Earthlings

Japanese Title: 地球星人 (Chikyūseijin)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2018 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Press: Grove Press
Pages: 247

Content Warning: This review contains a frank discussion of child abuse and incest.

If you’ve made it past the content warning, you should also be aware that Earthlings contains extended and explicit descriptions of parental child abuse, incestuous child sexuality, adolescent sexual abuse, severe dissociation, suicidal ideation, mental illness, murder, starvation, and cannibalism. This material is central to the story, which has a truly disturbing ending.

While I would happily recommend Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman to anyone, Earthlings is definitely not for everyone. Elif Batuman calls this novel “hilarious” in the blurb on the front cover of the American edition, and I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Earthlings is deeply sad and upsetting. It’s not the least bit funny, joyous, offbeat, or quirky. The author’s tone may be deceptively light, but the themes of her story are as dark as they come.

Earthlings is a novel about the deteriorating mental state and unfortunate life decisions of a relatively normal girl named Natsuki who is made to feel that she isn’t human because of the sustained abuse she receives at the hands of her parents and teachers. The point of the story isn’t to argue that we need to free ourselves from the normative expectations of an oppressive society. Rather, Earthlings demonstrates just how deeply painful and unhealthy social alienation can be to the people who are arbitrarily designated as outcasts and scapegoats.  

The novel begins with the eleven-year-old Natsuki’s confession that she is a special child who was chosen by an alien named Piyyut, who came from Planet Popinpobopia to help her fight evil witches as a magical girl. Although Piyyut looks like a stuffed animal to ordinary people, he’s actually an emissary sent by the Magic Police. This is a secret to everyone except Natsuki’s cousin Yuu, who tells Natsuki that he understands Piyyut’s situation because he’s an alien too.

From the very first page, it’s clear that Natsuki has created a fantasy version of herself in order to escape the neglect of her parents. Neither of Natsuki’s parents attempt to hide their preference for her older sister Kise, who has a codependent Münchhausen-by-proxy relationship with their mother. While Kise can do no wrong and requires special care and attention, Natsuki becomes the scapegoat of her mother, who constantly criticizes her appearance and personality. Instead of defending Natsuki, everyone in her family defers to her mother – everyone except her kind and friendly cousin Yuu, whom Natsuki decides is her boyfriend and future marriage partner.

Because of the strength of her magical girl fantasy, Natsuki is able to survive the abuse she suffers at home. Unfortunately, precisely because this abuse makes her vulnerable, she becomes the sexual target of a young and popular teacher at her after-school tutoring program. The author gets the abusive teacher’s mentality exactly right. He starts with small acts that have plausible deniability, such as using “posture correction” as an excuse to grope Natsuki. When he escalates his behavior in an attempt to test the boundaries of what he can get away with, he does so in a way that Natsuki will be ashamed to talk about, such as fishing her used sanitary napkin out of the trash after she uses the bathroom.

Natsuki knows there’s something wrong with the teacher’s behavior and tells her mother, but her mother takes the teacher’s side and scolds Natsuki for overreacting. She then punishes Natsuki for “making up stories” by forcing her to spend more time with the teacher. Natsuki ends up going to the teacher’s house for a private lesson, which leads to exactly the scenario you’re afraid it will. The sexual assault scene is long, explicit, and extremely difficult to read. Once again, the author depicts the mentality of child abuse with perfect accuracy, in that the teacher forces Natsuki into a situation in which she feels compelled to “consent” to her assault, thus making it seem like her own fault.

Severely traumatized and knowing from experience that no one will believe she’s been raped, the now twelve-year-old Natsuki resolves to commit suicide in the mountain forest surrounding her grandparents’ house during the annual family get-together for the summer Obon festival. Before she dies, Natsuki wants to experience genuine physical affection, so she convinces her cousin Yuu to go out in the woods with her to have penetrative sex, after which she swallows an entire bottle of her aunt’s sleeping pills.

As Elif Batuman says in the blurb on the front cover of Earthlings, the abuse, rape, and attempted suicide of a twelve-year-old girl is “hilarious.”

Except it’s not. Natsuki’s fantasy of being a magical girl is a psychological coping mechanism, and her lack of affect is the result of severe trauma. Not only are the events Murata describes terrible to read, it’s also terrible to hear them recounted in the voice of a twelve-year-old narrator who doesn’t yet possess the emotional maturity to process what’s happening to her. This narrative style isn’t “quirky.” It’s horrifying.  

