‘Breasts and Eggs’ by Mieko Kawakami (Review – Book One)

When is a book not a book?  When it’s two books, of course, and when that’s the case, it’s only fair to look at each of them separately.  Confused?  Don’t worry – all will be revealed, with this week’s reviews focusing on two books in one from a rising star of the Japanese literary scene.  I have a feeling that this is a (pair of) novel(s) that will be of interest to many of my readers, and it’s definitely one you’d expect to hear about in next year’s International Booker Prize discussions…

…perhaps it’s best if I explain myself a little more clearly 😉

Until recently, Mieko Kawakami’s only published book in English was the YA novella Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, published by Pushkin Press), but she’s been on the radar of anglophone Japanophiles for a lot longer than that.  Back in 2012, Words Without Borders published an extract from her Akutagawa-Prize-winning novella Breasts and Eggs, in Heal’s translation, but (surprisingly) it’s taken a long time for the book to make it into English, even if there’s a bit of a backstory there.

Last year actually saw a revised and expanded version of the story appear in Japan, with the original novella making up Book One, and a longer sequel comprising Book Two, and it’s this expanded version that has finally been brought into English as Breasts and Eggs, courtesy of Picador (Europa Editions in the US) in Sam Bett’s and David Boyd’s translation.  Given that the two books are, essentially, well, two books, I read them as such, and I’ll be focusing on the original tale today 🙂

Book One is set back in the summer of 2008, with the reader following Natsuko Natsume, a struggling young writer living in Tokyo, as she heads off to the station to meet her sister, Makiko, and her niece, Midoriko.  The two have come up for a short trip from Natsuko’s hometown of Osaka, and the entire story takes place over the few days the visitors spend as her guests.  However, what you’d think would be a happy family reunion is slightly tenser than expected.

For one thing, the twelve-year-old Midoriko isn’t speaking with her mother, insisting on communicating at all times via messages scrawled in a notebook, which makes the hours spent in Natsuko’s sweltering apartment slightly awkward.  Then there’s the reason for Makiko’s visit, one of the causes of Midoriko’s withdrawal.  Having reached the age of thirty-nine, Makiko has decided that it’s time for a change, and a fairly radical one at that.  The trip to see her sister in Tokyo is actually an excuse to find out more about getting breast implants…

This first part of Breasts and Eggs is a fascinating story, with Kawakami alternating the scenes in the cramped apartment with visits to restaurants and bathhouses, extracts from Midoriko’s journal and memories of the two sisters’ childhoods back in Osaka.  It’s a story centred entirely upon women, with very little room for (or mention of) men, and Natsuko, who has a fairly quiet, secluded existence in the capital, is dragged back into a life she thought she’d left behind.

Much of the backstory looks at the poverty the sisters grew up in, the two girls living in a tiny apartment with few windows, hearing fights in the street at night (or simply drunken singing).  Their hometown is certainly an interesting place:

Aside from the people coming in and out or simply walking by, you’ll find people slumped down motionless under the payphones, women who looked well into their sixties promising dances for 2,000 yen, and no shortage of vagrants and drunks, but you’ll also find the whole of Osaka.  Shobashi comes alive at night.  From appearances, it’s a dump.  And from sundown to sun-up, on the third floor of a building throbbing with karaoke reverb, you’ll find the bar where Makiko works, five nights a week, from seven until midnight.
p.25 (Picador, 2020)

The sisters grew up poor, having to work hard to survive, particularly after the death of their mother and grandmother, but while Natsuko found a way out, Makiko stayed in this world, spending her nights in a run-down hostess club to make ends meet.

Yet as Makiko fights her way through life, she doesn’t realise that her daughter is different, and is starting to buckle under the strains of growing up:

The other day at school, between classes, I forget who, but someone was saying, “I was born a girl, so yeah I definitely want to have a baby of my own eventually.”  Where does that come from, though?  Does blood coming out of your body make you a woman?  A potential mother?  What makes that so great anyway?  Does anyone really believe that?  Just because they make us read these stupid books doesn’t make it true.  I hate it so much. (p.44)

Having seen how her mother’s life has panned out, Midoriko is afraid of taking the same path and is dreading the arrival of her first period, and the journey towards adulthood it entails.  Unsurprisingly, then, Makiko’s constant talk of breasts is the last thing she needs, and it’s going to take a lot more than a few scribbled notes to mend the relationship with her mother.

