‘Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories’ by Taeko Kōno (Review)

Last week, I looked at a classic that appears to be out of print, but that’s certainly not the case for today’s choice.  In fact, while it originally appeared in translation around twenty years ago, last year saw a rerelease for an impressive collection of short stories, with a shiny new cover and a short translator’s afterword, too.  Speaking of the translator, I owe more than the usual vote of thanks for bringing the text into English – you see, she also provided today’s review copy 🙂

*****
Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories (published by New Directions, translated by Lucy North, with one story by Lucy Lower) is a book I’ve had on my radar for some time now, so when I was lucky enough to be offered a copy, I was more than happy to take a look.  Kōno was one of the major voices in Japanese fiction in the 1960s, winning the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize and the Yomiuri Prize with her work.  This collection brings together ten examples of her shorter fiction, although with most of the stories running to around thirty pages, short may not be the right word.  What is certain, though, is that they’re all compelling, a series of fascinating insights into the private lives of Japanese women.

However, if your image of Japanese women is of quiet, submissive dolls, you’re in for a surprise, as Kōno’s women are strong characters behaving in what some might see as very unwomanly ways.  One of the themes running through the collection is a slightly ambivalent attitude towards children, and Exhibit A here is the title piece, which wastes little time in explaining its protagonist’s views on the subject:

Hayashi Akiko couldn’t abide little girls between three and ten years old – she detested them more than any other kind of human being.  If Akiko, like most women, had married and had babies, she might by now have a child just that age.  And what, she often wondered, if she’d had a girl?  What then?
‘Toddler-Hunting’, p.46 (New Directions, 2018)

Fear not – even if it’s only in idle fantasies, your curiosity will soon be satisfied.

Matters are just as dark in ‘Ant Swarm’, where a woman who might be pregnant idly imagines what it would be like to have a child.  Where many women would be excited at the prospect, she’s slightly less enthused, and the ideas she reveals of how to raise the child, especially if it’s a girl, are disturbing to say the least.  In ‘Snow’, we see another side to these emotions, in the shape of a woman afraid to marry, and with a crippling snow phobia.  You see, in this case, the abuse was real and she happens to have been the victim.

While several of the stories share this focus on children, another major theme explored in Toddler-Hunting… is adult relationships, with many of the female protagonists reflecting on unhappy marriages.  The calm beginning to ‘Conjurer’ is shattered when a woman’s husband unexpectedly snaps, accusing his wife of a lack of trust (with good reason…).  As she reflects on their relationship, she realises that it leaves a lot to be desired:

But she had never actually been able to savor the illusion of being happily married with Sumita.  It just felt utterly strange, that was all, and the feeling didn’t develop into anything like hope: it just remained a cold quiet sense of strangeness.
‘Conjurer’, p.240

This idea of reflecting on a long-term relationship is shared by two other stories.  ‘Final Moments’ has a woman suddenly suspecting she is about to die, causing her to settle her affairs and reevaluate her marriage.  Meanwhile, in ‘Bone Meat’, a later piece (translated by Lower), the main character looks back on her time with the man who left her, and on his selfish nature.

Even when the Kōno marriage is a happy one, though, those within it still seem to want more.  ‘Night Journey’, one of the best offerings in the collection, sees a married couple decide to visit their friends one evening.  As the back-story unfolds, the atmosphere gradually becomes headier, with a sexual air pervading the story amid teasing suggestions of what might be.  The actual story consists of a couple not catching their friends at home, then going for a walk, but in Kōno’s hands it becomes a bewitching journey into the forbidden.

‘Theater’ continues in a similar, albeit more direct, vein.  A woman essentially separated from her husband is entranced by the strange relationship between a married couple she encounters one evening at the opera.  Once the story is set in motion by her decision to pay them a visit, the reader senses the inevitability of the events to come, with her desire to spend time with her new friends reciprocated.  Kono suggests here that the line between observation and participation is a fine one, and that crossing it is just a matter of standing up and taking a proffered hand.

Of course, Kōno isn’t the only one to tease her readers – I’ve been making you wait too.  If you’ve seen any other reviews of Toddler-Hunting…, you’ll be aware that the most striking feature of the collection is its frank depiction of sexual fantasies, particularly of the more violent kind.  ‘Theater’ ends with a promise of what’s to come, but other stories are far more explicit.  ‘Toddler-Hunting’, for example, shows Akiko’s violent bedroom activities with her partner Sasaki, which are so loud that a neighbour is forced to interrupt them.  The topic often arises suddenly, dropped into the story, as is the case in Kono’s Akutagawa-Prize-winning piece, ‘Crabs’:

Yukiko had never been able to be satisfied by ordinary sex, and even now that she had fallen ill, she would demand that Kajii use violent methods of arousal.
“This’ll only make you weaker,” he would warn, when she demanded he use greater force.  She refused to listen.  Kajii would protest again, but despite his words, he would be doing as she asked.
‘Crabs’, p.141

It’s a technique that certainly makes the reader pay close attention to the rest of the story…

While the subject matter is always fascinating, it’s the writing, both from Kōno and her translators, that makes the collection.  The stories are measured and unhurried, the length contributing to their success, with each slowly but surely moving to where they need to go.  The beauty of the writing lies in the way the everyday, the mundane, is punctuated by the darker elements kept behind closed doors.  In a society like Japan’s, all is well as long as nobody knows about it, but here we are privy to the dirty little secrets of Japanese housewives, making for slightly unsettling reading.  Very early on, I was struck by possible Jun’ichiro Tanizaki influences, and in her short afterword, an addition for this new edition, North confirms this, mentioning an essay Kono wrote exploring the reasons for the sexual elements of Tanizaki’s own work.  It’s tempting to see some of these stories as the female response to Tanizaki’s male-centred fantasies.

Toddler-Hunting… can seem confronting in places, yet when you actually take a second look, most of the stories simply introduce ordinary people with slightly dark or erotic behaviour.  The beauty of the collection is the way these characters are drawn, leaving us with living, breathing people who happen to have certain sexual preferences or aversions to young children.  Of course, for some readers, that might be disturbing in itself…  Hats off to New Directions for deciding to rerelease the book.  In doing so, they’ve helped introduce Kono and her slightly discomforting tales to a new generation of readers, and that can only be a good thing 🙂

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