Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan

Title: Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan
Author: Amanda C. Seaman
Publisher: University of Hawai‘i Press
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 230

This guest review is by Tyran Grillo (@tyrangrillo on Twitter).

Amanda C. Seaman’s Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan is a masterfully written and timely monograph. It explores the role of pregnancy, if not the pregnancy of roles, concerning women as subjects within, and creators of, Japanese literature in a time of social restlessness around questions of procreation.

In her first chapter, “Write Your Mother,” Seaman seeks to define the practical and symbolic overtures of pregnancy as literary trope. Summarizing not only the large amount of literature on pregnancy and childbirth, but also the media blitz on Japan’s falling birthrate and rising aging population, she rightly asks: Does there continue to be a national obsession with all things baby? None have given this question proper attention, and Seaman’s work provides a compelling response. In addition to a widespread media blackout on this question, even less attention is paid to “cultural, artistic, and intellectual responses to and representations of pregnancy and childbearing in the ‘low fertility’ age” (1). This, Seaman claims, lenses a unique perspective on pregnancy as a metaphorical site for the actual bodies undergoing misunderstood changes.

Seaman is concerned with how women writers are using storytelling as response mechanism, and to make this point focuses on works of Takahashi Takako, Itō Hiromi, Ogawa Yōko, Tadano Miako, and Hasegawa Junko, among others. While politicians and other policy makers have taken it upon themselves to make pregnancy a matter of intense public interest, these writers make it matter of intense private interest, albeit in the decidedly public format of mass-market publishing.

Seaman’s book opens with an erudite summary of the scare regarding declining birth rates from the end of the Pacific War to the present century. Despite surface-level concern and efforts, Japan’s government has done little to promote childbearing in any way amenable to actual women. As the media continues to propagate a sugarcoated version of marriage and childbirth, the realities explored by Seaman’s writers of interest reflect an unabashed landscape of “danger, repression, destruction, or pain” (4). Their focus on bodies as continents shifting to the seismic activity of public opinion ensures that the self becomes not simply a beacon but a lightning rod to political provocation.

Explicit discussion on the printed page of women’s fertile bodies in such intimate terms is a relatively modern concession, and before its advent women’s bodies were relegated to a relatively impressionistic realm of unclean impulses and male-defined mystery. Yosano Akiko, notes Seaman, was instrumental in bringing an embodied approach to pregnancy and childbearing in the early 20th century, as well as for addressing the suffering involved in both. Her call was not taken up by many, although it did spark the “maternal turn” promulgated by such writers as Okamoto Kanoko. After the Pacific War, women’s maternal roles were more intimately associated with carbon-copied nuclear family archetypes. Only in the 1960s and 1970s did a “new wave” of women writers emerge. Among them, Tsushima Yūko reclaimed motherhood, in all its ups and downs, as something distinctly women’s own. Pregnancy manga soon followed in the early 1990s, and Seaman includes analyses of quintessential examples.

The title of Chapter Two – “Hey, You, Get Out of My Womb!” – references pregnancy as both a literal and metaphorical cipher of invasion. In this chapter, Takahashi Takako, Takekawa Sei, and Ogawa Yōko are shown to focus on the alien aspects of pregnancy. Seaman opens with an poem by Yosano Akiko that pays homage to folkloric themes newly applied to pregnancy. This sets a precedent for writers to come by exploring the ambivalences of the womb and using horror as a device of interruption. By capitalizing on the latter tropes, these writers challenge the characterization of pregnancy as uneventful. In Takekawa Sei’s “Tsuki no nai yoru ni” (On a moonless night), we encounter fantasy as manifestation of fear of sexuality in tandem with childhood trauma. And yet, Seaman concludes, “nothing can supersede the maternal instinct, not even the personal wishes or well-being of the maternal subject herself” (26). Takahashi Takako’s “Kodomo-sama” (Holy terror), on the other hand, takes fears of pregnancy into monstrous dimensions, while Ogawa Yōko’s “Ninshin Karenda” (Pregnancy diary) is alienation incarnate. Seaman characterizes the latter story as a modern fairy tale in its evocation of a collective unknown as it spirals into a pseudo-scientific and occult-like framing of family bonds and communication. She further notes an overarching ambiguity at play in all of these stories.

