a feature film, I suppose that enough people have found Ogawa’s prose charming. It struck me as both forced and superficial at times, and the overwrought analogies and smug statements of self-satisfaction that Ogawa tends to place at the end of her paragraphs occasionally made me cringe in second-hand embarrassment. It took me about thirty pages to get used to Ogawa’s writing; but, once I did, I started to enjoy the book for what it was: food porn. Ogawa’s narrator loves cooking, and she loves eating, and she talks about both incessantly. If nothing else, this novel will fill you with a powerful lust for food.

The Restaurant of Love Regained begins when its first person narrator, Rinko, returns to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend to find it empty. Everything – from her furniture to the food in the refrigerator to the money she had kept stashed away under her mattress – is gone. Since Rinko has neither a cell phone nor a debit card, she uses the last bit of money on her person to take a bus back to her rural hometown. Rinko had originally left this village as a teenager in order to get away from her mother, who works as a bar hostess. After moving to Tokyo and living with her grandmother for a few years, during which time she learned how to cook, Rinko started working at a Middle Eastern restaurant. She was planning on opening her own restaurant when she had saved enough money – or at least she was before her boyfriend absconded with all of her worldly possessions. The shock to Rinko is so great that she ends up losing her voice. Rinko thus can only communicate through writing, but this doesn’t stop her from convincing her mother to loan her enough money to open an “eatery” in the small mountain village where she now lives. Rinko names her eatery “The Snail” and decides to serve only one party of customers a day, a management strategy that will presumably allow her to put her entire heart and soul into each and every meal.

What follows this initial setup is an episodic series of stories about Rinko’s customers and the dishes she prepares for them. Through her cooking, Rinko brings couples and families together while healing sick pets and sick relationships. All of these stories have happy endings, and Ogawa seems to delight in detailing the ingredients and preparation of the food that makes these happy endings possible. Behind the fluffy chick lit and food porn, though, is the story of the complicated relationship between Rinko and her mother, which, in the end, gives the novel the kind of satisfying narrative closure that cannot be provided by erotic descriptions of crème fraiche alone. This mother-daughter relationship is also the only hint of character complexity in The Restaurant of Love Regained, which is otherwise entirely one-dimensional. If you happen to like that one dimension, though, you will love the novel. Ogawa’s formulaic prose and story patterns are enjoyable and relaxing, and her novel is a testament to culinary creativity.

… At least until the last forty-five pages. The first thirty pages of the novel’s closing sequence are grisly and horrific. In these pages, Rinko butchers her pet pig Hermes for her mother’s wedding reception. This process is described in hideously disturbing language. Nothing in the rest of the book will have prepared you for these scenes. Reading them is viscerally upsetting – it’s like biting into a sweet tropical fruit only to find that a many-legged creature has died there while its sickly white larva feast on the flesh of their mother.

Besides an older man named Kuma, who helps Rinko set up her restaurant, Hermes is Rinko’s only friend. Rinko variously describes the pig as her sister, her child, her foster mother, and her grandmother. Rinko has fed Hermes, slept beside Hermes, and taken care of Hermes when the pig was sick. Rinko celebrated her birthday with Hermes, and Rinko rang in the new year with only Hermes to share her joy. Rinko cried to Hermes when she was sad and tried out new recipes on Hermes when she was excited. Throughout the novel, Hermes has proven capable of a wide range of human emotions; and, in many ways, the pig is a more sympathetic character than Rinko herself.

It is therefore not a little upsetting when Rinko acquiesces to her mother’s request that she kill Hermes.

The end of the novel is composed of a series of scenes depicting Rinko preparing Hermes for her mother’s wedding reception dinner. The author uses cruelly precise language to explain everything from the fear in Hermes’s eyes when the pig realizes she will be killed, to the way the pig struggles against being lead to the slaughterhouse, to the pig’s panic and anger when she is strung upside-down from the ceiling, to the pig’s anguished cries when Rinko slits her throat, to the pig’s futile struggles as she slowly bleeds to death. This goes on for pages. What follows is a loving description of the instruments Rinko uses to skin, gut, and carve Harmes, as well as how these instruments cut and slice into the pig’s body. There is a lot of ripping and tearing and blood, which is all the more disturbing when coupled with Rinko’s tender prostrations of how precious Hermes is to her, and how Hermes is just like a child/sister/mother.

This book takes the preparation of food very seriously. However, whereas these food preparation scenes used to be innocent and appetizing…

The rice was cooked a little too soft for my liking, but that didn’t stop me from munching down several mouthfuls and imagining their energy rising from the bottom of my stomach; the energy had come from Kuma’s mother as I’m sure she prepared them with her heart, her soul and kind thoughts for us. So I wasn’t just eating rice. I was taking in her love.

…now they are cruel and disgusting:

Next, I said a final farewell to Hermes’s face and placed it in the middle of the work bench. I took a knife and cut off both ears, planning to use them in a salad. Then I cracked the head in two. As my knife went through her head, it let out a sound like a groan. I was surprised to see that her brain was a lot smaller than I’d expected, and with a different, pearl-like colour to it too.

