Emily

Emily

Title: Emily
Japanese Title: エミリー (Emirii)
Author: Takemoto Novala (嶽本 野ばら)
Translator: Misa Dikengil Lindberg
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Shueisha English Edition

There are two short stories and one novella included in Takemoto Novala’s collection Emily, which was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize (for popular established writers) in 2003. “Readymade,” which is only a few pages long, is written in the form of a confession of a young female office worker to an older male colleague who takes her on a date to an exhibition of French Cubist art at the Ueno Royal Museum. “Corset” is told from the perspective of a male illustrator in Kyoto who plans to indulge in a short romantic relationship with an engaged woman before committing suicide in honor of a deceased friend. The novella Emily is about two high school misfits devoted to street fashion.

The two short stories are wonderfully atmospheric and can be read as treatises on Lolita aesthetics. Both stories follow the pattern of an older and self-assured man aggressively offering instruction to a naïve younger woman characterized as a tabula rasa, and they’re less about suspense and development than they are about establishing a colorful and stylized worldview.

To give an example from “Corset”:

“Wouldn’t it have been great if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century?”

“Yes. Sometimes I really think so. But I also think that if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century, maybe we’d still be complaining, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d been born in the eighteenth century?’ Perhaps it’s not this era that we dislike, but the state of being in the present that doesn’t agree with us.”

“You mean no matter what era we were born in, we’d always long for the past and have nothing but despair for the present? Maybe you’re right. So there’s no way out except death.”

“Regardless of how the times change, as long as you are alive, you’ll be full of nothing but discord with the world around you.”

Such sentiments provide a fitting prelude to the novella Emily, in which the narrator truly is out of sync with the world in which she lives. This is not her personal failing, but rather a failing on the part of a society that refuses to accommodate diversity and always seeks a scapegoat. Emily‘s narrator, who enjoys visiting the Laforet shopping center in Harajuku and dressing in cute street fashions, has become a target for the other girls in her high school, who subject her to bizarrely cruel forms of bullying:

They sometimes made me stand in the middle of the court with my hands bound, as they spiked balls at me. I had to take the hits directly to my body as the seniors spiked and then ordered others to spike. There was no way I could run. If the balls had been coming from one direction, I could have escaped, but they came from all directions. Every ball hit me. It was a game to them. If a ball hit my body, they scored one point. If it hit my face, they scored five points. And if it knocked me over, they scored ten points.

The narrator isn’t subject to abuse just from her classmates and volleyball club teammates, but also from her mother, who is disappointed that she was unable to become a child television star, a path the narrator refused to follow after she suffered abuse of another kind. Instead of becoming bitter or resentful, however, the young woman finds joy in the self-expression she realizes through clothing that flies in the face of conformity and social expectations. In fact, it seems only natural to the reader that she would use street fashion to carve out a comfortable refuge for herself away from her school and family.

Through a shared interest in the Emily Temple Cute brand, the narrator becomes friends with a boy who also hangs out around Laforet. It turns out that he’s a student at her high school, and he’s also being bullied because he came out as gay to another male student. After one particularly frightening incidence of bullying that threatens the life of the narrator, her friend flies into a rage and attacks her tormentors before fleeing the school grounds. The narrator tracks him down in Shibuya, and they have a long heart-to-heart conversation that is both touching and extremely painful.

Although Emily addresses real social issues, like the two other stories in the collection, its themes are exaggerated, and the style in which it is written is clearly stylized. Readers searching for absolute mimetic realism probably won’t be impressed, but fans of young adult fiction – including young adults – will be moved and swept away by the entire collection.

Included at the end of Emily is a lengthy and illuminating interview with the author, Takemoto Novala.

Although the translation is only available as an e-book, its short length (probably fewer than 150 pages) would make it a perfect classroom text should it ever become available in a paperback edition.

So, you’re intrigued by Emily. You should be! The publisher, Shueisha English Edition, has put up a lovely website to help promote the book. But you’ve searched on Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, on Kobo, and on iBooks, and it’s nowhere to be found. What gives?

It turns out that Shueisha English Edition titles were only available through the Sony Reader digital storefront, which was shut down earlier this year (2014). When the Sony Reader store closed, an announcement was posted stating that all Sony Reader titles would be transferred to Kobo. An April 2 post on the Shueisha English Edition Facebook page reads as follows:

We’re very sorry but our move to Kobo won’t happen very soon. We’re still talking with our possible representative in the States.

On June 29, the following update appeared:

Ours is an editorial team only working for Shueisha English Edition, and has no connection to Shueisha’s other operations. We’ll restart our publication soon when we reach an agreement to our next retailer. Please don’t send any inquiries about Shueisha’s other publications and rights/licensing business. We simply cannot answer to any such questions and requests. Thank you for your patience and we’re working hard on our future titles. Please wait for some more for our official announcements and new titles.

Since then, nothing.

