The Girl Who Is Getting Married

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikumari

Title: Mikumari
Japanese Title: ミクマリ (Mikumari)
Author: Misumi Kubo (窪 美澄) 
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2009 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Strangers Press
Pages: 30

Mikumari is one of the chapbooks published as part of the Keshiki series, which is intended to showcase “the work of some of the most exciting writers working in Japan today” and is “a unique collaboration between University of East Anglia, Norwich University for the Arts, and Writers’ Centre Norwich, funded by the Nippon Foundation.” A great deal of talent has gone into the creation of these beautiful chapbooks, and it shows in the high quality of the publication, the design, and the translation.

As the “About the Author” blurb at the beginning of this particular chapbook states, Misumi Kubo’s Mikumari “won the R-18 prize for erotic fiction” and then became “the first of five linked stories in her debut novel.” There is quite a bit of smut in this short story, but the translator handles it well, without any stilted phrasing or unnecessary awkwardness. To me, as someone who reads a lot (and I mean a lot) of fanfic, Mikumari didn’t actually strike me as particularly erotic. A kid in high school regularly meets a woman in her late twenties to have sex, and have sex they most surely do, but the story is about the evolution of the young man’s broader understanding of social maturity and adult human relationships. The sex, such as it is, is largely incidental.

The nameless first-person narrator initially encountered his partner, who calls herself Anzu, at the Comiket fan convention, and when they get together for sex they cosplay as characters from Anzu’s favorite anime. Meanwhile, the narrator works a summer job as a lifeguard at a pool, and he has a crush on one of his fellow teenage coworkers, Nana. In my reading of the story, however, the narrator’s strongest relationship is with his mother, a midwife who delivers babies in their apartment. After the narrator’s father left her with a young son, she raised him as a single mother, and she has occasionally asked him to help deliver babies when her regular assistants are unavailable. As it happens, he’s quite good at it.

What seems to be the selling point for Mikumari – namely, kinky otaku sex – is more of a veiled analogy for how the narrator is still in the process of growing up. There are still parts of him that are childlike, like his innocent schoolboy crush on his lifeguard coworker Nana, while there are parts of him that are already admirably mature, such as the fondness and protectiveness he feels for his mother, as well as the care he gives his mother’s clients, whom he views without the slightest bit of disgust. Even for a decent person like the narrator, however, growing up is never a smooth slope, and his final breakup with Anzu dramatizes the bumps along the way.

Lest the reader think that Anzu is nothing more than a narrative device to showcase the male narrator’s character development, however, it’s important to note that she has her own narrative arc, as well as a respectable sense of dignity. Misumi Kubo’s portrayal of her characters is nuanced but sympathetic; and, even though the short story doesn’t end in a way that’s easy draw lessons or even conclusions from, it’s a satisfying work of literary fiction.

Mikumari also has its fair share of bullet vibrators, frenzied against-the-wall sex, detailed accounts tongue-on-clitoris action, and lines like “Put your cock in me,” but who says literary fiction can’t be at least a little fun sometimes?

Kudos to Glen Robinson for the cover illustration and book design, because Mikumari is a really cool little chapbook. It can be ordered directly from Strangers Press, which ships internationally.

The Other Women’s Lib

Title: The Other Women’s Lib: Gender and Body in Japanese Women’s Fiction
Author: Julia C. Bullock
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: University of Hawai’i Press
Pages: 200

Sometimes I will hear someone describe an academic text with disdain, calling it “accessible” as if that were a terrible, embarrassing thing. This bothers me. Psychoanalytical, literary, political, and cultural theory are wonderful tools, but the texts from which this theory is drawn are often very difficult to read. Furthermore, academia has reached a point in its cycle of production at which it is simply not enough to have read the original sources of theory; one must also read all of the lenses through which they have been interpreted over the past thirty to forty years. As a result, even one strain of theoretical thought is often difficult to master. And yet, some scholars expect their readers to know everything about the specific theory that informs their work. They thus go about using specialist terms without explanation, throwing theorists’ names around metonymically, and not bothering to orient their reader to their underlying system of assumptions. I believe this is unreasonable, if only because some of us have not been alive for the requisite number of years it takes to read and study all the books (if such a thing is even possible).