Pretty gross, right? And this paragraph isn’t even the worst. That particular honor goes to the paragraph in which Rinko muses that Hermes was like a grandmother to her as she pulls out the pig’s intestines.

I think the point of these scenes is supposed to be that we should reflect on where our food comes from and respect the organisms that give their lives so that we may be nourished. In other words, I think the novel’s conclusion is supposed to be a joyous celebration of food and food cultures (oddly paired with a sense of sadness directed towards relationships that cannot last, such as Rinko’s relationship with her mother, who is dying of cancer). Unfortunately, the incestuous and cannibalistic overtones of the language used to describe this bloody and barbaric celebration cancel out any intended joy and thanksgiving. I am not a vegetarian, and I think pork bacon is delicious, but the slaughter and consumption of Hermes was too much even for me, especially since the one hundred and fifty pages proceeding it had lulled me into complacency with uncomplicated stories of delicious food and people being happy.

Such an ending could be interpreted in two ways. The first is that it is simply the incompetent icing on a cake of incompetent writing. The second is that Ogawa is a brilliant writer of subversive horror fiction who has been even more subtle in her project to shock and horrify her audience than director Miike Takashi was in a film like Audition. If we follow this second interpretation, Rinko’s one-dimensional personality takes on sinister overtones. In her mind, there is no distinction between food and family, and she finds just as much pleasure in the bloody butchering of flesh as she does in sipping imported hot chocolate. Such an interpretation, combined with the novel’s vaguely gothic setting, provides a chilling premonition of the grisly future of Rinko’s isolated restaurant in the mountains. Furthermore, what really happened to the lover who abandoned Rinko at the beginning of the novel?

Unfortunately, this second interpretation is somewhat improbable. What we have, then, is a novel about food that gets a little messy at the end. If you love food and can stomach an extended scene detailing the slaughter and butchering of a beloved pet for the sake of thematic closure, you can probably handle The Restaurant of Love Regained. You might even be glad you read it. If you’re looking for serious Literature-with-a-capital-L, an engaging plot, an interesting and multi-faceted cast of characters, and real human drama – or if you’re put out by the prospect of reading thirty pages of intense carnage – you should probably avoid this novel. Personally, I wish I could unread it.

The Word Book

Title: The Word Book
Japanese Title: 単語集 (Tango-shū)
Author: Kanai Mieko (金井美恵子)
Translator: Paul McCarthy
Publication Year: 1979 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 148

The pink cover of this small paperback might lead one to think that it’s a short collection of chick lit. While it’s true that Kanai Mieko is female, and while it’s true that she has often been classified as a “women writer,” The Word Book is just about as far away from chick lit as you can get. The twelve short stories in this collection are perhaps not so much “stories” as they are prose poems, or perhaps even essays written in the form of short stories. Kanai’s language is gorgeous, and the way she presents her ideas is fascinating. The stories themselves are very loosely structured and don’t follow established narrative patterns.

Kanai’s preoccupation in The Word Book is the writing self, or the self who is speaking, or telling a story. Many of the narrators in this collection are writers, and many of them are trying to explain something that happened in the past. Kanai almost fetishizes her narrators as they write about writing and constantly question their ability to tell a story. Perhaps it happened like this, perhaps it happened differently. Who is writing? Who is telling the story? Is the narrator of the story the same person as the protagonist of the story? Many of these stories have multiple narrators within the span of less than ten pages. A reader is faced with two choices – to either puzzle out who the narrators are and what their relationship to one another might be, or to let the narrative flow wash over him or her and simply accept that the narrator of a story is never a stable or unquestionable entity.

In that each of Kanai’s stories resembles something of an intellectual puzzle, I am reminded of Borges’s Labyrinths. In that Kanai’s stories are filled with a multitude of unreliable narrators who may or may not actually be the same person, I am reminded of Faulkner, especially As I Lay Dying. However, since Kanai is still able to infuse her stories with a sense of place and beauty, I am reminded of Furui Yoshikichi (Ravine and Other Stories, translated by Meredith McKinney), another Japanese writer of mysterious short fiction.

An interesting aspect of Kanai’s prose that I think is undeniably characteristic of her and no one else, however, is her play on gender. Kanai is a woman, but all of her narrators are men. To be more precise, Paul McCarthy has translated all of her narrators as men. I have only read a handful of Kanai’s stories in the original Japanese, but it is my impression that the writer takes full advantage of the ability of the Japanese language to not differentiate gender. Why does Kanai write with exclusively male narrators? Or are her narrators all men? Is she intentionally writing within a masculine narrative realm? If this book did not have a pink front cover and an “about the author” blurb on the back cover, would the reader even know that the author of this collection is a woman? Does it matter?

