Nan-Core

Title: Nan-Core
Japanese Title: ユリゴコロ (Yurigokoro)
Author: Mahokaru Numata (沼田まほかる)
Translator: Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
Publication Year: 2011 (Japan); 2015 (United States)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 253

As his father is dying of pancreatic cancer, a young(ish) man named Ryosuke discovers a set of notebooks hidden in a box in his father’s study. The handwritten confession contained in the notebooks is shocking, and Ryosuke begins to suspect that the woman who raised him may not be his biological mother. Then again, a part of him has always known that something was strange ever since he was four years old, when his family moved from Tokyo to Nara while he was in the hospital. It may well be that Misako, the person he was told to call mother when he was brought home, replaced his real mother, especially if the woman who gave birth to him is the same person who has written something resembling a “murder diary” in the notebooks he’s found.

The woman who has admitted her darkest secrets in these notebooks knows that something is wrong with her. She has trouble empathizing with other people, and nothing in life brings her joy. When she discovers that witnessing death makes her feel human, she can’t stop thinking about it, and she takes indirect action that results in the death of a young boy and one of her female classmates. Killing, she realizes, is her “Nan-Core,” something a doctor once told her parents that she was lacking and whose pronunciation she misremembered as a child. Her “Nan-Core” is what makes her feel alive, and she continues to search for opportunities to trigger it as she grows up, goes to college, and starts working at an office.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Misako, the woman who wrote the confessions in the notebooks, is indeed Ryosuke’s biological mother, and that the woman who called herself Misako as she raised him and his brother is a surrogate. Ryosuke wants to find out how and why this happened, and most readers will quickly come to the obvious conclusions, which are later confirmed by Ryosuke’s father. The most intriguing element of this family drama is what happened to the original Misako, whose fate remains a mystery until the very end of the novel.

As Ryosuke steals time during his father’s hospital visits to read Misako’s notebooks, a disturbing series of events plays out in his own life. Ryosuke runs a mountainside dog café called Shaggy Head, and he’s fallen in love with one of his employees, Chie. Chie was once a bar hostess, and she’s on the run from her abusive husband, who himself seems to be on the run from the yakuza. When Chie disappears into thin air, another of Ryosuke’s employees, Ms. Hosoya, takes it on herself to find the missing woman, a decision that results in dangerous complications for everyone involved.

Despite all the murder and spousal abuse, Nan-Core tells a surprisingly gentle story. The novel’s focus is not on mystery or violence, but rather the evolution of the relationships between the members of Ryosuke’s family as Ryosuke and his brother learn more about their parents and begin to see them as people. Ryosuke also starts to create his own new family as he develops stronger bonds with Chie and Ms. Hosoya. The secrets hidden deep within these relationships stem not from malice and neglect, but rather from attempts to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. Even Misako was able to grow and change because of the kindness of the people who adopted her into their family (although her story does take some surprising turns along the way). Misako’s homicidal tendencies can easily be read as an attempt to form connections with other people despite extreme alienation, and some of her murders are even a bit gratifying. For example, why continue to deal with sexual harassment at work when you can just murder the creep who keeps bothering all the female employees? In the end, the gentle Ryosuke ends up borrowing strength from his mother’s confessions; and, when his story finally intersects with hers, the result is extremely satisfying.

Nan-Core at first seems to be a thin mystery propelled by a cast of one-dimensional stereotypes, but the plot slowly thickens as layers are added to each character. The story can be melodramatic at times, and the lack of any real consequences resulting from the characters’ actions is a bit fanciful, but none of this detracts from the charm of the novel. My only real complaint is that, given that Ryosuke manages a dog café, Nan-Core has an unfortunate lack of canine characters. Judging from its trailer (link), the 2017 cinematic adaptation of the book (link) doesn’t have any dogs either. This is a shame, because I really think the story’s odd but intriguing blend of horror and romance could have been enhanced by more puppies. Honestly, probably everything could be enhanced by more puppies, but at least Nan-Core offers its readers a batch of warm and cuddly murderers. My rating: 13/10, would be an honor to be murdered be these cutie pies.

Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.

