Dendera

Title: Dendera
Japanese Title: デンデラ (Dendera)
Author: Satō Yūya (佐藤 友哉)
Translators: Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 360

Dendera is not an easy book to read. Although the cover copy describes the story as being set in “a utopian community” of old women, this is no tale of feminist empowerment. Rather, every page practically bleeds with suffering and human misery, and the only salvation for any of the characters lies in death.

In the Village, there is a strictly enforced rule that everyone must Climb the Mountain when they reach the age of seventy. Men and women who reach this age are carried on the back of their oldest child, who leaves them in the wilderness so that they may ascend to Paradise. That time has come for Kayu Saitoh, and she is ready – all she wants is to lie down and rest. As the snow falls around her on the Mountain, she embraces the sensation of her body becoming cold, knowing that when she sleeps, she will not wake in this world.

Right before she passes out, however, Kayu Saitoh is rescued and taken to Dendera, a settlement formed on the Mountain by all the women who were abandoned by their families and left to die of exposure. Dendera is little more than a collection of flimsy huts, but the community of fifty women has supported itself for more than three decades. These women don’t want to die, and so they rescue each other, eking out a meager living from the harsh environment.

The leader of Dendera is a woman named Mei Mitsuya, who founded the settlement because, as she says herself, “I had no intention of dying.” Mei Mitsuya hates the Village, but simply staying alive is not revenge enough for her. Her ultimate goal is therefore to accumulate enough resources to attack and destroy the Village. This is easier said than done, however, as life is not easy on the Mountain, especially for a small group of older women. They barely have enough to eat, and it is only by monitoring the community’s food supply that Mei Mitsuya is able to maintain her control over the other women.

Kayu Saitoh, who is resents being robbed of the opportunity to die a “pure” death, feels no gratitude toward Mei Mitsuya or any feeling of investment in Dendera. This sense of detachment allows her to see the power dynamics of the community, especially the tension between the “hawks,” which is what Mei Mitsuya’s faction calls itself, and the minority group of “doves,” who seem to want nothing more than for the village to prosper. This conflict is subtle, however, as the main concern of the Dendera inhabitants is feeding themselves. After all, no one has much energy to spare for anything besides hunting, scavenging, and rudimentary farming, not to mention the care of those too senescent to care for themselves.

Unfortunately, the old women aren’t the only ones going hungry, as this particular winter has been especially fierce. A large bear who has established her territory on the Mountain is starving, as is her cub. She eventually becomes desperate enough at attack the human settlement, which throws the tiny society into complete disarray. As Kayu Saitoh watches everything fall apart around her, she begins to catch glimpses of Dendera’s dark secrets. The bear is a terrible enemy, but this creature is far from the most frightening threat besieging the community.

If you want to read about old women being evil to each other in a wilderness setting, Dendera is your book. I found myself fascinated by this story, especially when it became clear that there was a deeper mystery underlying the basic struggle for survival. I appreciate just how unapologetically mean and selfish each of the women is, and this darkness of characterization served to render their rare moments of kindness and cooperation shine all the brighter. I also enjoyed the interludes of narration from the bear’s perspective, which don’t attempt to attribute her with human characteristics but still engender a strong sense of sympathy for her own struggle to survive.

Although the story isn’t set in any particular time or place, it might be possible to read Dendera as an allegory for the precarity faced by a rising number of older people in Japan, especially in the context of the plethora of (relatively) recent news media stories about people who fall out of touch with their families and effectively “disappear” only to then be found in their houses or apartments weeks after they die. That being said, the story has a certain quality of timelessness that allows it to function as a study of human character that transcends any specific social or historical context. I could easily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys highbrow horror fiction, regardless of whether they know or care anything about Japan.

Dendera is gritty and compelling human drama. The story takes a number of interesting turns before moving in a surprising direction as it builds up to an ending that is magnificently transcendent. The unrelenting unpleasantness of its subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste; but, if your stomach is strong enough, Dendera is a thoroughly satisfying novel.

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…

Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno

Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook
Authors: Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers
Illustrations: Kazumi Nonaka
Publication Year: 2007 (America)
Pages: 147

When a friend gave me this garishly pink little book as a present, I saw the name “Patrick Macias” on the cover and immediately prepared to be disappointed. Macias has authored and co-authored numerous books on Japanese popular culture. Two that might be familiar are Cruising the Anime City: An Insider’s Guide to Neo-Tokyo (2004) and TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion (2001). These books are not only boring but were also outdated on the day they were published, primarily because Macias’s fascination with Japan’s popular culture during the seventies and early eighties fails to hold the attention of those of us who want to know what’s going on in Japan right now. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Macias’s earlier books might have been better served if they were marketed as cultural histories instead of as guides to contemporary popular culture.

While it’s true that Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno is only up-to-date as of around 2005, and while it’s true that this book contains quite a bit of cultural history, I found it to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. Maybe it’s because of all of the bright and eye-popping photography. Maybe it’s because of Kazumi Nonaka’s fun and plentiful illustrations. Maybe it’s because of the concise prose and scandalous quotations. Or maybe it’s because of all the pink. In any case, once I picked up this cute and trim guidebook, I had a hard time putting it down.

One thing that I found especially charming about this book were all the suggestions the authors offer as to how to achieve these schoolgirl looks yourself. Far from being helpful, these sections actually serve to pinpoint how outrageous the fashions are. Another fun, recurring segment are the illustrated “A Day in the Life” inserts, which usually end with captions like “Mom says, ‘Take a shower! You two smell awful!’”

So, if you’ve always wanted to know what’s going on inside the heads of the Gothic-Lolita princesses, or if you’ve always been curious about how exactly the Mamba girls put on their makeup, this is the book for you. Even if you’ve never had the leisure to wonder about those things but have spent time in Tokyo, this is also probably the book for you. And if you really, really love pink, then I honestly can’t recommend this book enough. Go out and get it before it goes out of print. For the win. I’m serious.