Chapter Three, “And Baby Makes One,” examines pregnancy and its connection to notions of escape and reformation of personal identity. Both Hasegawa Junko’s “Museiran” (The unfertilized egg) and Tsushima Yūko’s Chōji (Child of fortune) deal with women treating pregnancy as an escape and motherhood as a “type of personal salvation” (52). Seaman reveals motherhood as a leitmotif throughout Tsushima’s oeuvre in constant negotiations of opposites – both in the physical and emotional sense. The 36-year-old protagonist is on the cusp of losing her womanhood (at least from society’s point of view), and the narrator recalls the indifference with which she treated her present daughter, finding peace only when her maternity slips away from conscious reiteration. Hasegawa’s “Museiran” goes further in its depiction of a painful hermetism, but both authors make use of dreams and fantasies, using the power of pregnancy to go beyond the playing field of romance in the shadow of failure.

Pregnancy as a way to partnership is the subject of Chapter Four, “Manual Labor,” which discusses millennial writers Kakuta Mitsuyo and Tadano Miako. Seaman sees both as challenging what she calls “canonical pregnancy,” by which is meant the “ideals and practices promoted by pregnancy literature” (81). Such literature “trains” expecting mothers to become realizations of the ideal, as if such extraneous knowledge were only available in magazines, books, and guidelines and not in the hardwired mechanisms of the female anatomy, which are carefully monitored by doctors and, after a child is born, education systems. Everything the mother does during pregnancy is believed to have a direct outcome in the birth and subsequent development of the child, even as little is said in such literature about a mother’s relationships with others in her life.

Kakuta Mitsuyo’s Yoteibi wa Jimi Peiji (My due date is Jimmy Page’s birthday) and Tadano Miako’s Sannen migoromu (The three-year pregnancy) rework the canonical pregnancy as “an emphatically social enterprise” (85). In Kakuta’s novel, a seemingly textbook pregnancy churns the protagonist’s mind into a slow, diaristic unfolding of ennui over, and alienation from, her growing fetus. Paradoxically, the story underscores and unravels restrictive pregnancy norms as she settles into the reality with relative peace and acceptance. Tadano is less introspective and more humor-oriented, choosing instead to follow surreal sequence of events, thereby underscoring folkloric tendencies and problematizing the notion of self-made mothers.

Chapter Five, “Riding the Wave,” moves on to tropes of pregnancy manga, texts that allow Seaman to discover novel ways of depicting the pain of childbirth in their deft mélange of humor and critique. From Itō Hiromi’s illustrated 1984 manual Yoi oppai, warui oppai (Good breasts, bad breasts) to the manga collection of 12 short stories, Go-shussan! (Birth!), published by the editorial collective known as “Cream Puff” (Chou Crème), Seaman notes a metaphorical hyper-realism at work. Using symbolic imagery “in favor of an affective but rather static emphasis on motherhood” (129) in personal narratives that challenge medicalized notions of pregnancy in dealing with a matrix of pain for which they feel ill prepared, while their use of humor, as Seaman observes, “counteracts the impression that the pregnant body is grotesque or abnormal” (143).

These themes are deepened in the sixth and final chapter, “Em-bawdy-ing Pregnancy,” which offers a deep reading of Uchida Shungiku’s eclectic blend of critique and family values-focused conservatism. Her controversial book of autobiographical fiction, Fazaa Fakkaa (Father fucker), examines a life of abuse at the hands of an unnamed stepfather. Seaman looks beyond the obvious sexual perversions of the novel to its catalytic pregnancies. The manga series Watashitachi wa hanshoku shite iru (We are breeding) is an optimistic yet no-less-frank examination of pregnancy. Uchida’s experiential mixture of realism and exaggeration makes manga a suitable vehicle for self-expression, by which she delineates personal experience outside the trigger-happy realm of politics.

In her Afterword, Seaman concludes on an open-ended note: “It remains to be seen whether literature can offer a similarly [i.e., to manga] compelling, challenging, and idiosyncratic account of what it means to become a mother in millennial Japan” (182). The keyword in Seaman’s statement here is “account,” which underscores the importance of personal experience. The implicit question of this study, however rhetorical, inspires us to think beyond the script of pregnancy in search of individual connections and to view said connections not as objects of fetishizing scholarship but as the voices of living human beings.

