Where the Wild Ladies Are

Author: Aoko Matsuda (松田 青子)
Japanese Title: おばちゃんたちのいるところ (Obachan-tachi no iru tokoro)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 271

Where the Wild Ladies Are collects seventeen short stories about the everyday lives of ghosts, demons, and yōkai in contemporary Japan. Although all of these stories are a bit strange, their tone is light and comedic, and all the hauntings are consensual.

My favorite story in the collection is “Quite a Catch,” which is about a young woman named Shigemi who has found herself in a romantic relationship with the ghost of a skeleton she inadvertently pulled out of the Tama River in Tokyo while fishing with a friend. The ghost, Hina-chan, appears outside of Shigemi’s apartment to thank her for dredging her bones from the riverbed. Shigemi is alarmed at first, but before long she and Hina-chan are chatting while watching television, not to mention bathing and sleeping together. Hina-chan’s nightly visits are a best-case scenario for the narrator, who has always wanted companionship without having to live with a spouse or roommate.

As the story notes in the back of the book explain, “Quite a Catch” is based on the comedic folktale Kotsutsuri (Skeleton Fishing) about a man who, after having heard a friend’s story about being thanked by the beautiful ghost of a drowned skeleton, goes to the river in an attempt to snare himself a supernatural girlfriend of his own but ends up fishing up the skeleton of the villain of a famous kabuki play.

Other stories in the collection feature other well-known figures from Japanese drama, lore, and legends narrated from unusual perspectives. “On High,” for example, is about a ghostly princess who haunts the beautiful hilltop Himeji Castle while it’s in the process of undergoing extensive renovations in the name of “historic preservation.” Meanwhile, “Enoki” is narrated by a sacred tree that is both frustrated and amused by the humans who insist on praying to it for various blessings, while “A Fox’s Life” is about a woman who’s been told she resembles a fox so often that she finally decides to go up into the mountains and become one.

“Smartening Up” is the first story in the collection, and it’s an excellent introduction to the author’s playful voice as she expresses the central theme of learning to embrace your weirdness and imperfections. The narrator begins the story obsessed with the darkness of her hair, spending a considerable amount of time and money on hair removal treatments while wishing she were born blond. On returning home after a rigorous session at an aesthetic salon one evening, she finds her aunt waiting for her in her apartment. This is something of a surprise, as her aunt had committed suicide in the wake of a failed love affair. Even more shocking, this aunt tells the narrator that she knows all about how she’s come to hate her appearance after being dumped. There’s nothing wrong with her hair, her aunt insists, especially since the fault lies with the piece of trash who cheated on her. The aunt assures her that her black hair is gorgeous, and that there’s no need for her to feel gross and ugly.

This story is loosely based on the Dōjōji legend, specifically the kabuki play Musume Dōjōji (The Maid of Dōjō Temple). The original story, in which a lustful woman is spurned by a celibate monk and turns into a giant snake to pursue him, is almost laughably misogynistic. The kabuki version, on the other hand, celebrates the woman’s serpentine transformation as an act of beauty and magic, with the dancer twirling in a robe that shines silver with the gorgeous gleam of scales.

The narrator’s aunt reminds her of the time they saw this play together and then admits that she’s still figuring out what her own secret power is. As the narrator considers the matter, she realizes that her own power is indeed in her hair. She begins eating hair-fortifying foods like liver and seaweed, helping her hair to become as monstrous and powerful as the snakes commanded by Medusa. She hides her demonic hair during the day but allows it to come out at night, brushing it to a high sheen and thinking about what sort of special skills she will learn in the future as she grows more comfortable wielding her magical power.

This may sound sentimental and a bit self-helpy, but the tone is actually very tongue-in-cheek and down to earth. The narrative voice, which is expertly captured through Polly Barton’s translation, is highly engaging. Many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are were inspired by rakugo comedic storytelling, which is meant to be a bit salty and ridiculous. A set of brief notes concerning sources and inspirations is provided at the end of the book, but it’s absolutely not necessary to be familiar with the original legends to appreciate and enjoy the stories in the collection.

Although many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are revolve around the theme of supernatural female empowerment, there’s no man-hating here – far from it. There are plenty of interesting male characters, including a time-traveling and dimension-hopping wizard who was inadvertently roped into the job and decided, like any good salaryman, just to stick with it. Although the reader doesn’t figure this out until late in the collection, all of the stories are loosely linked, with the various male and female characters managing to get along with each other in relative harmony.

Between the creative contemporary re-imaginings of folklore, the strong female friendships, the queer monster romance, and the general disdain for boring office jobs and awful bosses, the target audience of Where the Wild Ladies Are is specifically me, and I feel very seen and catered to. Still, Where the Wild Ladies Are should resonate with a broad readership. I suspect that a lot of anime fans and yōkai enthusiasts will be highly entertained by the collection, and the stories will appeal to anyone of any gender who enjoys clever comedy about how wild it is to live in the modern world.

Parade

Parade
Japanese Title: パレード (Parēdo)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上 弘美)
Illustrator: Takako Yoshitomi (吉富 貴子)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Book Design: Wah-Ming Chan
Publication Year: 2002 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 82

Parade is a short story that takes place during Hiromi Kawakami’s 2001 novel Strange Weather in Tokyo, which is about a woman in her late thirties who falls in love with her former high school teacher, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Parade stands on its own, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Strange Weather in order to appreciate Parade, which is strange and delightful.

