The Lonesome Bodybuilder

The Lonesome Bodybuilder
Japanese Titles: 嵐のピクニック (Arashi no pikunikku) and 異類婚姻譚 (Irui kon’in tan)
Author: Yukiko Motoya (本谷 有希子)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Years: 2015 & 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 209

The Lonesome Bodybuilder collects eleven stories originally published in two books by the celebrated author Yukiko Motoya, whose writing has been winning prestigious awards in Japan for more than fifteen years. I’m a fan of Motoya’s work, and I was looking forward to the day when it would appear in translation. I couldn’t have asked for a better rendition into English than Asa Yoneda’s lively and engaging translation, and The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a wonderful introduction to the work of a fascinating writer.

The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is an eighteen-page journey. The protagonist feels as if her husband is ignoring her, so she takes up bodybuilding. She ends up becoming serious about it, but her husband fails to notice the dramatic changes of her body. After a traumatic incident in which she’s too afraid to use her physical strength to stop a dog from attacking another dog outside the home goods store where she works, she begins to embrace the idea that her training has no practical purpose other than to make her feel good about the way she looks. This sense of agency leads her to confront her husband, who finally makes an effort to be a better partner. At the end of the story, the narrator has started to build her self-confidence as well as her muscles, and she’s even beginning to consider adopting a dog of her own.

While the narrator of “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” learns to strengthen her connections with the people around her, “The Dogs” is a surreal celebration of self-imposed isolation. The narrator lives in a cabin in the woods that she’s borrowing from a friend while she does a vague sort of work that involves tweezers and a magnifying glass. She lives with dozens of bright white dogs that emerged from the forest and now share her space and sleep with her at night. When she goes to a nearby village for groceries, she learns that people have been going missing, and she fantasizes about what it would be like if everyone were to disappear. Her wish comes true as winter sets in and snow begins to fall, leaving her alone with dozens of mysterious dogs. The narrator treats all of this as if it were perfectly natural, and it’s clear that she couldn’t be happier.

The longest story in the collection, “An Exotic Marriage,” appears to be a straightforward account of a mundane marriage, but it gradually devolves into troubled confession regarding a genuinely bizarre situation. Several people close to the narrator have remarked that she has begun to physically resemble her husband, an observation that she finds disturbing. Although he’d already been married once, her husband seemed like an ordinary person until they moved in together, at which point he stopped making any attempt to hide his idiosyncrasies. He watches variety shows on television for hours on end before eventually transferring the target of his obsessive attention to a mobile game that the narrator tries and fails to understand. His unapologetic monomania leads him to quit his job; and, as he spends more time at home and becomes even more eccentric, his appearance begins to shift. The narrator is understandably concerned about what it might mean that she’s come to look like him, but she’s at a loss for how to keep her sense of self intact. At the end of the story, she realizes that her husband’s transformation is more dramatic than she suspected – and that he may not be human at all.

The stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder toe an odd and uncanny line between slipstream horror and emotional comfort food. Although some of the situations the protagonists find themselves in are strange and uncomfortable, Motoya’s writing doesn’t convey any particular sense of dread. The lighter stories play games with popular culture, humorously exploring questions such as “What would it be like to be a generic minor character in a video game?” and “What if your anime girlfriend were real?” As a collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder carries on a conversation about the tenuous relationships people forge with difference, and most of the narrative tension comes from the ways in which this difference manifests in various identities, ontologies, and communication styles that may not always be compatible or even fully comprehensible.

Each of the eleven stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder is interesting and unexpected, and Asa Yoneda’s skillful translation of Motoya’s sparkling prose is a joy to read.

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.

Heaven’s Wind

Title: Heaven’s Wind: A Dual-Language Anthology of Contemporary Japanese Writing
Editor and Translator: Angus Turvill
Publication Year: 2018
Publisher: The Japan Society
Pages: 200

Heaven’s Wind is a collection of five Japanese short stories published in parallel text, with the original Japanese on the left and the English translation on the right. Each of the stories selected by the editor and translator, Angus Turvill, has won an award in a translation competition, and the authors have all been critically recognized as well. Some of these stories are mimetic fiction, while others fall squarely into the mode of magical realism. The thread that ties these stories together is that each of them presents multiple case studies in the methods and challenges of Japanese-to-English translation.

The stories in Heaven’s Wind are followed by a 23-page essay in which Turvill identifies ten key areas where differences commonly arise between a Japanese text and its English translation. Without resorting to theory or philosophical abstractions, Turvill provides concrete examples from the preceding stories, which are explained in simple and commonsense terms. To given an example, whereas the tense of verbs can shift from sentence to sentence in Japanese, in English it usually makes more sense to pick one tense (often the past tense) and stick with it. Whether you agree or disagree with Turvill’s decisions, it’s easy to understand exactly why he’s made them. If you’re an aspiring translator, you’ll more than likely find this list of strategies to be immediately applicable to your own work. Even if you have no knowledge of Japanese, however, Turvill’s concise guide is a fascinating examination of some the nuts and bolts of how language operates in translation.

