The Woman in the Purple Skirt

Japanese Title: むらさきのスカートの女 (Murasaki no sukāto no onna)
Author: Natsuko Imamura (今村 夏子)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2019 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 216

The Woman in the Purple Skirt begins as a charming set of observations about a woman who lives in a quiet neighborhood. It soon becomes clear, however, that there is something creepy about the narrator, who calls herself The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.

The specificity of the narration raises many questions. Why is the narrator so obsessed with the Woman in the Purple Skirt? How is she able to observe her so closely? Is she stalking this woman? Or is she perhaps talking about herself in third person? Is she making up a fantasy version of herself, or is she projecting her personality onto a real woman? If so, why? Who is the Woman in the Purple Skirt? Who is the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan?

The Woman in the Purple Skirt isn’t suspense, necessarily, and it’s certainly not the “thriller” that the publisher seems to be trying to market it as, but the experience of reading this story is unsettling. The novella won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, which is awarded to work from emerging writers that pushes boundaries and has a certain air of being “literary.” Despite the stylish chick lit cover of the American edition, the plot of The Woman in the Purple Skirt is almost depressingly mundane.

After a series of temp jobs that she quits after only a few days, the Woman in the Purple Skirt finds employment as member of the cleaning staff at an upscale hotel. She seems to be having an affair with one of her supervisors, and rumors spread that her salary is disproportionately high. At the same time, certain imbalances in inventory cause her coworkers to suspect that she is stealing. As the atmosphere at work becomes more hostile, the woman’s relationship with her supervisor also deteriorates. Meanwhile, the narrator, who is also a supervisor on the hotel’s cleaning staff, continues to glide through the life of the Woman in the Purple Skirt like a shadow.

This story is banal, but the subtle uncanniness of the narration forces the reader to view these normal events in normal lives with a sense of unease. The prose is sparse, the language is simplistic, and the affect is almost completely flat. Lucy North’s translation is reminiscent of Raymond Carver, especially in terms of dialog. Like Carver’s short fiction, the themes that emerge from beneath the placid surface of the narration are distressing: economic precarity, alienation, and the dangers of aging without a social network or financial safety net.

Despite its engagement with contemporary social issues, there’s nothing about The Woman in the Purple Skirt that requires specialist cultural knowledge, as the experience of struggling with loneliness while making minimum wage is equally shitty everywhere. I’d recommend this novella to anyone who enjoyed (or was at least moved by) Convenience Store Woman, as well as anyone concerned with urban anomie who entertains doubts about the ethics of low-wage work.

Because of the intriguing questions it raises and the unfortunate relatability of the discussion it’s likely to inspire, I would also recommend The Woman in the Purple Skirt as a text in a class on contemporary Japanese fiction. In addition, I think the novella might work well as a text for upper-level Japanese language classes, as its polished yet accessible prose evades the deliberate opacity of most Akutagawa Prize-winning work. Imamura has a field day with the narrative ambiguities made possible by the Japanese language, so it might be interesting to read the original side-by-side with North’s translation, which makes a number of tough decisions that nevertheless read as smooth and effortless.

Acclaimed author Natsuko Imamura’s first work to appear in English translation is short enough to be read in the span of an hour, but it’s worth spending time with. It’s difficult to say that a book as genuinely creepy as The Woman in the Purple Skirt is an enjoyable read, but the novella is a darkly shining jewel of literary fiction that invites and rewards analysis and introspection.

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.