The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle

Title: The Goddess Chronicle
Japanese Title: 女神記 (Joshinki)
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野 夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 309

The protagonist of The Goddess Chronicle, Namima (“Woman-Amid-the-Waves”) lives on a small and richly vegetated island called Umihebi (“the island of sea snakes”). Umihebi is located somewhere in the island chain south of the kingdom of Yamato (i.e., Japan), and it is known throughout the Ryūkyū seas as a place where the gods come and go. The cape at the north end of the island is sacred and marked by a huge black boulder called “The Warning,” beyond which no one but the high priestess of the island may walk. On the eastern side of the island is the Kyoido (“Pure Well”), and on the western side is the Amiido (“Well of Darkness”), and only adult women are allowed to approach them. Between these landmarks grow plantain trees, banyan trees, pandan trees, and all manner of flowers. The water surrounding the island is filled with fish and sea snakes, which the island men take on their boats to trade with the people of other islands.

Namima’s grandmother, Mikura-sama, is Umihebi’s high priestess. She embodies the energies of light and life and protects the island from harm as she prays for prosperity. Because light and dark alternate, Mikura-sama’s daughter is dark, while Mikura-sama’s oldest granddaughter Kamikuu is light, thus entitling her to become the island’s next high priestess. If Kamikuu is light, then her sister Namima is dark; and so, if Kamikuu is to become then next high priestess of light and life, then Namima must become her dark counterpart, an outcast warden of darkness and death. While Kamikuu is fated to live at the top of a hill and be provided with generous quantities of nutrient-rich food as she prays to the gods and generates offspring from the seed of the young men on the island, Namima is fated to live in the shadow of a cliff, eating dregs and shunning the company of all save the corpses of the island’s dead, which she must watch decay in order to ensure that their souls pass on safely. Although Mikura-sama explains this to Kamikuu, the kind-hearted Kamikuu does not have the heart to tell her sister, so the teenaged Namima is outraged when she is hauled kicking and screaning down to a cave by the shore to take the place of Mikura-sama’s dark counterpart, who has vanished. Namima is immediately visited by her lover Mahito, the son of a family ostracized because of its matriarch’s inability to produce a female child, and the two escape the island on a small boat. Namima dies at sea, and that’s when the book really begins.

Namima, who dies with deep regret in her heart, is not allowed to move on to the world beyond death but instead finds herself in the underworld, a dark and formless landscape of unhappy souls presided over by Izanami, who is both a creator goddess and a goddess of death. Having died while giving birth to a fire god, Izanami found herself in the underworld. Her consort, Izanaki, came to retrieve her, but he was so appalled by the pollution and impurity of the underworld that he fled from his former lover and symbolically sealed the entrance to the underworld with a giant boulder. In her rage, Izanami vowed to end the lives of a thousand humans every day. In response, Izanaki vowed to erect a thousand birthing huts so that the human population would never decline.

Izanami, who has spent aeons under the earth, sees a kindred spirit in Namima and therefore draws Namima’s soul to her to act as an attendant and companion. The Goddess Chronicle is an account of how Namima rails against and finally settles into this role as she comes to understand and sympathize with Izanami’s suffering and the burden that the goddess has assumed. Over the course of her story, Namima returns to Umihebi as a tiger wasp and sees the religious and human drama of the island through the eyes of an outsider. Izanaki himself eventually enters the story and makes his own trip to Umihebi, so the reader sees the island from yet another perspective that further emphasizes how terrifying yet compelling its religious landscape and rituals are. The experiences both Namima and Izanaki have on Umihebi cause them to return to Izanami for closure and salvation.

In the end, however, there is no redemption for Izanami herself; there is only eternal hatred. I don’t want to give away certain plot developments; but, in light of these developments, it seems as if there would be so many other paths open to the goddess at the end of the novel. Moreover, although Namima can leave at any time, she decides to stay with Izanami, not as her friend or equal, but rather as the priestess of her pain. The novel ends with these lines, spoken by Namima:

I, who was once a priestess of the darkness, feel that serving here at Izanami’s side I am able to accomplish what I was unable to finish on earth. For, as I said earlier, Izanami is without a doubt a woman among women. The trials that she has borne are the trails all women must face. Revere the goddess! In the darkness of the underground palace, I secretly sing her praises.

I’m not sure if that’s a happy ending or not. So all women are united in a shared oppositional relationship to men? All women are united in their hatred, and in the fact that their destinies are shaped by the carelessness of men? Why do women have to harbor so much hatred? Why can’t men just be normal people instead of the shapers of the destinies of women? Why does there need to be an dualistic and antagonistic relationship between Woman and Man on such a deep mythical level?

In other mythological revisionist novels written from a feminist perspective, such as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Ursula Leguin’s Lavinia, there are layers of depth and meaning and subtle characterization added to mythological personages who were relatively flat in the original sources. In The Goddess Chronicle, the gods remain flat, and the human characters aren’t granted much depth either. The story told by the novel is fascinating, and the writing and translation are beautiful, but in the end there is almost no resolution or character development. Perhaps the point of the story isn’t to give human characteristics to nonhuman entities, however, but rather to provide the reader with an entryway into the conceptual geography of the existential questions religion and myth seek to address. In this latter purpose, The Goddess Chronicle succeeds spectacularly.

Kirino Natsuo is an extremely dark writer; and, while she never offers any feminist solutions to the problems she raises, she excels in bringing the reader’s attention to the sexism and hypocrisy that exist in mainstream narratives about women. By showing the reader the other side of the story, Kirino deftly illustrates the anger of the otherwise voiceless women who have been left out of most stories, but it is ultimately up to the reader to find hope in the situation and to figure out how to use her or his newfound anger to change the world for the better. In The Goddess Chronicle, Kirino encourages the reader to see one of the keystone tales of Japanese mythology from the perspective of darkness, and the perspective of those not showered with glory, and the perspective of those left behind. Such a perspective can be upsetting and frustrating, but it’s also an invitation to the reader to formulate her or his own interpretations, as well as her or his own ideas concerning the further adventures of these characters and their relevance to the modern world.

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…