Strangers

Strangers

Title: Strangers
Japanese Title: 偉人たちとの夏 (Ijintachi to no natsu)
Author: Yamada Taichi (山田 太一)
Translator: Wayne P. Lammers
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1987 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 203

A 48-year-old television script writer named Harada is having a tough time of it. Having divorced his wife, he now lives by himself in a small apartment in a mostly empty building. A drama series he was supposed to work on has been canceled, and a friend and colleague has announced his intentions to pursue Harada’s ex-wife. After Harada’s friend informs him that they can no longer work together, he wanders in a haze until one day he decides to return to the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo where he grew up. On a whim he enters a rakugo performance, where he catches sight of a man who looks just like his late father. When the man goes out for a cigarette, Harada follows him and ends up being invited to the man’s home, where a woman who looks exactly like his late mother is waiting for them.

Around the same time, Harada has a strange encounter with a woman in her thirties whom he has nodded to a few times in the lobby of his building. Late one evening she shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne, remarking on how it’s eerie that the two of them are the only humans in the building. Because he’s still reeling from the emotional impact of his friend’s pronouncement regarding his wife, Harada tells her that he’s busy. When he calls her a week later, however, she gladly comes over. She makes romantic overtures and says she’ll sleep with him on the condition that he promises not to look at a mysterious wound on her chest. Is she just shy, or is something more sinister going on?

Harada’s ghost parents are charming and hospitable, so he continues visiting them. Harada’s father, a sushi chef, exhibits the charming gruffness and bluster of a stereotypical tradesman from the Shitamachi “old Tokyo” area in east Tokyo, and his mother is a sweet and gentle woman who loves her husband and son despite their flaws and amuses herself by playing old-fashioned games with hanafuda cards. Unlike Harada’s barren neighborhood in Shinjuku, Asakusa is full of warmth, and returning to his parents feels like stepping back into an idealized past in the postwar era.

Harada feels more alive than he has in years, but the people around him keep remarking on how terrible he looks. His new girlfriend seems especially concerned, and the intensity of her emotions is almost frightening. What does she want from him? What do his deceased parents want from him? Will he live long enough to find out?

Although Strangers plays with an interesting set of themes, the novel feels somewhat shallow. Harada is introspective but never arrives at any striking realizations about himself, and he’s too self-absorbed to make any serious attempts to understand the behavior of the people around him. Unfortunately, this Harada’s position as the point-of-view character renders the other characters as nothing more than stereotypes. Why do Harada’s parents return to the world of the living to see him? Because all parents love their children, of course. Why does Harada’s ex-wife pick fights with him? Because all women are crazy, of course. Why doesn’t Harada’s college-age son want to talk to him? Because all young people are ungrateful and temperamental, of course.

To me, Harada came off as an embodiment of male entitlement, and the books ends with his preconceptions justified and his place in the world reaffirmed. His seeming inability to change himself as the world changes around him is presented in a romantic light, as are the noble struggles of middle aged dudes everywhere. I didn’t find this story particularly engaging, but perhaps I’m simply not the intended audience.

Strangers is neither grisly nor subversive enough to inspire chills, but as a ghost story it offers an interesting theory on how different parts of Tokyo are haunted.

The Master Key

The Master Key

Title: The Master Key
Japanese Title: 大いなる幻影 (Ōinaru gen’ei)
Author: Togawa Masako (戸川 昌子)
Translator: Simon Grove
Publication Year: 1985 (United States); 1962 (Japan)
Publisher: Dodd, Mead & Company
Pages: 198

The Master Key, first published in 1962 and set in the late 1950s, is an interesting window into a period of postwar Japan that we don’t often see represented in Japanese fiction in translation. The story takes place entirely within the closed world of the K Apartments for Ladies, a large, multi-story building located in southeast Ikebukuro and registered as a charitable trust with “rents pegged at wartime levels.”

On its surface, the story is about a 1951 kidnapping of a young boy who is the son of a Japanese woman and an American military officer. Seven years later, when the K Apartments building is lifted and moved to a different location in a grand public works experiment, the body of a child is discovered buried underneath a shared bathing area in the basement. Right around the time the child disappeared, a man dressed as a woman was struck by a van in an intersection near the apartment building, and it’s revealed to the reader early in the novel that this man disguised himself as a woman to help one of the tenants dispose of the body that would later be found in the building’s basement. Who in the apartment buried the body, and what relation does this have to the kidnapping incident?

About twenty pages into The Master Key, however, it becomes clear that the mystery portion of the story is going to take a backseat to an extended exploration of the inner worlds contained within the K Apartments for Ladies and the psychological dysfunctions of its aging tenants.