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Tyran Grillo is a Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in East Asia and the Americas at Columbia University (link). Tyran received his doctorate in Japanese Literature in 2017 from Cornell University, where his research focused on (mis)representations of animals in Japanese popular culture, as well as intersections of Asian Studies and Posthumanism. He has been a professional translator for over a decade, translating twelve books of Japanese fiction into English to date, including Parasite Eve by Sena Hideaki (Vertical, 2005), Paradise by Suzuki Kōji (Vertical, 2006), and Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku (Kurodahan Press, 2016). Alongside his academic life, Grillo is an avid arts critic, having written over one million words of impressionistic reviews and essays on music, performance, and film on his website, Between Sound and Space.

Under the Midnight Sun

under-the-midnight-sun

Title: Under the Midnight Sun
Japanese Title: 白夜行 (Byakuyakō)
Author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder
Publisher: Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin’s Press)
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Pages: 560

This guest review is written by Tyran Grillo (@TyranGrillo on Twitter).

Although Naoko was the first novel by Keigo Higashino to appear in English, it wasn’t until The Devotion of Suspect X that an energetic following of the author grew among Anglophone readers. Subsequent novels by Japan’s salaryman-turned-mystery writer, however, left fans hungry for something different, as the clothes of his popular Detective Galileo were beginning to wear thin. Enter the gruffer Sasagaki, whose investigation of a 1973 murder in Osaka starts him on a 20-year chase after the truth. The circumstances surrounding said murder play on the classic locked room scenario, as the body of a man is discovered by children playing in an abandoned building.

Our body of interest was once the property of Yosuke Kirihara. The owner of a pawn shop, the unfortunate Yosuke has left behind a son, Ryo, and a wife, Yaeko. Sasagaki immediately suspects the latter, due to a seeming lack of emotion toward her spouse’s death. Ryo, for his part, is broken by the loss, and offers little in the way of helpful information. Even as Sasagaki fears for the boy’s future, he cannot help but marvel at Yaeko’s performance. As he watches her late husband’s funeral procession from a respectable distance, he thinks to himself, “The strange attraction of a woman in mourning…. If she’s trying to play the part of the beautiful young widow, she’s doing a knockout job.” Such statements may be common hardboiled fare but here set the tone for an unnecessarily chauvinistic slog of a novel. Sasagaki’s suspicions turn to Fumiyo Nishimoto, the last person to have seen Yosuke alive, and her daughter Yukiho is described in such perverse terms that it’s all this reader could do not to gag on their persistence.

Yukiho and Ryo, in the wake of a tragedy that has affected them both, become our main protagonists. We follow their diverging paths out of the nostalgic ignorance of the 1970s into adulthood. Along the way, Higashino introduces us to a chain of new characters, some of whom feel unnecessary as false witnesses. Each subsequent chapter throws new names into the mix to throw us off the scent. Ryo goes on to become a bootleg video game manufacturer, while Yukiho goes on to become a male fantasy of femininity.

Therein lies a fundamental problem of the narrative. Like all of the women in Higashino’s testosterone zone, she is little more than the sum of her apparently siren-esque charms, which Yukiho hones in service of being what she is called from the start: a “perfect lady.” On the surface, one might read this as a noble critique of the ways in which women are expected to live up to idealized images of beauty, but assertions of this point reach a level of absurdity that make the story nearly impossible to finish. For while Yukiho’s beauty is doubtless the very epitome of feminine perfection, she is also described as having “thorns in her eyes,” and, as our omniscient narrator so dutifully explains, a “true lady would never have eyes like that.” In other words, a “true lady” cannot be prone to dark thoughts or ever have an off day; she must maintain a perfect and consistent exterior, if only to please the men around her.

Higashino’s descriptions of the mature Yukiho are striking in their blatant vacillation between praise and condemnation, not to mention their occasional slip into racial stereotypes. To give an example: “Yukiho looked down at the table. She had long eyelashes. Some of the people in the club said she looked like one of those French porcelain dolls. The comparison was admittedly apt, with the exception of her Asian eyes.” When a younger detective by the name of Imaeda picks up where Sasagaki left off years ago, his first look at Yukiho reminds him of the “women he’d seen in old foreign films” and makes him wonder “where she got her seemingly natural elegance and grace. What had polished her to gleam so brightly?” More than overstating Yukiho’s beauty, such language elevates it to farce, so that the woman herself no longer functions as a human character.

When Yukiho finally marries, her husband Makoto cheats on her by falling for a temp who works at his company. Not only does this downplay Yukiho’s tireless attempts to live up to perfection, it undermines her intelligence in choosing a suitable life partner, a point further stressed when we learn that Makoto, who admits to having an inferiority complex around his savvy wife, has beaten her in a drunken rage that he conveniently forgets. In addition to being entirely out of her husband’s character, this disclosure comes across as a desperate attempt to elicit pity for a woman of whom by this point we have no idea what to think.

