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.

Bad Girls of Japan

Title: Bad Girls of Japan
Editors: Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Pages: 222

Every once in awhile I will demand, in my ignorance, why no one has published an article about some facet of Japanese culture that really deserves an article. It usually turns out that, in fact, someone has published an article; and, occasionally, it turns out that all of the articles I have ever wanted to read have been published in one book. My most recent of such discoveries is Bad Girls of Japan, which was published in hardcover in 2005 and paperback in 2007. Why hadn’t I read it before this past weekend? That’s a good question. Perhaps I had thought to myself, what do I care about Abe Sada or Yoshiya Nobuko? Perhaps I had thought to myself, how academically rigorous can a short collection of twelve-to-fifteen page essays actually be? Did I mention that I can be extremely ignorant sometimes?

Bad Girls of Japan is a compilation of eleven short articles (plus a separate introduction, conclusion, and bibliography) about, as the title suggests, Japanese bad girls, with “bad” meaning “defying mainstream notions of proper female conduct” and “girl” being a term of female empowerment, apparently. Rebecca Copeland begins the collection with an essay about the demonic women of Japanese folklore, such as the yamamba, or carnivorous mountain witch, and the jilted lover turned giant snake monster from the Dōjō-ji myth that has come down to us by way of a famous Nō play. Other essay topics include geisha, Meiji schoolgirls, kogal, and shopping mavens like Nakamura Usagi – as well as the aforementioned Abe Sada (whose erotic escapades were sensationalized by films like In the Realm of the Senses) and Yoshiya Nobuko (whose Hana monogatari – flower tales – more or less established the shōjo narrative style).

In short, Bad Girls of Japan is all about women who have become the vortexes generating major cultural currents in modern and contemporary Japan. As such, it reads like an alternate cultural history informed by various academic focuses and disciplines. Since the essays are short, each writer has been forced to say the most important things about her topic in the most efficient way possible, but none of these essays sacrifices theoretical nuance (or footnotes). Furthermore, in a book designed to upset common ideas concerning Japanese culture, it is appropriate that none of the essays makes any sort of culturally essentializing overgeneralizations, either.

Because of its essay length and broad range of topics, Bad Girls of Japan does feel a bit like an introductory textbook, but it’s a very intelligent textbook, and the excellent editing ensures that it’s easy to read, as well. As a result, I think this essay collection is one of the rare academic books that will appeal to non-academics, and it would be an excellent choice of reading material for someone who doesn’t know very much about Japan but wants to learn more. I especially recommend this book to pop culture fans interested in moving beyond archetypes and stereotypes. It’s a quick, fun read, and it paints a lively and vivid picture of the past one hundred years of Japanese cultural history. To respond to my own initial doubts concerning this book, then, one should care about women like Abe Sada and Yoshiya Nobuko not merely because they were interesting people who told interesting stories, but also because of what their stories reveal about Japan and its relation to the rest of the world as it made its way through the twentieth century.

By the way, that hypothetical essay I always wanted to read about sex in josei manga is in here too, and I think Gretchen Jones does a great job of addressing the possibility of female pleasure and agency lurking within all the graphic rape. I just wish her chapter were longer, which I suppose is something I could say about everything in the book…

The Story of a Single Woman

the-story-of-a-single-woman1

Title: The Story of a Single Woman
Japanese Title: 或る一人の女の話
Author: Uno Chiyo (宇野千代)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 1992 (America); 1971 (Japan)
Pages: 132

Translator Rebecca Copeland aptly remarks in her introduction to The Story of a Single Woman that this novella “is the Uno Chiyo story, the story she has told countless times before in earlier works.” Indeed, this semi-confessional narrative of love pursued against overwhelming societal resistance runs not just through Uno’s oeuvre but through the work of pre-bubble women writers in general, at least as it is portrayed in anthologies like Noriko Mizuta Lippet and Kyoko Iriye Selden’s Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction. What is special about The Story of a Single Woman, however, is how Uno is able to recount her narrative in a dashing and gallant narrative voice with a minimum of self-pity.

