After our last post helped us finish the millennium in style, today’s review sees us moving on with the first review from this century. Natsuo Kirino is better known in English for her crime fiction, such as the gory thriller Out, but she obviously also has an interest in other genres. The latest stop on our journey through female writing in Japan sees her looking back into pre-history. It’ll be a familiar story for many, but once again there’s a rather feminist slant to it all…
One of the most famous of the Japanese creation myths is the story of Izanami and Izanaki (often written as Izanagi). The first gods to take human form, they created the islands of Japan, and many minor deities, with Izanami actually giving birth to them (an interesting take on the idea of a mother country, with the goddess actually being the country’s mother…). However, their life together came to a close when Izanami was hurt giving birth to the god of fire, and she eventually ended up trapped in the underworld as the goddess of the realm of death.
It’s this story that Kirino works from in her 2008 novel The Goddess Chronicle (translated by Rebecca Copeland). Set in ancient times, the book takes us to Japan’s most far-flung island, where the narrator, Namima, is growing up in a tropical paradise. However, from her very first words we learn of the sorrow to come:
My name is Namima – “Woman-Amid-the-Waves”. I am a miko. Born on an island far, far to the south, I was barely sixteen when I died. Now I make my home among the dead, here in this realm of darkness. How did this come to pass?
p.3 (Canongate Books, 2012)
You see, on a small island with strict customs, your fate is determined by the family you are born into. Namima’s elder sister Kamikuu is to become the next Oracle, the wise woman who prays for the safe return of the male fishermen, but this means that the younger sister also has her destiny mapped out for her – and it’s not quite as enticing.
In an attempt to evade this fate, Namima becomes involved with Mahito, a young man from a family cursed for having seven consecutive sons, but her efforts are doomed to failure, and before too long she finds herself entering the realm of the dead. It’s here that she meets Izanami and learns of the goddess’ own story, becoming her servant. Izanami is still there, seeking revenge on her husband by taking the lives of a thousand humans each day. It’s only natural that Namima, a woman betrayed, should also look for revenge…
This clever blending of a story of betrayal with a similar act told in the creation myth makes for an intriguing and absorbing read. Kirino takes us from the primitive Island of the Sea Snakes, across the sea to Yamato (ancient Japan) and down into the dark depths of the underworld where the unfortunate Izanami has been imprisoned. From the start, the writing feels like the telling of a myth or fable, and Copeland has done an excellent job of providing a text with echoes of our own ancient stories. In addition, the novel focuses on the feminist aspect of the myth, attacking some of the rather sexist elements that the original story glosses over.
The writer sets the scene excellently, depicting an isolated matrilineal society, where life is run according to strict rules. Despite the idyllic setting, life is tough and food often hard to come by, so difficult decisions have to be made. Only certain families may have children, and babies born ‘illegally’ are not permitted to survive. In times of particular hardship, the elderly are even locked up in a hut without food or water and left to die. Everyone knows the rules, and there are no exceptions, as Namima’s father explains:
“Namima, I am sorry for you, but there is nothing I can do. No one can challenge the island’s laws. Kamikuu must live alone and devote her life to the prayers and rituals. You must live with the dead.” (p.70)
It’s a terrible shock to the young girl, all the more so as nobody had actually told her before about the task she was born to fulfil.
However, the focus of The Goddess Chronicle is less on the actual events and more on the idea of betrayal, particularly by men. Both Izanami and Namima have found themselves exiled to the realm of the dead thanks to the men they love, and in failing to passively accept their fate, they run the risk of becoming harsh, frightening monsters:
Confused, I peered into her face. “But, Izanami-sama, aren’t you a god as well? Why aren’t you in the heavens? Why are you here?”
Izanami answered coldly, “I was sent here as the goddess who governs the Realm of the Dead, the deity of the underworld.”
“But how did that come about?”
“Because my husband, Izanaki, came late to visit me. And then he broke his promise. I bear a grudge against my husband, Namima, just as you do.” (pp.99/100)
The goddess laments the fact that her faithless partner is still running around in the mortal realm, marrying women wherever he can (women who tend to have a very short life span…). Meanwhile, Namima is unable to resist the temptation to return to the land of the living, despite Izanami’s warnings. Her actions on discovering why she died are the catalyst for what happens in the rest of the story.
Kirino’s novel is a wonderful read (I ripped through it in a day) and a clever use of Japanese mythology to explore the origins, and consequences, of revenge. I was already familiar with the story from reading The Kojiki (whose writer, Ō no Yasumaro is name-checked here!), but for those less familiar with the tale, Izanami herself summarises it for Namima. There are several twists in the tale, with Namima’s actions having surprising consequences, and the story comes to a satisfying climax with several of the major characters, including Izanaki himself, coming together to decide on their fate.
If there’s one less positive comment I would make about the book, though, it’s that I don’t think it quite lived up to its full potential. Kirino’s attempt at a feminist rewriting of a classic is reminiscent of Fumiko Enchi’s A Tale of False Fortunes (reviewed a few weeks back), but where Enchi’s work is pitch-perfect, The Goddess Chronicle errs on the side of plot. I loved the first hundred pages or so, a slow introduction of Namima’s world, but the pages devoted to the story of Izanami and Izanaki felt like a bit of an info dump. In the second half of the book, it also seemed as though we were merely rushing towards the end of events rather than really exploring the ideas of betrayal and male domination. As mentioned, it’s a great story, but I can’t help feeling that it skims the surface of the content more than it might have.
However, that’s really just hair-splitting, and I’m sure many readers would disagree with my view. There’s a lot to enjoy about The Goddess Chronicle, whether you’re familiar with the myths or a complete newcomer to Japanese literature, and it’s certainly a very different book to one I would have expected from Kirino. Despite that, though, I don’t think I’ll be taking a look at her other fiction any time soon. Revenge is all well and good, but for a sensitive soul like myself, I suspect her bloody thrillers might be a little difficult to stomach…