‘Mikumari’ by Misumi Kubo & ‘The Transparent Labyrinth’ by Keiichirō Hirano (Review)

With my new-found Jun’ichirō Tanizaki obsession, it’s been difficult finding time for other Japanese writers, but I recently managed to settle down for a read of the final two selections from Keshiki – new voices from Japan, a series of eight chapbooks I was fortunate enough to be sent by Strangers Press (a project associated with the British Centre for Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia and supported by the Nippon Foundation through Writers Centre Norwich).  Whether I’ve saved the best for last is up for debate, but one thing I am sure of is that today’s choices have something in common – a rather frank and open approach to sexual matters.  These ones are very much adults only, so please have your ID ready – no minors allowed this time around…

Actually, that’s not strictly true, as the narrator of Misumi Kubo’s Mikumari (translated by Polly Barton) happens to be a schoolboy, albeit one who seems rather experienced for his years.  After an encounter with an older woman at a manga convention, he enters into a rather torrid relationship with her, visiting her flat after school for sexual encounters with a twist (involving a certain kind of role-playing).  This relationship, as welcome as it is for the youth, does have a downside as he’s also been approached by a girl he likes from his class – and he’s painfully aware that it might not be a good idea to confuse sex and romance…

Mikumari is a very brief coming-of-age story in which the oversexed protagonist learns a few things about life apart from how to perform in the sack.  It’s written in a rather casual style, with lots of swearing and a fair amount of graphic detail, yet it’s also strangely endearing.  When he’s not visiting his lover or shyly courting his classmate, he’s often to be found helping out his mother, a midwife working from home who uses her son as an assistant when an emergency case arises.

Apart from sex, the theme running through the story is that of water.  Glossing over the bodily fluids described on the first few pages, we see the next mention in his job as a part-time lifeguard at the local outdoor swimming pool and in the baths his mother uses for water births.  However, the title, when it’s explained, strengthens these allusions:

Once, before my dad left us and before she started her maternity centre, my mum took me to a shrine halfway up the mountain.  It must have been in my first year of elementary school.  There were four Chinese characters engraved into the stone pillar.  I’d only just learned to read them, and it looked like they meant ‘moisture shrine’.
“It doesn’t mean ‘moisture’ here,” my mum said.  “The shrine is named after the gods who give us water, and that’s just how you write their name.  It’s pronounced mikumari.  It’s the Mikumari shrine.”
p.28 (Strangers Press, 2017)

Of course, by the end of the story, you sense that the youth might need a bit of divine intervention to get out of the mess he’s managed to land in 😉

That’s nothing, though, compared to the ordeals faced by the main characters of Keiichirō Hirano’s The Transparent Labyrinth (tr. Kerim Yasar).  Okada, a Japanese businessman, finds his visit to Budapest livened up when he meets Misa, a woman who has been travelling around Europe for six months, but their evening takes a dark and disturbing turn:

They were crouching, naked, in a high-ceilinged room painted black.
Six men and six women, twelve people in all.  Okada and Misa were the only Japanese.
The others were of various colours – seemingly by design – their straining, naked bodies illuminated by an enormous chandelier suspended like an explosion of silver and crystal.
p.11 (Strangers Press, 2017)

Making it through the ordeal, the couple inevitably feel closer, yet Misa vanishes, leaving Okada bereft – until, that is, he’s contacted months later back in Japan.

While the description of the sexual act is less explicit here than in Mikumari, it’s a whole lot less innocent.  The events of their first evening together cast a shadow over Okada’s and Misa’s relationship, and later the two must work out a way to exorcise the demons of that night, one (inevitably) involving more sex.  However, as the story progresses, we begin to sense that there’s more to Okada’s reticence than the memory of what happened in Budapest.

The first labyrinth mentioned in the story is a physical one in the Hungarian capital, but the true maze only appears when Okada goes back to Japan.  He feels lost in his home country, his senses dulled as if he’s wandering in a misty labyrinth, and Misa’s return only heightens that feeling.  A possible reason for their issues is hinted at in several places in The Transparent Labyrinth when both Okada and Misa mention the 2011 earthquake.  It seems that writer and protagonist alike are subconsciously working through a very Japanese trauma, hoping to eventually find a way out of the maze they’ve been thrust into…

And that’s your lot! Many thanks to Strangers Press for sending the books along, a fascinating little project, and one I’d be interested in seeing repeated.  I did hear whispers at one point of a Korean series (although that might just be wishful thinking on my part!), and if that does eventuate, I’d be very happy to see how it measures up to Keshiki 🙂

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