This trepidation regarding becoming a woman is placed beside some slightly more graphic details regarding the issues women face in society.  When Natsuko and her visitors spend time at the apartment, the television is often on in the background, and the stories covered in the news programmes tend to be rather disturbing.  On several occasions the trio hear of crimes committed against other women, with the poor victims sexually assaulted and even butchered, then dumped like rubbish.  In this way, what starts out as a slightly messy, disjointed tale of an awkward family reunion becomes an examination of what women can expect from society, and as Kawakami shows us, it isn’t always pretty…

And yet, overall Breasts and Eggs is a light-hearted, fun experience.  It’s a well-paced short novel that sees the three women forced to examine their lives from a different perspective, and while Natsuko approaches the few days covered in the story with hesitation, by the end of the stay, she and her family have become much closer, with each of them ready to carry on, whatever the next stage of life might throw at them.  In fact, by the final page, I suspect many readers will be sad to be waving Makiko and Midoriko off at Tokyo Station, wishing there was more to the story.

It’s great, then, that there is 🙂

Before I finish up today, it would be remiss of me not to take a closer look at the WWB excerpts, as they throw up some very interesting questions regarding translation.  Kawakami is known for her Osaka roots and the use of her local dialect in her writing, and Heal Kawai had fun with this by rendering parts of Breasts and Eggs in her own native Manchester accent/dialect.  Take this extract, for example:

Makiko’s my older sister and Midoriko’s her kid so that makes Midoriko my niece and me her unmarried auntie, and because it’s been nearly ten years since Makiko broke up with Midoriko’s dad she doesn’t remember living with him, and I haven’t heard anything about her mum having them meet so she knows sod all about the bloke—but that’s by the by—and we all go by the same name now.
(Words Without Borders, 2012)

And here’s an extract from the book version, albeit slightly altered:

Makiko, the one visiting me today from Osaka, is my older sister.  She’s thirty-nine and has a twelve-year-old daughter named Midoriko.  She raised the girl herself. (p.15)

Or how about this one:

Me and Mum don’t talk much. Well, I’ve stopped speaking to her at all. Every day she’s researching this breast surgery crap, and I pretend not to be looking, but to put fake stuff in your chest just to make your boobs bigger? I can’t get my head around it, what’s it for? For her job? I don’t get it. PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE PUKE! I’ve seen it on the telly, and in photos too, they cut you open. Then they shove this thing in and it’s dead painful. Mum doesn’t understand anything. She’s off her trolley, my Mum, daft, barmy, bonkers, thick as two short planks.

Compare that with:

Mum and I aren’t really talking.  Not at all, actually. […] All my mum ever does is research breast implants.  I pretend like I’m not watching, but she’s too busy thinking about boobs to notice anyway.  Is she serious?  I mean, why?  I can’t even begin to understand.  It’s gross, I really don’t understand.  It’s so, so, so, so, so gross.  So gross.  I’ve seen what it looks like.  I’ve seen it on TV and online.  It’s surgery.  They cut right into you.  They slit you open so they can stuff you, literally.  It hurts.  What’s wrong with her?  What the hell is wrong with her?  She’s being an idiot, the biggest idiot. (p.93)

I’m sure you’ll agree that these are fairly different texts.

I realise that with getting the book out to as many readers as possible, particularly in the US, the priority here, Heal Kawai’s version of the text, reminiscent of an episode of Coronation Street (or an extended argument between the Gallagher brothers), was never likely to get picked up.  However, the final text, while perfectly adequate, does seem rather tame by comparison, a slightly flat version with an American-tinged neutral flavour (with two obvious frequent alterations – ‘mum’ and ‘bumbag’ – for the Anglo-Australian market).  Not everyone will agree, but I’d have preferred something a little closer to what we get in the WWB extract 😉

Another thing I noticed when comparing the two versions is that they can be very different in places.  In particular, the memorable bathhouse scene, where Makiko is a little too fascinated by the breasts of the other women bathing, seems to be missing a lot of description when we get to the book version.  Here, I suspect (and certainly hope) that the differences are down to the changes Kawakami made between the original novella and the later adaptation, with the writer deciding to tighten up certain scenes for the new book.  It just goes to show, though, that there’s a lot more to translation than simply picking up a book and bashing out a version in English, and that what eventually makes its way into the hands of eager readers may be very different to what the original audience experienced…

21 thoughts on “‘Breasts and Eggs’ by Mieko Kawakami (Review – Book One)

    1. Paul – Definitely couldn’t *not* mention this, even if some people will think I’m translation bashing. I think there’s a story in there somewhere, one we’re unlikely to find out about…


  1. I hope you liked book 2 as much as book 1. Your discussion of the differences in translation is fascinating – I enjoyed it and it adds to my appreciation of translators.