The stories themselves are fascinating as well. Kuniko Mukoda’s “The Otter” (1980) is about a man whose playful and charming wife doesn’t quite have his best interests at heart. Natsuko Kuroda’s “Ball” (1963) is about a young girl who steals a handball and, by doing so, opens her heart to the darkness of deceit. Kaori Ekuni’s “Summer Blanket” (2002) is about an heiress who is happy to live alone by the ocean until she is befriended by two beach bum college students. Each story offers an intimate portrait of human psychology that is firmly grounded in the rich details of its setting.

Mitsuyo Kakuta’s “The Child Over There” (2011) is a surreal story of a newlywed mother who recently lost a child to a miscarriage. She has moved to the village of her husband’s family, who tell her stories about a child-eating demon that inhabits a house she’s warned to stay away from. Even though she becomes pregnant again, she continues to visit the grave of the daughter she lost, who still visits her in dreams. One day she happens to overhear a rumor about Kukedo, the place where lost children go. Kukedo turns out to be an actual place, so the woman takes train there on a journey that is both mundane and deeply strange. Although she never fully comes to terms with the relationship between the demon and her miscarriage, the young woman is able to achieve something of a catharsis when she joins her daughter “over there.”

The last story in the collection, Aoko Matsuda’s “Planting” (2012), is an anthem to millennial disillusionment. A young woman who calls herself “Marguerite” is looking for the perfect job, ideally one that doesn’t require her to interact with other human beings. She eventually manages to find a position where boxes containing various materials are delivered to her apartment. She pleats whatever the box contains, repacks it, and then exchanges it for the next box. Some of these boxes contain loose fabric and pre-sewn garments, while others contain more disturbing contents, such as garbage, dead animals, and disembodied clumps of hair. Marguerite feels tired all the time, and she doesn’t understand the purpose of anything she does, but she has resolved to take all the negative feelings in her heart and plant them in the dirt outside, hoping that they will eventually grow into something beautiful.

Heaven’s Wind reminds me of the collections of contemporary Japanese literary fiction that used to be published a decade or two ago. The stories included in these collections were often edgy and avant-garde, and it wasn’t uncommon for their editors to focus on female authors. I’ve missed these short story collections, and Heaven’s Wind is a welcome contribution to the body of Japanese fiction available in English, regardless of whether you happen to be interested in its emphasis on the craft of translation. Because furigana pronunciation glosses are included in the Japanese text, it would be practical and easy to use Heaven’s Wind as a textbook for a translation seminar or as a guide to self-study. You can order a copy on the Japan Society online store or at Waterstones.

A review copy of Heaven’s Wind was kindly provided by The Japan Society.

Record of a Night Too Brief

Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Japanese Title: 蛇を踏む (Hebi o fumu)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 1996 (Japan)
Press: Pushkin Press
Pages: 158

Record of a Night Too Brief collects three short stories that the book’s cover copy describes as “haunting” and “lyrical” in their depiction of young women experiencing “loss, loneliness and extraordinary romance.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it in no way describes the actual stories in question, which are less “haunting” than they are grotesque and less “lyrical” than they are unapologetically strange. Instead of trying to treat them as romance, I believe it’s much more fulfilling to approach their absurdity in the spirit of intellectual play.

The title story, “Record of a Night Too Brief,” is a sequence of nineteen of the unnamed narrator’s dreams. Each of these dreams is two or three pages long, and they are linked only in that every other scenario features a young woman whom the narrator is either pursuing or in the process of merging with. If there is a unifying theme or plot, it is lost on me, but the power of these dreams comes from their vivid imagery. To give an example (from page 11):

Several dozen ticket collectors stood in a row, and once we passed through, showing our tickets, the tall object came into view.

It was a singer, who stood as tall as a three-storey building. From where I was, I had a clear view of the beauty spot under her jaw, and the rise and fall of her breasts.

“The beauty spot is artificial,” the girl informed me, gazing up at the singer, enraptured.

The singer was producing notes at different pitches, as if she were warming up. When she sang high notes, flocks of birds took flight from the branches of the ginko trees. When she sang low notes, the earth heaved, and small furry creatures emerged from underground and crawled about.

…and so on. It’s all very random, but one can’t help but become swept up in the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting parade of surreal images.

The next story, “Missing,” is set in an apartment complex that functions according to its own arbitrary and bizarre set of customs and rituals. One of the rules of this community is that each household can only have five members. If a sixth member is added for any reason, then someone has to disappear. This recently happened to the narrator’s family after her older brother was engaged to be married. Because his fiancée would have become the sixth person, he disappeared, and the narrator’s other older brother stepped in to fill his position. His fiancée, Hiroko, has no idea that this has happened, as the rules are different in her own apartment complex, where certain members of certain families literally shrink. Meanwhile, the narrator continues to hear the voice of the older brother as he (or his spirit) skulks around the apartment. No explanation is given for any of this, as everyone takes these occurrences for granted.

The final story, which provides the title of the original Japanese publication, is “A Snake Stepped On.” This story is about a young woman who one day finds herself living with a snake. This snake takes the form of an older woman who insists that she is the narrator’s mother. As she accustoms herself to life with a snake, the narrator begins to realize that many of the people around her are also living with snakes, including the local Buddhist priest whom she thought of turning to for an exorcism. Following the conventions of magical realism, the tone of this story is mundane, with the possibility of being devoured by a snake – or becoming a snake oneself – treated as merely another everyday occurrence.