The novella’s heroine, Kazue, is born and grows up in a tiny mountain village named Takamori (not to be confused with the city on the island of Kyūshū) in the early twentieth century. Her mother dies when she is still an infant, and her father, a sake brewer of some renown, quickly remarries himself to a young woman. Oddly enough, it is not Kazue’s stepmother who harasses the child, but rather her father, who controls the family with an iron will and forces everyone to behave with perfect decorum, even as his fortunes decline. At the behest of her father, Kazue is married off to one of her cousins while still in her early teens; but, because her young husband is not yet interested in girls, Kazue walks back home and never looks back. When her father dies, she takes a job as a teacher in a larger town. Perhaps her newfound independence goes to her head, because she soon starts visiting a young male teacher at his residence, unchaperoned. The malicious gossip created by this affair forces Kazue to resign her job. She retaliates by moving to the newly colonized state of Korea to launch a career as a journalist.

This is merely the start of Kazue’s amorous adventures. Throughout the novel, she is brave and cheerful and never defeated, even though her many lovers, who also must yield to the social constraints of the time, abandon her one after the other. Scattered throughout the account of Kazue’s attempts to establish herself as a serious author while following her heart from one relationship to the next are vivid and lovely descriptions of life in the Japanese countryside and cities that would be forever shattered by the Pacific War and its legacy.

Overall, The Story of a Single Woman is a quick and enjoyable read. Even though its tone carries the somewhat Victorian literary flavor of the immediate postwar period, it manages to be quite erotic at times. Very occasionally, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. What I found interesting about this book is that, although the real-life Uno Chiyo is infamous as a femme fatale, her literary avatar Kazue comes across mainly as a brave young woman who cannot help but suffer from her insistence on playing a man’s game in a man’s world. Although this story doesn’t have a happy ending (although I should add that it doesn’t have a sad ending, either), it is remarkably true to life and even a little uplifting in its honesty.

Grotesque

Title: Grotesque
Japanese Title: グロテスク
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Pages:467

First of all, I would like to say that Grotesque is a very, very dark novel. It’s also filled with descriptions of all sorts of physical and emotional abuse, as well as numerous scenes of disgusting, extremely upsetting sex. In short, this novel is not for the faint of heart.

The novel essentially consists of the nameless narrator’s account of the murder of her younger sister, Yuriko, and her pseudo-friend from high school, Kazue, each of whom were marred by deep psychological imperfections. These emotional deficiencies were exacerbated by the harsh and competitive nature of the exclusive private high school that the two attended. In the end, both Yuriko and Kazue became prostitutes and were both ultimately murdered by the same unsavory client.

Putting the sensationalism of the novel aside, perhaps the most chilling aspect of Grotesque is the voice of the narrator. The reader quickly becomes inured to the sex and violence, but the cold and bitter tone of the narrator, as well as her pronounced disgust with her fellow human beings, continue to add a tinge of horror to the novel until the very last page. The narrator occasionally interrupts herself to present “evidence” concerning the two murder cases: the diary of her sister, the testimony of the murder suspect, and a letter from her old classmate. These stories within the story allow the reader to experience the voices of the novel’s other main characters, each of whom is just as disturbing as the main narrator.

In America, Kirino is mainly known for her first translated work, a massive chunk of a murder novel called Out (アウト, translated by Stephen Snyder). Like Out, Grotesque is long and depressing, and it would be a stretch to call any of the characters sympathetic. Unlike Out, however, Grotesque has a much smoother style, courtesy of translator Rebecca Copeland, and is therefore much easier to read. Also, compared to Out, the characters of Grotesque are much more artistically presented. Namely, in this novel, Kirino chooses to explore her characters’ depravity instead of merely wallowing in it. Moreover, I found the portion of the book that concerns the narrators’ experiences at their high school to be extremely entertaining. As I said earlier, Grotesque is not for the squeamish, but those readers who can deal with the darkness will be pleased to find an occasional glimmer of good writing and entrancing character study.

I should note that the version of Grotesque I reviewed is the British version, which I purchased in Japan. The American version of the book has been edited to remove all references to male child prostitution. Don’t let this deter you from reading the novel, though – the passages that were cut aren’t particularly riveting or important.