Parade opens with the narrator, Tsukiko Omachi, preparing noodles at Sensei’s house. He asks her to tell him “a story of long ago,” and she responds by relating something that happened during her childhood as they spend a lazy afternoon together.

When she was a kid, Tsukiko woke up one day to find two small people sitting beside her bed. They were about her size, and they had long noses, small wings, and bright red skin. Tsukiko decided that they were probably creatures from Japanese folklore called tengu. The two tengu followed Tsukiko to school, but no one seemed to notice them.

When Tsukiko arrives at school, however, she realizes that a few of the other children are accompanied by creatures of their own, such as a badger and a long-necked rokurokubi. The children followed by these creatures can see them, but they remain invisible to everyone else. None of the children find this odd, and Tsukiko’s mother – who once had a fox of her own – treats the issue in a matter-of-fact manner.

These creatures turn out to have less of an impact on Tsukiko’s life than a bullying incident in which Tsukiko’s classmate Yuko is ostracized by the other girls at their school. Yuko has a healthy response to this, ignoring her classmates while still being friendly with other kids her age outside of class. Tsukiko is uncomfortable with the situation, however, and her tengu begin to fall ill.

The situation resolves itself, but there’s no sentimental moral or life lesson to the story, just children behaving in the way that children tend to behave. Instead, the otherness of the tengu serves as a means by which Tsukiko begins to understand her own subjectivity as someone who has never thought of herself as “a tengu person” yet has somehow come to be associated with them. At the same time, she becomes more aware of the subjectivity of other people who are paired with mythological creatures of their own, as well as the subjectivity of people who can’t see them but have no trouble accepting that they exist. There’s no direct allegory implied, but the imagery of Parade is compelling enough to resonate on multiple levels.

Soft Skull Press’s paperback publication of Parade is a lovely physical object, with a velvet-touch cover and finely textured pages. It also features creative interior design work by Wah-Ming Chan and a gallery of abstract illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (who has also published work in a number of josei magazines, although you won’t see any manga influences in Parade). The book measures about 4 by 6 inches, the perfect size for a short commute or a small gift. Although younger children may not understand the implications of the frame story (namely, Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship), Parade is suitable for all ages, and I can imagine that it might inspire a few fledgling writers to tell “a story from long ago” of their own.

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.

Vibrator

Vibrator

Title: Vibrator
Japanese Title: ヴァイブレータ (Vaiburēta)
Author: Akasaka Mari (赤坂 真理)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 155

Vibrator is not an easy book to read.

In the first twenty pages, the 31-year-old bulimic narrator describes her strategies for throwing up after meals. Apparently, the trick is to not allow the food to digest. Soda water helps too, it seems. Alcohol complicates matters, but it’s difficult to give up entirely, because it makes the voices go away.

As you might imagine, the narrator of Vibrator has Issues. The first third of the novel is occupied by her nerve-wracking, stream-of-consciousness jabber. What’s perhaps most disturbing about the narrator’s ranting is not that it so accurately reflects narratives of self-hatred and self-doubt, but that the circumstances she describes make her anxieties and self-destructive behavior seem entirely justified. Being an independent woman in a man’s world is hard, and the narrator knows that her beauty will fade as she grows older, thus depriving her of her only advantage over her male colleagues. Moreover, as a female journalist, the narrator is placed in situations in which she must comment not as a professional but as a representative member of her gender, which she finds banal and insulting. To anyone – male or female – who’s ever resented her job or lamented her relative lack of professional success, the narrator’s complaints will be painfully familiar.

One snowy night, after buying a liquid dinner in a Family Mart on her way home, the narrator almost runs headlong into a tracker-trailer on the edge of the convenience store parking lot. The driver, a twenty-something named Okabe, invites her into the cab. The narrator wants to spend more time observing the white world generated by the snow flurry, and she feels as if she has nothing to lose, so she accepts his offer. They talk while drinking, and before long they’re on the road to the northern Tōhoku region. Sex is involved, but more interesting than the smut is the intimacy of Okabe’s story about dropping out of high school to become a low-ranking member of a yakuza clan.

Vibrator is not quite a love story. At the end of the book, there’s no indication that the sudden relationship between the narrator and Okabe will amount to anything beyond the single ride they share. Still, it’s lovely to witness the garbled voices in the narrator’s head slowly fade as she is calmed by vibrations of the truck’s engine (the “vibrator” of the title) and Okabe’s placid self-assurance. Even if the narrator is unable to achieve any deep or permanent connection with Okabe, her escape from her own head and engagement with the landscapes flashing past the truck’s windows is satisfying and meaningful.

Vibrator may not an easy book to read, but it’s certainly worth reading, if only to witness the skill with which the translator, Michael Emmerich, has rendered its narrator’s many voices.

If you live in the United States, Hiroki Ryūichi’s 2003 cinematic adaptation of Vibrator is streaming on Netflix. The film features gorgeous long shots of the Japanese countryside, and the director effectively removes the characters from the narrator’s incessant stream-of-consciousness commentary, which creates an entirely different atmosphere for the story. Tom Mes highly recommends this movie, and it’s a beautiful interpretation of the novel.