Record of a Night Too Brief is a short collection of curiosities that are fascinating in their novelty. The fantastical qualities of each story allow for various interpretations, and they will no doubt intrigue different readers for different reasons. As contemporary fairy tales, the stories in this collection spark and inspire the imagination.

Tokyo Decadence

Tokyo Decadence

Title: Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories by Ryu Murakami
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Publication Year: 2016
Pages: 280

Tokyo Decadence contains fifteen stories drawn from five of Murakami Ryū’s collections published between 1986 and 2003. As translator Ralph McCarthy explains in his acknowledgments, he has been translating his favorite Murakami stories since the late 1980s, and now he’s finally able to publish them thanks to the blessing of the author and the encouragement of Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press.

The first story in Tokyo Decadence, “Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This,” has a passage at the beginning that reads as follows:

It’s probably safe to say that everyone sitting here is looking for some sort of sin tonight. The circumstances are different for each, of course, but everyone has the same general destination in mind. No one gets drunk in order to raise their moral standards.

It’s probably safe to say that no one opens a collection of Murakami Ryū’s short fiction in order to raise their moral standards. If you’re looking for some sort of sin, you’ve found yourself the right book. All of the stories in Tokyo Decadence are surprising and unique, but they all move toward the same general destination – sex and drugs and blood and tears.

This first story takes the form of an elaborate fetch quest across the seedy underbelly of Shinjuku in which the protagonist must exchange promises for favors. His goal is to get one of his former lovers to testify in court that they were sleeping together so that another of his former lovers doesn’t claim common law marriage and sue him for divorce. The point seems to be that people are terrible and selfish creatures, but it’s a lot more fun arriving at this conclusion than you’d expect.

The second story, “I Am a Novelist,” involves another strange situation in which a man posing as a bestselling writer gets a girl at a hostess club pregnant. When her manager insists that he meet the young woman, she quickly admits he’s not the person she slept with, but the writer still takes her out to dinner. She tells the writer that she’s a fan of his work, so he tries to get her to fall in love with him instead of his impersonator. It doesn’t work (obviously), and the novelist ends up finding out that he was just a minor character in someone else’s story.

In other stories, a trucker loses his wife and his job and becomes a host at a gay club, a guy with no self-esteem invades a woman’s home and smashes her television, and a young prostitute buys herself a topaz ring to remind herself of a musician whose world she can never enter. In “Penlight,” a call girl with serious issues talks about her imaginary friend to a guy she meets at a bar, who is interested in her body, but in the way you think (unless you happen to be thinking of horrific murder and cannibalism). A few of these stories are drawn from Murakami’s 1988 collection Topaz, which became the basis for the 1992 film Tokyo Decadence, which was directed by the author and banned in a handful of countries precisely because it’s the sort of movie you’d expect to have been directed by the author.

If you’ve read Murakami’s work before, you know what to expect. Since all of these stories are twenty pages or less, however, there’s no slow buildup to the carnage. That being said, the violence is tempered with irony, black humor, and intriguing characterizations that elevate the stories above simple splatterfests.

In contrast, the three stories drawn from the 1995 collection Ryu’s Cinematheque are vaguely autobiographical.

In “The Last Picture Show,” the 18-year-old narrator is living in Kichijōji and trying to make it big with his blues band. His upstairs neighbor, who is obviously a yakuza, wants to pay him to pick hydrangea leaves in Inokashira Park to dry and then sell as marijuana to American soldiers. In “The Wild Angels,” the 18-year-old narrator has started a relationship with a woman who works as a hostess, which makes him feel like less of a man, so he starts shooting heroin. In “La Dolce Vita,” the college student narrator hooks up with an older woman who lives in Yokosuka and gets her drugs from the American army base, which doesn’t end well.

To me, these coming-of-age stories were nowhere near as interesting or amusing as the murder stories, but they provide an interesting picture of the 1970s that serves as a counterpoint to the stories of the other Murakami; these stories forgo nostalgia in favor of an emphasis on the grittiness and despair and self-indulgent navel gazing of fringe counterculture.

The last third of Tokyo Decadence eases up on the drug use but maintains its focus on sex and emotional violence. Some of the stories reference each, and I got the sense that I was only being glimpses into a larger narrative. I dearly wish we lived in a world in which Ralph McCarthy was able to publish his translations of entire Murakami collections instead of selected stories, but each piece included in Tokyo Decadence shines brightly enough on its own merits that the reader is not disappointed by the relative lack of context.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tokyo Decadence. The collection portrays the Japan of the bubble and postbubble decades as a place where anything in your wildest dreams and darkest nightmares could happen. Murakami’s fiction is a love letter to the infinite possibilities of urban life delivered with style and panache. Just be warned – Tokyo Decadence is not for the faint of heart.

Tokyo Decadence will be released on March 15, 2016. A complete table of contents can be found on its page on the Kurodahan Press website.

Review copy provided by the noble and selfless people at Kurodahan Press.