Anytime a female character is described, the reader can be sure to learn a lot about her body, and Yukiho is no exception. Rather than add to knowledge of her character, as his visualizations of men do, Higashino indulges in details that have no bearing on her psychological profile. In an awkward scene of lovemaking between Yukiho and her husband, for instance, we get this: “Her breasts were soft and bigger than you might think to look at them.” Does this detail matter? Only to a voyeuristic narrator who takes pleasure in it.

Yukiho is animalized, as when she is compared to a cat for her “feline eyes.” When she later becomes a suspect, she is variously likened to a “black rose,” an “evil flower,” and ultimately an “artificial flower,” as if the combination of intelligence and femininity were a surefire recipe for malice. Although one might argue that Higashino is simply playing with the femme fatale trope like so many before him, it is far too convenient that Yukiho’s beauty, which for most of the novel has been seen as a divine gift inherent to her every fiber, suddenly ceases to be real once it’s revealed as a mask hiding an actual human being. Such classical sexism precludes any progressive tendencies that might be attributed to Under the Midnight Sun.

The issue of its depictions of female characters aside, problems abound in the novel’s structure and pacing. Aside from being too long for its own good – there is, for example, a full page of unnecessary dialogue between Yukiho’s college classmate and a future boyfriend about how wet one gets by either walking or running in the rain – it pads out a foreseeable conclusion with unrealistic conceits. The result is a novel whose flaws are, like Yukiho’s much-discussed features, bigger than you might think to look at them.

In addition, Detective Sasagaki is a rather uninteresting lighthouse decorating a coastline of possible perpetrators. We understand that he is skillful at his job, but his obsessive interest in this case feels somewhat out of place, given what we know about him. Then again, mistakes have been made on both sides of the equals sign that would have brought his suspicions to a verdict much sooner, and perhaps subconscious awareness of this drives him to overcompensate for the embarrassment of what ends up being a simple explanation. As in any mystery of this length, it’s the actions of investigators who unwittingly build a complex wall around the truth that allow murderers to get away with what they do for so long. As the story progresses, the plot becomes so unbelievable that it feels like a letdown when one reaches the tail end of its denouement.

Ironically, the novel’s meandering tendency is also its greatest strength, and the clearest justification of its author’s fame. Higashino makes it easy to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters – almost to a fault, because many revelations, at least to this reader, were clear from many pages away. Above all, the book provides a fascinating cross-section of late twentieth-century Japan, tracing trends in manga, television shows, video games, and other popular arenas of technological production through a key transitional period in the nation’s history. Higashino juggles multiple arcs and implications with ease, and the reverse engineering required to put them all together will satisfy even some avid mystery fans, to be sure.

As a published translator of Japanese fiction myself, I feel compelled to note that none of my criticisms are the fault of Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder, who have done an admirable job rendering Higashino’s often-terse and idiomatic prose into fluent English. The novel reads smoothly, handles cultural differences with tact, and evokes the original’s grittiness with clarity. If anything, it was the quality of their work that kept me engaged.

In the end, Under the Midnight Sun is a lackluster story with little payoff. As for the back cover copy’s comparisons of this book to Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment, I can only say these constitute a deception as criminal as the novel they are describing.

Under the Midnight Sun will be released on November 8, 2016. Review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press.

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Tyran Grillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, where his research focuses on the (mis)representation of animals in contemporary Japanese literature. He has translated nine books from Japanese into English, five of which have been published. The most recent of these is the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku. Tyran is also an avid blogger, having to date written over one million words of criticism on music, books, and film at ecmreviews.com.

Parasite Eve

Title: Parasite Eve
Japanese Title: パラサイト・イヴ (Parasaito Ivu)
Author: Sena Hideaki (瀬名秀明)
Translator: Tyran Grillo
Publication Year: 1995 (Japan); 2005 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 314

Sometimes I know that I should not write a particular review. Sometimes I have nothing nice to say. Sometimes, however, it’s way too much fun to resist writing about a hilariously bad book. This has happened before with Outlet and xxxHOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC, and now it’s happening again with Sena Hideaki’s horror novel Parasite Eve, which is so bad that it’s almost good.