It seems as though the publisher has disappeared, which is a shame, since it was off to a fantastic start, regularly putting out lovely digital books with excellent bonus materials and carefully crafted promotional websites (such as those for Shimizu Yoshinori’s Labyrinth and Makime Manabu’s The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom). In an interview on the SCBWI Japan Translation Group’s webpage, the Shueisha English Edition editor in chief, Yoshio Kobayashi, outlines the care and attention put into the translation, editing, and presentation of each of the publisher’s titles. Although I don’t have access to any of these other titles, Emily is a cool little book, and I imagine that it would have been able to find a sizeable audience through the appropriate distribution channels.

Although I understand that the collapse of the Sony Reader Store must have been a major blow, I can’t even begin to imagine what’s going on with Shueisha English Edition, especially since the publisher is working with such fantastic and high-profile authors and translators. I can only hope that good news is forthcoming from them soon.

Review copy provided by Shueisha English Edition.

Kokoro

Kokoro

Title: Kokoro
Japanese Title: こゝろ
Author: Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石)
Translator: Edwin McClellan
Publication Year: 1957 (America); 1914 (Japan)
Publisher: Regency Publishing
Pages: 248

When I first started studying Japanese literature in college, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro was one of the first modern novels I read. I remember being disappointed and a bit confused by it, however. Sōseki is one of the major figures in the Japanese literary canon, if not in fact the major figure. His early novel Botchan (坊っちゃん, 1905, recently translated by Joel Cohn) has been required reading for generations of Japanese schoolchildren, and his portrait used to grace the one thousand yen bill. A quick search on Google will turn up numerous syllabi for courses in Japanese literature that all begin with Kokoro. In short, this novel is kind of a big deal.

So why then, when I first read it, was I so disappointed? In short, I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this it?” Kokoro contains few lyrical passages, few descriptions of landscape, season, architecture, interior, or dress. Perhaps as a result, there is also no overt or sustained system of imagery. No light, no sound, no water, no heat. Of course I am exaggerating a bit (there are two memorable passages that occur in a tree nursery and by the seashore, respectively), but this novel boasts none of the opulent attention to detail that, in my mind at least, characterizes a great deal of Japanese literature.

There is also very little plot. The novel is divided into three sections. The first, “Sensei and I,” details the meeting and deepening friendship between an unnamed narrator (“Watakushi”) and an older man who he calls “Sensei.” In the second section, “My Parents and I,” the narrator has graduated from college in Tokyo and returns to his home in the countryside to be with his dying father. The third section, “Sensei and His Testament,” consists of a letter that Sensei has sent the protagonist explaining his past, his melancholy, and his decision to commit suicide after the death of the Meiji emperor. Kokoro ends with the conclusion of Sensei’s letter, and the reader is given no indication as to whether the narrator of the first two sections is able to make it to Tokyo in time to save Sensei or whether his father dies during his absence.

Although every single character in the novel is otherwise fully fleshed out as a believable human being, none of them seem to reflect archetypes familiar to a Western reader. In fact, Kokoro offers very little in terms of allusions and therefore might tend to come off as a bit shallow and one dimensional. Sure, there are some topical references to the death of the Meiji Emperor and the death of General Nogi, who committed suicide to “follow his master” out of an anachronistic sense of honor, but I wonder how deeply the reader is supposed to consider these references. The theme of the passing of an age is intriguing, but far from fully developed in the novel.

So why this novel one of the great classics of Japanese literature? Although I was frustrated the first time I read it, I think I am finally beginning to understand its appeal. Much of the literary writing in the Meiji period (1868-1912), such as Tayama Katai’s “The Quilt” (布団, 1907) and Shimazaki Tōson’s Broken Commandment (破壊, 1906), was concerned with the literary philosophy of Naturalism, which in Japan took the form of an attempt to realistically depict the psychology of a modern individual. The narrative style of such works was often stilted and noticeably stylized (despite their claims of realism). To me, Kokoro is an amazing work in that the narrative style actually feels quite “natural” in a Western way; at no point is the reader made aware of the fact that he or she is reading a novel. In other words, Sōseki was able to take the Japanese language and the concept of Japanese literature and do with them something that no one had done before.

What will appeal to the reader, then, are passages that a first time reader (such as myself in college) might not notice simply because they are so natural. When the narrator returns to his parents’ home, for example, he remarks that coming home from school is nice for the first week or two, but then the novelty wears off both for the student, who misses his friends, and for the parents, who begin to nag him. I couldn’t help smiling a bit when I read this. Moreover, the tragic past revealed by Sensei is his letter is believable but also, perhaps because it is so low-key, quite heart-wrenching. I feel that takes a master writer to avoid melodrama when working with such material, and Sōseki handles his subject matter beautifully.

All in all, Kokoro is worth reading not merely because it is a monument of Japanese literature but because of the sheer quality of the writing (and McClellan’s excellent translation). In any case, I found it very satisfying, and I’m glad I re-read it.