Meta-textual issues aside, I really enjoyed reading The Word Book because of its narrative sophistication, dreamlike atmosphere, and poetic touch. To illustrate what I like so much about this book, I would like to end with a passage from a story entitled “Fiction:”

But after awhile, I changed my mind: my guest’s words were as vague as they were clear, spoken by one who expresses by looks or by his whole weak body the scintillating talent of a born poet. Realizing this, I trembled with envy. Bitter as it was to admit, I was envious of those empty words, not understood even by the man who uttered them, those empty words that shone with a soft, rose-colored radiance. Words such as these, shining words bathed in a soft, rose-colored radiance, precisely because of their emptiness lusted after a shameless ecstasy of the sort one can only experience in dreams. And I thought, feeling a kind of despair, “Long ago my words, too, trembled violently in this shining, soft, rose-colored radiance.”

Turning Japanese

Turning Japanese

Title: Turning Japanese
Author: Cathy Yardley
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 310

I think that the cover of this book was obviously designed to attract a specific demographic of me, personally. Pink! Cherry blossoms! Serious business woman! Anime! I saw this book in the bookstore and didn’t even look at the back cover until it was safely home with me. Thankfully, what the cover promises, the book delivers: Japan-themed super-fun. According to Amazon, author Cathy Yardley already has quite a few novels under her belt, many of them romances with titles like “Ravish” and “Crave.” There are no heaving bosoms in Turning Japanese, though, and the book is much more of a comedy than a romance. I wouldn’t call it a travelogue, either, as the emphasis is much more on plot and character development than descriptions of exotic Japan. I genuinely enjoyed reading it; it was fun.

Okay, now the plot. Lisa Falloya is a 29-year-old factory office worker in upstate New York. Despite having lived in the same town her whole life, she can speak and read Japanese thanks to her Japanese mother. She loves reading and drawing manga and ends up winning a competition at a sci-fi / fantasy / anime convention, which gives her the opportunity to work as an intern at a manga publisher in Tokyo. Going to Tokyo would mean leaving behind her two best friends and fiancé, but she goes anyway after everyone she knows practically bullies her into it. Once she gets to Japan, Lisa has to deal with a mean boss and nightmare host family; but, as she begins to overcome those challenges, she also has to deal with the resentment of her friends and fiancé, who have started to feel that she has left them behind.

And now it’s time for me to explain why, even though I couldn’t put this novel down, it upset the shit out of me. Perhaps the least significant issue I had with this book were the small inaccuracies concerning Japan, which mostly involve mistakes with the Japanese language. As I said, these are fairly insignificant, but there are quite a few of them, and several of them are repeated quite often. Which is annoying to a Japan snob such as myself.

Second, Lisa is an almost textbook definition of what people in the various universes of fandom like to call a “Mary Sue character” (perhaps “self-insert character” would be a good translation), who is a bit shy and awkward but whose only real flaw is that she has no flaws. But, whatever, this isn’t high art here, and there have been worse Mary Sues who have stalked across the printed page.

My main problem with Lisa is that she more or less allows people to walk all over her while constantly apologizing and blaming herself. Even though the narrative demonstrates that it is when Lisa forces a dramatic confrontation that any sort of progress is achieved, the author doesn’t seem to put much stock into this method of resolution and instead allows most inter-personal relationships to stew in barely concealed mires of passive-aggressiveness, which I found extraordinarily frustrating.

To give a good example, Lisa’s fiancé is a self-absorbed, hypocritical, and emotionally abusive MBA student – I believe the technical term is “douchelord.” When he is studying for finals, he won’t give Lisa the time of day; when he wants to get married, he forces her to plan everything according to his schedule; when she starts to express passion and ambition concerning her own life, he asks her (at least two dozen times) to re-evaluate her priorities. And then, when he breaks their engagement because she brings up the possibility of pursuing a career in the same part of New York City where he will be working, she acts as if the failed relationship were entirely her fault, an assumption that the author is almost completely uncritical of. Of course, it can be argued that people are silly when it comes to love, and that men sometimes get to be selfish too, but this sort of relationship pattern is repeated again and again throughout the novel. It perhaps comes as no surprise that none of the relationships that follow this pattern are ever successfully resolved – at least they weren’t to me.

It therefore seems that the moral of this book is that you can be a strong, independent woman with dreams and aspirations as long as you are still meek and submissive to anyone who has any real control over your life. I found this to be a problematic message, personally, and it ended up undermining a great deal of the fun I felt I should have been having with this book. That being said, however, there’s still a lot of fun to be had, and I would still recommend this novel, which is on the whole well-written and well-edited, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have always wanted to live the Tokyo dream. Also, to any of my fellow Japan dorks who have not yet lived the dream but are considering it, I believe Turning Japanese offers a painfully accurate portrayal of reverse culture shock, or what happens when you go abroad and return home to find that everything has changed. I also believe that it is its honesty about this particular phenomenon that makes the novel worth reading not as popular fiction but perhaps as literature in its own right.