Ms Ice Sandwich

Title: Ms Ice Sandwich
Japanese Title: ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Misu Aisu Sandoicchi)
Author: Mieko Kawakami (川上 未映子)
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 92

Ms Ice Sandwich is a novella that gradually opens a door into the interior world of its protagonist, a boy living with his mother and grandmother in a commuter suburb. This boy is fascinated by a woman who sells sandwiches at the grocery store outside the train station, whom he calls “Ms Ice Sandwich” because of the ice-blue eyeshadow she always wears. Her makeup emphasizes her eyes, which she has had surgically altered to appear larger. The narrator, who is a strange little kid, becomes preoccupied with trying to capture Ms Ice Sandwich in art, obsessively drawing her facial features line by line and eyelash by eyelash.

The boy also gravitates toward Tutti, a girl in his class who was given this nickname (by the narrator himself, no less) after she once farted in class. Like the boy, Tutti is a bit strange, and she’s obsessed with gunfights. The boy learns that she lives alone with her father, who has filled their apartment with shelves of DVDs and makes time to sit down and watch a movie with her every week. Tutti’s love of gunfights stems from her interest in cinematic choreography, and the boy appreciates her ability to mimic calmness in the face of danger in the same way that he’s awed by the no-nonsense attitude of Ms Ice Sandwich in the face of customer rudeness.

Meanwhile, the boy’s mother is a weird one herself. Although the boy isn’t entirely sure what she does, she seems to be a self-employed spiritualist and fortune teller, and she’s recently had part of their house remodeled to resemble a caricature of a Western palace complete with a red carpet, foreign furniture, heavy curtains, and statues of angels. While the boy’s grandmother is bedridden in the back of the house, his mother spends an inordinate amount of time online, typing on her phone even when she’s out shopping. Like Tutti and Ms Ice Sandwich, however, the boy’s mother isn’t actually a bad person, and she loves her son in her own way.

The boy is perhaps ten or eleven years old, and Kawakami’s first-person narration skillfully captures his close attention to small and seemingly insignificant details, which are contrasted against a larger cluelessness concerning how the world works. The narrator doesn’t really know what’s going on with his mom, or his grandmother, or Tutti’s dad, or even Ms Ice Sandwich, but he nevertheless observes them with care and compassion. He is content to observe the movements of the people in his life until Tutti startles him out of his passivity, saying,

“When you say see you tomorrow to someone, it’s because you’re going to keep seeing them. It’s like at school you see everybody because they go to school every day. But when you graduate and you don’t go to school anymore, it stops and you don’t see everybody any more. If you want to see somebody, you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them any more. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.” (75)

Ms Ice Sandwich has no real plot or denouement, but Tutti’s words spark a small but significant shift in the narrator’s worldview that allows him to more fully appreciate the fact that his mother, his grandmother, and Ms Ice Sandwich all have lives that exist independently of his presence. Judging from the cover copy it might seem as if this is a novella about a boy’s sexual awakening, but the story actually hinges on a far more subtle emotional revelation. Thankfully, the narrator’s perspective is so singular and well-crafted that Ms Ice Sandwich‘s message about the ephemerality of human connection is never in any danger of becoming trite and sentimental.

According to the colophon, “This piece was published in the literary journal Shincho first in 2013, and in 2014 it was included in the novel Akogare, which is a combination of two stories: ‘Miss Ice Sandwich’ and ‘Strawberry Jam Minus Strawberry.'” At roughly ninety pages, Ms Ice Sandwich is short enough to read in one sitting, but it’s still substantial enough to feel like a self-contained world. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and I’m impressed by the fantastic work that Pushkin Press has put into its ongoing series of translations of quirky Japanese novellas.

Nemuri

Title: ねむり (Nemuri)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Illustrations: Kat Menschik
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Shinchōsha
Pages: 95

Every once in awhile, someone will ask me for advice on how to start reading literature in Japanese.

…Okay, I’m just kidding. No one has ever asked me that.

But I wish someone would, because then I could tell them about how Murakami Haruki is one of the easiest Japanese writers to read in the original Japanese language. His critics have said of him that reading his writing is like reading American English translated into Japanese. I think that’s supposed to be a bad thing; but, if you’re a reader of American English without a lot of experience reading Japanese, that sort of “translated” style is a godsend. Murakami’s sentences are relatively short and don’t have an unmanageable number of clauses, his paragraphs begin and end in reasonable places, the reader can easily differentiate between subject and object, his usage of idiom is generally familiar to someone who speaks English, and – best of all – he doesn’t use all sorts of crazy, high-level kanji.

This is not to say that Murakami’s style or stories are childish and simplistic. Rather, Murakami has a unique style, and that style is very accessible to people used to reading American English. Murakami’s system of allusive references should also be familiar to anyone who has grown up outside of Japan and has a passing familiarity with cultural figures from John Lennon to John Irving. I don’t mean to suggest that Murakami’s writing is some sort of hodgepodge amalgamation of Western culture, though, as his imagery and analogies and narrative structures are definitely his own.

Another nice thing about Murakami Haruki is that he has written a ton of short stories. These short stories have been collected into small, inexpensive books like Barn Burning and The Second Bakery Attack, but single stories are occasionally published individually in larger hardcover editions. “Nemuri” (translated as “Sleep” in The Elephant Vanishes) is one of those stories. It was originally published in 1989 in the collection TV People; but, when the German publisher DuMont issued an edition of the story with illustrations by Kat Menschik, Murakami edited and updated the story so that a similar art book quality edition could be published in Japan. Such an edition was published, obviously, and it’s gorgeous.

The story itself is interesting as well. The female first-person narrator once experienced a bout of insomnia in college, but she got over it and went on to marry a dentist and become a housewife. After having a kid and living with her family for several years, the protagonist’s life has fallen into a pattern of comfortable routine. One night, however, she experiences a terrifying case of sleep paralysis and wakes up to find that she is no longer has any physical urge to sleep. She tries to go back to bed, but she is simply not tired. She therefore pours herself a glass of brandy and begins reading Anna Karenina. The next night, she’s still not tired, so she continues not to sleep while staying up all night reading. Two nights turn into two weeks, and the narrator’s thoughts range from her daily life to the value of literature to how sleep works to the nature of life itself. Eventually, her musings on life turn into musings on death, and the narrative tension mounts until the story reaches and strange and disturbing conclusion.

Despite its unaffected language and seemingly flat surface, Nemuri possesses a very literary flavor and rewards slow and careful reading. Kat Menschik’s surreal and striking illustrations, which are loosely based on the text, offer another layer of possible meaning and interpretation. If you’re looking for a good place to start reading Japanese literature, then, I would venture that Nemuri is as good of a place to start as any. The Japanese characters are clear and sharp and large enough to read easily, the textual layout isn’t too dense on the page, and there are enough chapter breaks and illustrations so that even the slowest reader will feel as if she is making good progress through the book. The meta-textual elements implicit in the discussions of Anna Karenina are oddly motivating for the reader as a reader, and the story itself is fantastic and compelling. The whole package is just about perfect. Even if you’ve already read the story in TV People, it’s still worth picking up a copy of Nemuri if you see it on your next trip to a Japanese bookstore.