After Earthlings firmly establishes itself as a horror story told by an unreliable narrator, it jumps forward in time to 34-year-old Natsuki, who is currently in her third year of marriage to a man named Tomoya. After her suicide attempt, Natsuki was essentially treated as a prisoner by her family for two decades, and marriage seemed to be the only way for her to escape. Natsuki met Tomoya on a website for people in situations similar to her own, namely, people who need to get married in order to appease their families. The site caters mostly to the LGBTQ+ community; and, while Tomoya’s sexuality is never specified, he seems to be aro-ace, meaning that he does not experience romantic attraction and is disgusted by physical sexual contact.

Tomoya and Natsuki are essentially roommates who sleep in separate bedrooms while sharing an apartment. This arrangement works well for both of them, at least until their families begin to exert pressure about having children. The stress of this pressure weakens the deep fault lines of their respective childhood traumas, and they decide to escape society by fleeing to Natsuki’s grandparents’ house in the mountains. The house is currently occupied by Yuu, who has been acting as a caretaker for the property after having been laid off from a prestigious office job in Tokyo. As you can imagine, what happens to these three characters in an isolated cabin in the woods isn’t great, and the novel’s ending is shocking.

Earthlings is about three broken people whose connection to reality gradually deteriorates as they feed one another’s delusions while in total social isolation. The plot summary I’ve provided is the background necessary for the reader to understand the core of this story, as well as its tone.

In Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata argues for the quiet dignity of menial service jobs and the validity of neurodivergent perspectives. The narrator of Convenience Store Woman enjoys her job as a clerk at a convenience store because she finds the routine comforting and appreciates being able to interact with other people according to a preset script. Toward the end of the novel, she finds herself in a difficult situation because she succumbs to her family’s pressure to find a partner and chooses the first person to make himself available despite his unsuitability. Many readers of this internationally bestselling novel identified with the narrator’s perspective and sympathized with the author’s description of the small pleasures of part-time service industry jobs that are often looked down on by older generations.

Earthlings explores similar material and themes but takes a radically different approach. In this novel, Murata emphasizes her narrator’s social alienation to an extreme degree. The narrator’s unwilling separation from “Earthlings” is not a good thing, nor is it depicted as being relatable. Instead, Murata uses these characters to ask serious questions about what it means for neurodiversity and queerness to be forcibly removed from mainstream society. For instance, why are child molesters protected by their communities while the children they abuse are treated as unbalanced and unclean? Why is traveling overseas to undergo expensive and invasive surgery in order to have children seen as normal, while choosing to remain childless is viewed as antisocial and neurotic?

If you can handle the dark tone and gruesome subject matter of Earthlings, it’s an extremely compelling story. At the risk of calling child abuse “hilarious,” I have to admit that I was entertained, especially once Natsuki starts living in her grandparents’ abandoned house in the woods. For what it’s worth, the ultimate fate of the pedo teacher and the garbage parents who enabled him is unpleasant yet satisfying.   

As a fan of social horror, I love Earthlings, but I would caution potential readers to take the content warnings seriously. Sayaka Murata is a brilliant writer who tells strange and complicated stories, and I look forward to seeing more of her sizeable body of work in translation. I just hope that, in the future, she’s treated like the complex and nuanced literary figure she is instead of marketed as an easily digestible product of pop culture.

The Little House

The Little House
Japanese Title: 小さいおうち (Chiisai ouchi)
Author: Kyoko Nakajima (中島 京子)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2019 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Darf Publishers
Pages: 268

The Little House is a novel that seems prosaic at first but becomes more interesting as mundane events and observations gradually take on a greater sense of weight and meaning. The majority of the story is presented in the form of a diary kept by its narrator, Taki. Taki is writing in the present day, but the events she describes occurred in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Little House is about wartime Japan, but it’s written from the perspective of someone far more invested in keeping a small household running than she is in supporting or celebrating the nation. The war eventually catches up to her, but her story is about resilience, not suffering or victimhood.