    1. Linda – It’s probably better than Book One in many ways (although many people will prefer the sisterhood of the first part). Part Two coming later this week 🙂


  2. One of the most interesting of all the reviews, and I much look forward to that for Part II.
    Also a solution to the mystery of whether the difference in the bathhouse scene reflects a difference in the original(s) or not! Maybe ask the translators?:)


    1. Firebird – Maybe I should, although unusually, given the number of JP-EN literary translators among my Facebook friends, they aren’t among my online contacts (as far as I’m aware, anyway). Also, given that I wasn’t 100% positive towards their work in my review, they might not appreciate the approach!


  3. Greatly enjoyed the review, particularly as this book (or books, as you point out) is on my TBR mountain (but towards the top peak!). I’ve been curious about Kawakami’s work since I started noticing all the buzz several months ago. I just finished Ms Ice Sandwich, which I really enjoyed; it so effectively captures a certain stage of growing up I think it transcends the YA market (think Catcher in the Rye). The differences in translation that you discuss are fascinating and really highlight why I avoided translated literature for so long; I was troubled by the idea that it was perhaps the translator rather than the original artist who was primarily shaping my view of the work. I think it was the realization that we can NEVER experience a work in the same way as would its original intended audience (even in reading Jane Austen, we continually “translate” the story to our own “modern” idiom), along with the realization that I’d just be missing too much good reading unless I included other cultures, that’s made me broaden my horizons a bit.
    It’s extremely interesting that Picador went with what appears a more standardized, if somewhat less lively version. If prompted by an appeal to an American market the translators still had lots of interesting choices. Instead of Manchester, why not try Brooklyn or Jersey, with their so very distinctive accents and idioms?


    1. Janakay – I’m currently reading a book that takes that idea of translation and the translator and twists it in a hundred directions, so watch out for that review soon!

      As for the voice and dialect choice here, a couple of points. Firstly, while my Aus/UK edition is from Picador, this is very much a Europa Editions book (the US publisher), down to the font and typesetting used inside – basically, Picador have only done their own cover and acknowledgements page!

      Secondly, the reason the publisher, and the translators went for a more standard version is that if they opted for a ‘local’ dialect to stand in for Kawakami’s Osaka voice, somebody would hate it. While I would have loved LHK’s Manchester version, others wouldn’t, and to be honest, I suspect that I would have loathed any attempt to render it in a strong New York accent. Interestingly enough, I did hear from the horse’s mouth that the same literary translation summer school that gave birth to the Manchester version also produced a Southern US equivalent…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll certainly be looking for that review discussing translations. Without doing much reading on the subject, I’ve always been interested in the idea of how authentically we experience a work of art that we know only through a translation. It’s been years since I read it, but I have the (perhaps erroneous) idea that I first encountered these issues in Auerbach’s Mimesis. At any event, your comment brought Auerbach to mind! Who knows? Perhaps I’ll even go back and read a page or two of his rather massive work!
        I totally understand why Picador went for standarized language over distinctive dialects, as it’s clearly the safer choice in that it will hold the most appeal for the greatest number of readers (or offend the least number, which is perhaps the same thing). But — another example perhaps of how literature expereinced in translation is necessarily an incomplete (even inaccurate) replication of the original? Not that I’m complaining, exactly, as a translation is perhaps the only way I’ll ever experience Japanese lit! As for a translation utilizing Southern U.S. dialect — LOL, as we say on the internet! Being souhern U.S. myself, I can’t even imagine it!


        1. Janakay – Well, most people have no choice, and even those who do speak foreign languages can only cover a small fraction of what’s out there, so we should be grateful for translation, despite the inevitable issues involved in transporting a text from one language to another 🙂


  4. I was wondering when you’d get around to reviewing this novel. I’ll wait to share all of my thoughts until you’ve reviewed Book 2, but in the meantime, a fun little tidbit. The title for the expanded version is called Natsu monogatari, which literally translated, means Summer Story, or Summer Stories. (Monogatari is story or tale, much like Genji Monogatari or Tale of Genji.) For me, the title as not only refers to the season of summer when much of the action in Books 1 and 2 take place, but the fact that Natsu is also used in some places as a short form for the narrator’s name Natsume. Not only is it a story predominantly associated with summer, but also the story of the narrator herself.

    I loved this novel, but didn’t find it too lighthearted. Sometimes it felt as dense and suffocating as the humid summer itself, or felt like taking a sledge hammer to the heart. Particularly book one.

    And, yes, the Kawai version was a lot of fun to read.


  5. I really enjoyed this book. Very well put together story. Very Japanese in it’s attention to detail, deceptively simple style, but eventually quite overwhelming impression. Feminist in that it opens up a world from a female perspective, but without trying to dictate a particular political vision. Now for book 2…


  6. I recently read and reviewed this novel. I think it is an unpopular opinion but somehow I didn’t connect with either books. Though Book 1 is breezy to read but book 2 didn’t really garner my attention. You can find my review here if interested. Thank you


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