So We Look to the Sky

Japanese Title: ふがいない僕は空を見た (Fugainai boku wa sora o mita)
Author: Misumi Kubo (窪 美澄)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: Arcade Publishing
Pages: 267

So We Look to the Sky is a compulsively readable collection of connected stories that follow the soap opera lives of five characters, each of whom might be generously described as “a hot mess.” I don’t know what the reviewer from the Japan Times was given to read when they described So We Look to the Sky as “pressingly real” in the blurb that appears on the book’s cover, because each of the stories is an absolute train wreck of improbable situations. This is not a condemnation – far from it! I very much enjoyed So We Look to the Sky. If you’re expecting a sensitive portrayal of real life, though, it might be best to look elsewhere so that you can better appreciate the ridiculous fun this book has to offer.

The events in So We Look to the Sky begin are set into motion when a high school student named Takumi is picked up by a young housewife at a comics convention. She invites him to her apartment for cosplay sex, and things progress from there. The depiction of this sex is unabashedly explicit, with the word “cock” appearing for the first time of many on the fourth page of the book.

Takumi’s mother runs a midwife clinic out of their home; and, after assisting her during a difficult birth, Takumi breaks off his partnership with the housewife because he starts seeing her body as an animalistic sack of flesh filled with minuscule eggs. This is all well and good, except the housewife’s husband has already taped Takumi having sex with her. And then the husband puts the videos online.

This is all according to the plan of the housewife’s mother-in-law, who uses the sex tapes as a tool to pressure her precious baby boy’s otaku bride into going to America for fertility treatments so that she can stop being useless and have children already. Meanwhile, pornographic photos of Takumi’s cosplay sex are circulated throughout his school, much to the dismay of his former girlfriend. It turns out that the girlfriend has a shut-in brother, who left college after joining a cult. It was a sex cult.

All of this transpires in the first fifty pages of So We Look to the Sky, which only becomes more outlandish as it goes along. There’s a new twist about once every fifteen to twenty pages, with the stories tackling themes like poverty, suicide, child abuse, sexual abuse, queer sexuality, and natural disasters with good-natured glee. It’s difficult to take any of this seriously as social commentary, but it’s a lot of fun to read.

So We Look to the Sky opens as a raunchy sex comedy. As a raunchy sex comedy, it is very entertaining. I wouldn’t classify the book as “erotica,” but there’s a lot of explicit fucking. Polly Barton’s lively translation leans into the awkwardness and self-reflexive humor of these scenes, which function as vehicles for character development fortified with relatable secondhand embarrassment. If ever a work of Japanese fiction in translation deserved a cover designed by Chip Kidd, it’s this one.

I don’t mean to hate on the people who contributed the painstakingly sincere promotional blurbs that appear on the book’s cover, but I think it’s important to emphasize that So We Look to the Sky is not “an intricate portrait of women, family, love, and friendship.” If you come to this novel expecting serious literary writing that can be compared to Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.  

As something of a content warning, the fourth story takes a sensationalist and almost Dickensian approach to extreme poverty, with the twist being that the gay man who wants to help at-risk teenagers by starting a scholarship-assisted tutoring program is actually a pedo. As I wrote earlier, the entire book is a big trashy soap opera, so this development makes sense in context, but your mileage may vary.

The fifth and final story, “Pollen Nation,” is a clear standout as the strongest and most interesting in the collection. This story is about Takumi’s mother, who has to deal with the death threats and hate mail being sent to her maternity clinic as she cares for her son, who has become a shut-in. Along with her capable assistant Mitchan, Takumi’s mother manages to keep the clinic running despite the demands of her difficult clients, who run the gamut from first-time mothers obsessed with micromanaging their diets to clueless husbands who blame their ignorance about pregnancy on everyone but themselves.

What I appreciate about “Pollen Nation” is its no-nonsense treatment of the topic of pregnancy in Japan, which is generally stylized as either divine or monstrous in both popular and literary fiction. Regardless of the political discourse surrounding pregnancy, somebody’s got to deliver the babies, and it’s refreshing to see this experience portrayed as a matter of normal everyday life.     

So We Look to the Sky is the sort of outrageous Japanese popular fiction that I’d love to see more of in translation. The book has very little redeeming literary value, but who cares? It’s difficult to look away from the characters as they make terrible decisions while still doing their best. Despite the awful situations these ridiculous people manage to get themselves into, everything somehow works out in the end, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a story.

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.

Twinkle Twinkle

twinkle-twinkle

Title: Twinkle Twinkle
Japanese Title: きらきらひかる
Author: Ekuni Kaori (江国香織)
Translator: Emi Shimokawa
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Pages: 171

About thirty pages into Twinkle Twinkle, I thought to myself, “Are all contemporary Japanese books written by women this depressing?” It’s an interesting literary trend. In America, writers like Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, 2005) and Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, 2004) craft literary paeans to female sisterhood, hope, and endurance, while contemporary Japanese female authors seem to be losing the struggle to gaman, or to deal with the hardships presented to them by Japanese society until they are able to claim some immaterial reward in the far-off future. In short, the new breed of Japanese women writers seems to be cracking under the strain of contemporary Japanese society, which has been slow to acknowledge new gender roles, even as the economic structures that have supported these gender roles have crumbled. Ekuni Kaori’s novel Twinkle Twinkle perspicuously demonstrates the effects of this societal paradox.

Twinkle Twinkle follows the fortunes of the newlywed couple Shoko and Mutsuki. Mutsuki is gay and quite in love with his boyfriend. Shoko is highly emotionally unstable and is quite open about the fact that she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with anyone. Although the pair lives together, and although they are quite affectionate towards one another, their marriage is nothing more than a legal convenience. In fact, the only reason they agreed to marry in the first place was to escape from the pressure imposed upon them by their parents. Through the first months of their married life, Shoko and Mutsuki make friends and lose friends, battle their respective families, and learn how to live with one another in the strange situation they’ve created.

Because Shoko and Mutsuki take turns narrating the chapters, the reader is able to gain a very interesting perspective into their relationship and their individual personalities. I found myself becoming frustrated with the characters and sympathizing with them in turn. Mutsuki is kind, but passive and somewhat clueless. Shoko displays the classic symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which occasionally devolves into depression and alcoholism, but she is honest, true to her herself, and genuinely means well in her interactions with others. Both of the two main characters, as well as the cast of supporting characters, are expertly realized, and I felt that I came to know them quite well over the course of the novel, as if perhaps they were friends of mine in real life.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Yes, the characters occasionally have fun and enjoy each other’s company, but the challenges they face are quite real, extremely frustrating, and never entirely resolved. Although the novel has something of a happy ending, I found myself fearing for the fate Shoko and Mutsuki several years down the road. Also, I found it hard to accept Shoko’s extreme behavior at times, and the all too accurate portray of her emotional instability was difficult to deal with. The hardheadedness of her traditional Japanese parents was even worse.

Overall, though, I think Twinkle Twinkle provides a welcome antidote to the bubblegum fluff of shōjo manga, “light novels,” and the works of novelists like Yoshimoto Banana. Don’t let the bright cover of this book fool you – Ekuni’s novel contains more insight into the dark side of contemporary Japanese society than you may find comfortable.