Ishiyama Noriko, who has been diagnosed with “nervous pains,” has removed herself from the rest of the world and lives in a dark apartment stuffed with other people’s trash, which she occasionally boils and eats to sustain herself. Yatabe Suwa, a former concert violinist who now gives music lessons to children, is haunted by the loss of potential represented by the theft of a violin from her own teacher, even though it’s possible that she herself may have more to do with this incident than she likes to admit. Kimura Yoneko retired from her position as a schoolteacher years ago and spends her days writing letters to her former students, and she is not above checking into the affairs of the other tenants as well. Santo Haru is obsessed with a religious cult, and she is in the palm of its leader, who frequents her apartment to hold prayer meetings centered around the trances of its vestal priestess.

The plot is complicated and circuitous but is centered around the use and whereabouts of the master key of the title, which various tenants use to sneak into one another’s rooms in order to discover the secrets of others while concealing their own. At the end of the novel, it’s revealed that there is a mastermind orchestrating all of their movements, someone who has been spying on everyone for years and has manipulated the women around her for her own amusement. As someone who had essentially done the same thing to these characters through the process of reading this novel, I felt somewhat guilty, but not enough to lessen my enjoyment of how neatly all of the different plot threads are eventually tied together.

I will openly admit that I love stories about women being unpleasant and irrational and absolutely human. All of the female characters in this story are a little pathetic and a little demonic in that they have no power outside the K Apartments but all manner of strange little powers within their closed world. I’m sure this can be read as a metaphor for something, but it need not be, as the haunted and uncanny environment the characters shape through their bizarre actions is absolutely fascinating in and of itself.

For people with more background on Japanese history and urban space, the story’s setting in Ikebukuro is of special interest. In the immediate postwar period, Ikebukuro famously functioned as a heterotopia in which diverse groups of people came together and the norms of mainstream society didn’t necessarily apply. There is all manner of hidden “national polity” history in Ikebukuro, where the family-state of Japan has buried countless failed narratives under highways and skyscrapers. The Master Key thus serves as an excellent example of postwar Tokyo gothic (as similarly exemplified by Kyōgoku Natsuhiko’s The Summer of the Ubume). A reader doesn’t need historical knowledge to appreciate the story, but a bit of research into the setting has the potential to deepen the experience of reading this novel, which has sub-basements under sub-basements under sub-basements.

The Master Key is long out of print but still cheaply available through a number of online used book services. If you have access to your local or university library’s Interlibrary Loan program, it’s well worth requesting this book. It’s a quick read, and it packs a huge impact. To my fellow horror and mystery lovers especially, I highly recommend tracking down a copy of this short, satisfying, and creepy little novel.

Bad Girls of Japan

Title: Bad Girls of Japan
Editors: Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Pages: 222

Every once in awhile I will demand, in my ignorance, why no one has published an article about some facet of Japanese culture that really deserves an article. It usually turns out that, in fact, someone has published an article; and, occasionally, it turns out that all of the articles I have ever wanted to read have been published in one book. My most recent of such discoveries is Bad Girls of Japan, which was published in hardcover in 2005 and paperback in 2007. Why hadn’t I read it before this past weekend? That’s a good question. Perhaps I had thought to myself, what do I care about Abe Sada or Yoshiya Nobuko? Perhaps I had thought to myself, how academically rigorous can a short collection of twelve-to-fifteen page essays actually be? Did I mention that I can be extremely ignorant sometimes?

Bad Girls of Japan is a compilation of eleven short articles (plus a separate introduction, conclusion, and bibliography) about, as the title suggests, Japanese bad girls, with “bad” meaning “defying mainstream notions of proper female conduct” and “girl” being a term of female empowerment, apparently. Rebecca Copeland begins the collection with an essay about the demonic women of Japanese folklore, such as the yamamba, or carnivorous mountain witch, and the jilted lover turned giant snake monster from the Dōjō-ji myth that has come down to us by way of a famous Nō play. Other essay topics include geisha, Meiji schoolgirls, kogal, and shopping mavens like Nakamura Usagi – as well as the aforementioned Abe Sada (whose erotic escapades were sensationalized by films like In the Realm of the Senses) and Yoshiya Nobuko (whose Hana monogatari – flower tales – more or less established the shōjo narrative style).