At the risk of reducing the novel to its subtext, The Little House is also a queer love story. Taki is employed as a maid in a house in the suburbs of Tokyo, and she enjoys a close friendship with the lady of the house, Tokiko. Tokiko’s son Kyoichi is from a previous marriage, and her current husband is an executive at a toy manufacturing company. He’s a handsome man, but he seems to have no interest in “that sort of relationship” with a woman, which is perhaps why he considers himself lucky to have married someone who already has a child. Kyoichi is bedridden with polio, so Taki has been employed to help Tokiko out around the house. Despite the difference in their ages and social status, they get along marvelously well.

It was clear to me that Taki is in love with Tokiko. I suppose it’s possible that her affection could be read as platonic, but Taki describes Tokiko’s physical appearance with quite a bit more than platonic interest. Taki also delights in her detailed memories of physical contact with Tokiko. These passages may fly under the radar of anyone who’s not attuned to them, but it’s difficult to say that the nature of Taki’s relationship with Tokiko is completely subtextual, especially given that Taki dwells on the fact that one of Tokiko’s closest female friends also had an intense crush on her while they were in school together. To drive the point home, this friend makes direct references to the fiction of Nobuko Yoshiya, who is famous for her stories about young women in intimate relationships.

To Taki’s chagrin, Tokiko is in love with a young artist named Itakura. Under the pretext of arranging a marriage for him, Tokiko meets with Itakura several times, and a romance develops between them. As Japan digs itself deeper into the Pacific War, however, Itakura is drafted. Tokiko is devastated, but Taki prevents her from meeting Itakura a final time before his deployment by means of a small but life-changing act of “housekeeping” that has been foreshadowed from the beginning of the novel.

By March 1944, the Hirai family can no longer afford to employ Taki. She is sent back to her family’s home in rural Ibaraki prefecture, where she becomes a cook and caretaker for a group of children who have been evacuated from Tokyo. This is far less heartwarming than it sounds, and both Taki and the children are utterly miserable.

When the war is over, Taki visits Tokyo again only to find that the Hirai household has been destroyed during the American firebombings. Although she promises to write more about what happened afterward, Taki’s narrative comes to an abrupt end at this point. The reader learns that she stopped keeping her diary because of her declining health, but I suspect that she lost interest in telling a story in which Tokiko could no longer be a central character.

The coda to Taki’s account is provided by her great grand-nephew Takeshi, whom she has mentioned several times, always claiming that he doesn’t believe her story. Takeshi inherits Taki’s diaries after her death, and he ties up several loose ends in the final chapter as he reflects on the nature of the relationships between the various people in Taki’s life. Is it possible, he wonders, that Taki was in love with Tokiko? Takeshi leaves the answer to this question up to the reader’s interpretation, but his careful reevaluation of Taki’s actions in light of this possibility speaks for itself.

Not much happens in The Little House, but the reader is swept along into the family drama of the Itakura household by Taki’s lively and engaging narrative voice. Although Taki’s observations seem trivial at first, the close attention of a patient reader will be rewarded as the details of her story come together to create a portrait of a charming group of people and the historical conflicts that interrupted their lives and relationships. Nakajima handles the legacy of the Pacific War with grace and sensitivity, and The Little House provides a welcome and insightful perspective on the early Shōwa period that is often lost in narratives about wartime Japan.

Convenience Store Woman

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Japanese Title: コンビニ人間 (Konbini ningen)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 163

Keiko Furukawa is 36 years old and has been working at the same convenience store for almost two decades. She loves the job, which suits her perfectly. Keiko has never fit in and constantly finds herself at a loss for how to talk with other people, but human interaction is governed by detailed rules and a prewritten script in the perfectly ordered world of the convenience store. “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated,” Keiko explains, adding that she appreciates this sense of distance from unnecessary social and emotional disturbances (60). The structured environment of the convenience store provides Keiko with a safe space in which she can perform work that she finds satisfying, meaningful, and helpful to other people.

At its core, Convenience Store Woman is a novella about the dignity of a job that many people find trivial and demeaning. Keiko takes obvious pride in the convenience store where she has worked since it opened eighteen years ago, and it’s not difficult to share her enthusiasm as she cheerfully describes seemingly banal tasks such as preparing food, restocking shelves, and greeting customers. Unlike the confusing and conflicting expectations imposed on her by the outside world, Keiko knows exactly what needs to be done in the convenience store, and she knows exactly when and how to do it. She often remarks on the feeling of satisfaction her experience and competence give her. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Keiko declares…

It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning. (4)

Keiko pays close attention to the smallest details of the self-contained environment of the store, and her keen powers of observation allow her to appreciate the personalities and behavioral quirks of the customers. She does not judge or discriminate against anyone who enters the store and does her best to unobtrusively ensure that they are comfortable. She applies the same keen focus of her attention to her coworkers, mimicking their comments and speech patterns so that they find her friendly, companionable, and – most importantly – normal.

Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have an overarching plot, but its story is propelled forward by small scenes of conflict resulting from the friction between Keiko’s contentment and the expectations of other people. A crucial incident occurs during a backyard barbeque during which the husbands of Keiko’s high school friends have too much to drink and start laying into her for remaining in the same dead-end job without getting married. “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects,” Keiko later rationalizes as she thinks back on the conversation. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of” (80). Keiko comes to the unfortunate realization that, by remaining unmarried and childless at 36, she has begun to stray so far outside of normative social expectations that she risks ostracization.

Partially because of this incident, Keiko feels pressured into inviting a thirty-something NEET named Shiraha to live in her apartment. Shiraha briefly worked at the same convenience store as Keiko but had been dismissed because of his poor performance. He had also, it turns out, been stalking some of the customers, and he continues to hang around the building even after he’s fired. Keiko views this as a threat to the harmony of the convenience store, so she takes it on herself to drag him to a family restaurant and try to talk sense into him. During this conversation, Shiraha echoes many of Keiko’s anxieties regarding social belonging, saying that he risks ostracization himself if he remains unmarried.

Although Shiraha is thoroughly unpleasant, Keiko invites him into her apartment and treats him like a pet, happy to tell the people in her life that a man has moved in with her. The circumstances aren’t ideal; but, as Keiko explains to the reader, “Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now” (94). The “impasse” Keiko faces has nothing to with wanting to advance in life; rather, the complications that arise from Shiraha’s presence trigger a crisis that forces Keiko to choose between becoming the person she is expected to be and her own unique sense of happiness.

Keiko reads as being on the autism spectrum, and her thought processes and behavioral patterns remind me a great deal of some of my friends and students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Keiko never explicitly identifies herself as being on the spectrum, however, and I get the impression that she would probably find the label distasteful. When she honestly informs a group of women that she has never been romantically attracted to anyone, they sympathetically respond that it’s become much more common and socially accepted to identify as asexual, and that they would understand if she were to come out as such, but Keiko finds this offensive.

I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. (37)

To Keiko, she is no one but herself, and she has no interest in serving as a representative for anyone else. Be that as it may, I think people who identify as asexual or on the autism spectrum will find a great deal of resonance in Keiko’s experience of being misunderstood and pressured to conform to arbitrary expectations, often “for her own good.” Toward the end of the story Keiko grows increasingly annoyed at the irrationality of the people who claim that they are trying to help her, including her own sister, who is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality – however messy – is far more comprehensible” (133). Regardless of Keiko’s opinion as the narrator of her own story, I feel that she does in fact perform advocacy, especially in her insistence that her personality and life choices are not a result of psychological trauma and that she is, in fact, healthy, happy, and strong.

In an enlightening interview with Fran Bigman at LitHub, Sayaka Murata talks about her own experiences of working as a convenience store cashier as she has continued to publish more than a dozen books during the past fifteen years. “For me and also for Keiko it is both a utopia and a dystopia,” Murata explains. “It is a utopia where you can make people happy, make friends, or feel less gendered.” Customers don’t have to put on an act (or fancy clothes or makeup) to walk into a convenience store, and foreign customers and employees are welcome. For an employee who is unwilling or unable to conform to corporate-dictated guidelines, a convenience store can be a dystopia, but clearly defined behavioral standards are exactly what Murata’s narrator needs in order to feel like a well-adjusted member of society. To anyone who’s ever felt that life might sometimes be a little easier if there were a rulebook, it’s easy to see the appeal of the utopian aspects of the convenience store environment.

Identity politics aside, Convenience Store Woman provides an entertaining glimpse into the mind and worldview of a fascinating character. Many parts of the novel are humorous, while others are uncomfortably cringe-inducing. More than any sort of social critique, however, Murata offers her readers finely detailed observations of the human beings inside a Japanese convenience store, which is a marvelous ecosystem unto itself.