March Was Made of Yarn

Title: March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on
the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
Editors: Elmer Luke and David Karashima
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 216

As the March 11 anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami draws closer, Japanese bookstores have begun to promote retrospective magazine-books. These publications are filled with huge glossy photographs of destruction, and the number of people killed is printed in bold characters across their covers. Although such disaster porn is disturbing, it helps to illustrate a definite aspect of the reality of what happened a year ago in Japan.

March Was Made of Yarn helps to illustrate another aspect of the reality of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis. If pictures and body counts inform the physical reality, then this collection of fiction and nonfiction offers insight into the emotional reality. Thankfully, March Was Made of Yarn is infinitely more gentle and subtle than sensationalist reporting and sentimental recollections of heroism and despair.

Even though all of the short pieces brought together by this collection address the events of last year in some fashion, many do so obliquely, and the themes of the pieces are universal. What is it like to live through a crisis? What is it like to know that other people are living through a crisis? What does it feel like to worry about the future? What does it feel like when science fiction becomes reality? What happens when you’re so sick with worry that you can’t fall asleep at night? What happens when words can no longer express truth or meaning?

March Was Made of Yarn features the work of internationally renowned Japanese writers such as Ogawa Yōko, Murakami Ryū, Kakuta Mitsuyo, Furukawa Hideo, and Tawada Yōko. These writers don’t cut corners in their craft simply because they happen to be responding to a topical issue; and, although none of them are writing “happy” stories or essays, their work is a pleasure to read. Kawakami Hiromi, who rewrote her debut story “Kami-sama” (translated as “God Bless You”) to address the incidents at the Fukushima reactor, reminds us that, even though we live in a world shadowed by the fear of radiation and environmental poisoning, we still need to eat, and we still want to go outside. The title story, Kawakami Mieko’s “March Yarn,” deals with the strange ways in which people process their memories and their understanding of their relationships with each other. Tanikawa Shuntarō’s poem “Words,” which opens the book, poses the question of how we can even write about things for which there are no words (yet still “Words put forth buds / From the earth beneath the rubble”). The translators who contributed to this volume are among the best in the field, and their skill illuminates the entirety of the collection.

March Was Made of Yarn isn’t just an excellent anthology of work related to the Tōhoku disasters; it’s an excellent Japanese literary anthology period. The range of authors represented by the book has the most even distribution of gender, generation, and genre I’ve ever encountered, and the English-language contributors, such as David Peace and John Burnham Schwartz, bring an added level of flavor and diversity. This collection is also accessible to casual readers, as few of the stories are any longer than twenty pages, and it has been beautifully published by Vintage. I don’t know how so many good things were able to come together to create this amazing book, but I am extraordinarily grateful that it exits.

March Was Made of Yarn should be available at all major bookstores in North America, Britain, Australia, and Japan, and it’s available on the Kindle Store as well.

If you don’t mind reading entirely in PDF digital format, please consider checking out Waseda University’s Japan Earthquake Charity Literature Project, which has some overlap with March Was Made of Yarn. It’s free to download and read the PDF versions of the stories and essays on the website, and the reader is encouraged to make a donation to disaster relief efforts afterwards.

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 Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Title: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Japanese Title: 時をかける少女 (Toki o kakeru shōjo)
Author: Tsutsui Yasutaka (筒井 康隆)
Translator: David Karashima
Publication Year: 2011 (Britain); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 170

Three things are generally true of Tsutsui Yasutaka’s writing: it’s easy to read, it’s creative and fun, and it’s usually more about the concept than the characters. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is no exception. The story is short, it’s entertaining, and the idea of time travel is more fleshed out than the characters.

Junior high school student Kazuko hears a crash in her school’s science lab while helping her friends Goro and Kazuo clean up after class. When she enters the room to investigate, she smells lavender and passes out. The next morning, she and Goro are run down by a bus while rushing to school. Right before the bus strikes them, however, Kazuko opens her eyes and finds herself back in bed. She discovers that she has somehow jumped back in time to the morning of the previous day. Kazuko tells Kazuo and Goro about her strange experience, and they suggest that she talk to their science teacher, Mr. Fukushima, after school. Surprisingly enough, Mr. Fukushima listens sympathetically before explaining that Kazuko needs to jump back in time to the incident in the science lab in order to figure out what happened. She does so and meets Kazuo, who explains everything to her before erasing her memory and returning to where he originally came from.

And that is the story. Nothing else really happens. Kazuo’s debriefing is interesting, but there is no on-screen adventuring or experimentation on the part of Kazuko. There is no narrative tension, just a bit of simple mystery solving. None of the characters really stand out. Kazuko is frightened and dependent on the help of others, Goro is childish and petty, and Kazuo drifts along without contributing anything until the last three or four chapters. The two other named characters, Mr. Fukushima and Kazuko’s friend Mariko, barely have any lines at all. Director Hosoda Mamoru’s 2006 animated adaptation is much richer in terms of storytelling and character development. Still, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a quick and easy read that should appeal to a younger audience.

A bit more interesting than the main novella is the shorter work “The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of,” which is also included in the book. In this story, junior high school student Masako tries to get to the bottom of her fear of heights, which is somehow connected to the discomfort she feels around Prajna masks. Masako’s close friend Bunichi passes along what his therapist uncle tells him about the psychology of fear, and Masako uses this information to help not only herself but also her five-year-old brother Yoshio, who suffers from night terrors. The relationship between Masako and Yoshio is charming and sweet, as is the budding romance between Masako and Bunichi.

If I had to guess, I would say that the two stories in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time are meant for kids who are a bit younger than their protagonists, despite the adult woman adorning the book’s cover. They’re both entertaining, simple stories for the age seven to twelve crowd. If you’re an adult reader in North America who can’t seem to find a copy of this British publication, though, you’re not missing much. The movie is definitely better.