In short, Bad Girls of Japan is all about women who have become the vortexes generating major cultural currents in modern and contemporary Japan. As such, it reads like an alternate cultural history informed by various academic focuses and disciplines. Since the essays are short, each writer has been forced to say the most important things about her topic in the most efficient way possible, but none of these essays sacrifices theoretical nuance (or footnotes). Furthermore, in a book designed to upset common ideas concerning Japanese culture, it is appropriate that none of the essays makes any sort of culturally essentializing overgeneralizations, either.

Because of its essay length and broad range of topics, Bad Girls of Japan does feel a bit like an introductory textbook, but it’s a very intelligent textbook, and the excellent editing ensures that it’s easy to read, as well. As a result, I think this essay collection is one of the rare academic books that will appeal to non-academics, and it would be an excellent choice of reading material for someone who doesn’t know very much about Japan but wants to learn more. I especially recommend this book to pop culture fans interested in moving beyond archetypes and stereotypes. It’s a quick, fun read, and it paints a lively and vivid picture of the past one hundred years of Japanese cultural history. To respond to my own initial doubts concerning this book, then, one should care about women like Abe Sada and Yoshiya Nobuko not merely because they were interesting people who told interesting stories, but also because of what their stories reveal about Japan and its relation to the rest of the world as it made its way through the twentieth century.

By the way, that hypothetical essay I always wanted to read about sex in josei manga is in here too, and I think Gretchen Jones does a great job of addressing the possibility of female pleasure and agency lurking within all the graphic rape. I just wish her chapter were longer, which I suppose is something I could say about everything in the book…

Audition

Title: Audition
Japanese Title: オーディション (Ōdishon)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1997 (Japan)
Publisher: Norton
Pages: 191

The first order of business in any review of Audition should be to spoil the plot. (If you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read this review. Don’t look at the front cover of the book, either.) My justification for giving everything away is that the ending of this book lends such a delicious flavor to the rest of the story that trying to keep it a secret is pointless, and probably fairly cruel as well.

With that in mind, the premise of Audition is as follows: a middle-aged producer named Aoyama is looking to re-marry after his son mentions that Aoyama’s wife, Ryoko, died seven years ago and that it’s time for him to move on. Since Ryoko was such a wonderful woman, and since Aoyama is more or less satisfied with his current life, however, his standards in women are high. Aoyama’s friend and fellow producer Yoshikawa suggests that Aoyama interview prospective brides as part of a film audition tailored to his specifications. Aoyama reluctantly agrees and ends up meeting Yamasaki Asami, a beautiful 24-year-old woman who seems perfect in every way. Yoshikawa is suspicious of Asami, but Aoyama has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and will have no one else. It turns out that Yoshikawa has every reason to be suspicious, since Asami has a bad habit of drugging and torturing her boyfriends who cannot love only her. Does this include the sincere and good-intentioned Aoyama? You bet it does. The final thirty pages of Audition are a torture-fest graphic enough to test even the most strong-stomached of readers, even as they delightfully revel in the violence and subtle sexuality of the scene.

I generally find comparisons between books and movies to be boring and pointless, but director Miike Takashi’s 1999 adaptation of Audition is such a cult classic that I feel it should be mentioned. Is the novel different from the movie? Of course it is. It goes without saying that certain plot elements are different, but perhaps the most interesting difference is that, while the film focuses on the back story of Asami, the novel pays much more attention to Aoyama. Thus, the horrifically grotesque images associated with Asami’s apartment are missing from the novel. Instead, the reader is party to Aoyama’s absolute fixation with Asami in a brilliant parody of the genre of romance. For example, Murakami describes Aoyama seeing Asami in person for the first time as an amazing, magical moment:

Silhouetted against the off-white walls, she walked to the chair, bowed with modest grace, and sat down. That was all, but Aoyama had a very distinct sensation that something extraordinary was happening all around him. It was like being the millionth visitor to an amusement park, suddenly bathed in spotlights and a rain of balloons and surrounded by microphones and flashing cameras. As if luck, normally dispersed in billions of tiny, free-floating, gemlike particles, had suddenly coalesced in a single beatific vision – a vision that changed everything, forever.