I don’t mean to suggest that all academics write like this. In fact, I believe most professors are far more interested in communicating ideas than they are in hoarding them within the confines of the ivory tower. Julia Bullock’s literary study The Other Women’s Lib is a perfect example, I think, of how an “accessible” academic text can convey both the pleasures of the authors whose works are examined and the pleasures of the methods used to examine them.

In The Other Women’s Lib, Professor Bullock handles three postwar writers: Kōno Taeko, Takahashi Takako, and Kurahashi Yumiko. Each of these three writers is fairly canonized in the tradition of Japanese literary studies, with numerous dissertations and anthologized essays celebrating their work. Bullock’s book-length study is important because it has the courage to focus on these three female writers alone without feeling the need to include chapters on some of the more prominent male figures of the Japanese literary world, thus carrying on the torch sparked by classics like Victoria Vernon’s Daughters of the Moon and the fantastic essay collection The Woman’s Hand.

Instead of dividing the book into three sections focusing on each of the three authors, Bullock has categorized her chapters thematically. Each of these five chapters deals with an important issue relevant to the work of all of the authors. For example, how were they received by the literary establishment? How did they incorporate the concept of the male gaze into their writing? Do their stories reflect an ingrained misogyny, or do they instead reproduce misogyny in order to challenge it? How do these authors narrate the female body? How do they characterize the relationships between women? Throughout these chapters, Bullock draws on the work of theorists such as Michel Foucault (the internalized gaze), Susan Gubar (feminist misogyny), and Luce Irigaray (the creation of discursive sexual difference). Bullock does not merely throw about concepts like panopticism, however; she explains her terms and their contexts and fleshes them out with well-chosen quotes before explaining exactly how they apply to the stories and novels she analyzes.

The first chapter of the book, “Party Crashers and Poison Pens,” places these themes and writers into their geographical and historical context, namely, Japan in the sixties and seventies. These decades were an era of high economic growth and the cradle of gender ideologies that many people have now come to regard as “traditional;” i.e., the man goes out into the world and fights the good fight as a corporate warrior, while the woman stays at home and takes care of the children. The chapter introduces these ideologies and their political implications, explains their social and economic context, and then touches on the male-dominated literary scene before then demonstrating how certain proto-feminist women writers crashed the party with dark, violent, and absurdist fiction. Bullock describes the literature that emerged during this period as “the other women’s lib,” a nuanced and intensely critical evaluation of contemporary gender roles and economic ideologies. Even if a reader has no interest in the particular writers in question, this chapter alone is worth reading for its excellent summary of an exciting literary movement and the dynamic and explosive time period that served as its background.

That being said, Kōno, Takahashi, and Kurahashi are all fantastic writers who have been well served by their English translations, which appear in collections like Toddler-Hunting, Lonely Woman, and The Woman with the Flying Head. Their North American equivalents would be authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. In other words, they are authors who are worth reading and worth reading about. It is my hope that The Other Women’s Lib will encourage the popularity of these three Japanese authors in English-speaking teaching and translation communities. If nothing else, it is extraordinarily satisfying for me to put Professor Bullock’s book on my shelf next to all of the literary studies of Kyōka, Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Murakami.

To anyone interested in the topic of gender in Japanese literature, I might also recommend the title Girl Reading Girl in Japan, which was edited by Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley and published in late 2010 by Routledge. Unlike Bad Girls of Japan, Girl Reading Girl in Japan is intended for a more specialist audience, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out, especially for someone interested in the burgeoning field of shōjo studies. The book is a collection of conference papers, with each paper being about ten to twelve pages of essay and another one or two pages of footnotes. The ten conference papers are accompanied by an editors’ introduction, a genealogical essay introducing three major Japanese players in the field of shōjo studies (Honda Masuko, Yagawa Sumiko, and Kawasaki Kenko), and then two translated essays. Taken together, these collected writings demonstrate what has happened in Western scholarship relating to shōjo in the past ten years and provide an excellent introduction to the body of Japanese scholarship. Girl Reading Girl in Japan brings the topics discussed in The Other Women’s Lib into the present day through essays on subjects ranging from Murakami Haruki to Kanehara Hitomi to the portrayal of rape in Harry Potter dōjinshi. The essays are intelligent, the topics are fun, and the book is very easy to browse through. I only wish Routledge would release it in paperback…