If nothing else, the premise of Parasite Eve is certainly original. A woman named Kiyomi has a problem with her mitochondria, which have collectively mutated into an intelligent being. These mitochondria gradually take over Kiyomi’s body, killing her and forcing her husband Toshiaki, a pharmaceutical researcher, to cultivate her liver cells. Since Kiyomi was an organ donor, one of her livers has found its way into a fourteen-year-old girl named Mariko, who begins to suffer from nightmares. As Toshiaki’s cell culture, which he has named “Eve 1,” grows, it (she) gains the ability to move around and make herself look like Toshiaki’s dead wife. Since Eve 1 cannot live for long on her own, she wants to create a half-human, half-mitochondria offspring, a project for which she needs Toshiaki’s sperm and Mariko’s womb. Although Eve 1 has a time limit for how long she can survive outside of a cell incubator, she can reshape herself at will and shoot fire. It goes without saying that Toshiaki must find a way stop her.

The narrative shifts between Toshiaki, Toshiaki’s research assistant, Mariko’s father, Mariko’s doctor, and Kiyomi. Eve 1 occasionally gets a few italicized paragraphs, too. Each of these characters is interesting in his or her own right; but, even though none of them are wooden or stereotypical, their characterization felt a bit half-hearted to me. The real focus of the first two-thirds of the book seems to be less on the characters and more on the surgery and scientific experiments they are involved in. Toshiaki’s research and Mariko’s organ transplant are described in loving detail, with all sorts of technical terms accompanied by explanations for the general reader. Even with all the non-fiction exegesis of science and medicine, the narrative progresses normally (if a bit slowly) for 175 pages. Even though there was a bit of Eve 1 shooting orgasms at people (I am not making this up) previously, this is the point at which things get ridiculous.

The next paragraph is filled with spoilers and sex. Consider yourself warned.

In the last third of the book, Eve 1 steps into the spotlight. I was especially struck by how Sena chose to portray her as intensely sexual. When Eve 1 first gains the ability to manipulate her shape while still in the cell culture incubator, she immediately gives herself a vagina and a finger and puts the two together. She then mouth-rapes Toshiaki’s student in order to gain control of her body for a few days before breaking free, at which point she turns herself into a giant vagina and rapes Toshiaki so as to procure his sperm. I kept thinking to myself, I bet Eve 1 is going to grow a penis and rape the fourteen-year-old next. So, when Eve 1 grew a penis and raped Mariko (after a short jaunt through the sewer), I actually laughed so hard that I cried a little bit. At the very end of the book, it turns out that Eve 1’s offspring cannot live (something about the male mitochondria in her body fighting the female mitochondria; don’t ask me). Instead of using her mitochondrial superpowers to generate a small-scale nuclear reaction and blow everything sky high (as I would have done in her situation), Eve 1’s daughter decides to fuse into the body of her father Toshiaki, and all of their cells have sex before they both die. Brilliant.

Body horror seems to be one of the major selling points of Parasite Eve, but body horror needs to be subtle in order to be truly effective. I believe that the body horror in this novel is unsubtle to an extreme, however, and the book has very few genuinely creepy moments. Also, by the end of the story, I really wanted Eve 1 to succeed in her mission of evolving an all-female race of mitochondria mutants, so I was a bit (okay, extremely) disappointed when both her and her daughter were defeated by the patriarchal power structures that pervade the narrative. Also, the idea that a female character needs to be either an innocent victim, a primordial mother, or a hyper-sexualized aggressor is getting a little stale. Seriously, is the dawn of a female race of X-Men with tentacles really too much to ask for?

To summarize, Parasite Eve is somewhat slow and boring for 175 pages, becomes progressively more gross and strange for the next 100 pages, and then ends in a 15 page orgy of fire and violence and slime. In other words, the pacing is a bit uneven, as is the distribution of action and explanation. Overall, reading Parasite Eve felt uncannily like reading a Michael Crichton novel, including the way that the science became increasingly more outlandish as the story progressed. If you’re a fan of Michael Crichton novels (or Dean Koontz novels), then you’ll probably be able to gloss over the flaws in the writing and enjoy Parasite Eve. Sena is working with very interesting material, after all, and his style is neither dry nor unliterary. The translation flows smoothly, and everything from dialog to the description of surgery has been rendered into natural, idiomatic English. If nothing else, it is worth reading through the first two thirds of the book in order to get to the ending. Especially if you’re into the sort of thing that happens during the ending – and, admit it, who isn’t?