Oh, Aoyama, if only you knew! The dramatic irony of passages like this is superb, and there are a lot of them to enjoy, each one more imaginatively written than the next. Also, since the written word does not have quite the visual power of the silver screen, Asami’s sexuality and sex appeal are presented differently as well, again from the perspective of Aoyama. We never get to see her in knee-high boots and a black rubber apron, but her “hard, tender nipples” and “lust-crazed pussy” are mentioned more than a few times as the book approaches its climax, so to speak. In the end, though, the novel is infinitely less gut-wrenchingly visceral than the film. I think both the film and the novel are brilliant texts, but the novel is much more accessible to a broader audience.

(By the way, I am not kidding about how hideously upsetting the film is. If you have not seen Audition, don’t see Audition. I’m serious. It’s traumatizing. Read the book instead.)

Before I end this review, I’d like to briefly address the issue of the book’s sexism. Although the story may seem to reference the female revenge scenario, the fact that Asami is certifiably insane, as well as her presentation as utterly inhuman and her complete lack of interiority, cancel out any sort of argument for female agency or empowerment. The real case against patriarchal privilege is made through Aoyama. Although Aoyama seems like a decent guy in many ways, the underlying current of his thinking is undeniably sexist. Precisely because Aoyama comes off as such a nice guy, the critique of his sexism and the broad societal sexism that informs it is much more effective. In the book’s closing lines, Asami calls Aoyama a liar, and she is right, even if her words are unintelligible save when voiced by Aoyama’s son. Make no mistake, Audition is written from a completely male perspective, but the light it sheds on how sexism is tied to contemporary Japanese masculinity is interesting and invaluable.

Masks

masks

Title: Masks
Japanese Title: 女面 (Onnamen)
Author: Enchi Fumiko (円地 文子)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 1983 (America); 1958 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 141

Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator of Enchi Fumiko’s novel Masks, is one of the most eloquent translators of Japanese literature alive today. Carpenter has translated everything from Tawara Machi’s groundbreaking collection of tanka poetry, Salad Anniversary (Sarada kinenbi, 1987) to Asa Nonami’s hard-boiled police thriller The Hunter (Kohoeru kiba, 1996). My advice to all lovers of Japanese literature would be: if Juliet Winters Carpenter has translated it, you need to read it!

Enchi Fumiko is one of the most highly regarded writers of literary fiction in Japan. Her father was a scholar of classical Japanese literature, and Enchi grew up devouring the books in his library, from the medieval Tales of Moonlight and Rain to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Her pen name, Fumiko, means “child of letters” or “child of literature.” When she grew up, she undertook the translation of the monumental eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji. She is famous for incorporating allusions to classical literature into her own fiction, which was highly praised by writers like Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Mishima Yukio.

Enchi’s work is known for its tightly woven plots, subtle writing, strong visual imagery, and masterful use of symbolism. An Enchi novel is like a structuralist literary critic’s dream come true. There is an incredible amount of information packed within each paragraph, and her novels and stories have inspired a wealth of interpretations. Enchi is an intellectual of the highest magnitude yet also possesses the ability to imbue her fiction with great emotional weight.

Although Enchi is primarily known in Japan for her novel The Waiting Years (Onnazaka, 1939), for which she won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize, Masks has its own spooky charms. Although the work’s title refers to the masks of Noh drama, particularly the “madwoman” masks that lend their names to the chapter titles, the novel draws many of its themes and allusions from the Tale of Genji. The parallels Enchi draws between The Tale of Genji and the cultural climate of postwar Japan are fascinating. Not only does the author create distinct connections between her characters and the characters of the Heian romance, but she also makes use of themes such as spirit possession and romantic substitution to subvert the gendered expectations of the patriarchal and misogynistic societies that hold sway in both The Tale of Genji and postwar Japan.

Although Masks is primarily narrated from the point of view of a male college professor named Ibuki, who is cast in the role of Genji, its true hero is an older woman named Mieko, a powerful Rokujō-like figure with a painful past and veiled intentions. As Mieko’s daughter-in-law and protégée, Yasuko, explains to Ibuki,

Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.

Masks centers around Mieko’s attempt to use this “secret charm” of hers in order to set into motion a deep and complex scheme of revenge, creation, and rebirth. What Mieko is able to accomplish by the end of the novel is both terrible and beautiful. If nothing else, the events that occur during the final dramatic quickening of the work are thought-provoking and will force the reader to consider multiple ethical questions.

Masks is perhaps one of the best introductions to Japanese literature, and more specifically Japanese women’s literature, ever published in translation. No matter where your literary interests lie, this is a novel you need to experience.