After the feast of J-lit that was my January in Japan project, sadly I had no time for more in February, instead looking elsewhere for my reading pleasure. However, over at the Dolce Bellezza site, the host’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14 is continuing until the end of March, and I’ll be taking a look at a couple more Japanese books before the event closes. Today sees the first of those reviews, on a writer’s English-language debut, and I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of this particular author, so pay attention at the back, everyone 🙂
Touring the Land of the Dead (translated by Haydn Trowell, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) brings together two novellas by prize-winning writer Maki Kashimada, and if the cover blurbs are anything to go by, it’s about time. There are plaudits from both Yōko Ogawa and Hiromi Kawakami, with the latter in particular praising Kashimada’s style. That style is certainly on display here, with the two pieces taking rather different approaches, both successfully.
The first story, ‘Touring the Land of the Dead’, for which Kashimada received the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2012, shows distinct similarities with Kawakami’s own style. The novella is a slow-burning tale of a woman’s stay at an old hotel that has become a health spa. One reason for the visit is her desire to see a place that has become part of family lore, the hotel where her mother and grandparents visited in happier times; another is the chance to briefly get away from an exhausting life and recharge her batteries.
The reason for her exhaustion appears to be clear from the first page. Natsuko’s husband, Taichi, had an operation on his brain after an unusual and debilitating illness and is now unable to work. His wife must both care for him and work part-time, so you can understand why she might feel the need for a break.
However, the more we read, the clearer it becomes that it’s not her husband that’s wearing her down but her own family. There’s her drunken, conniving brother, and her lazy mother, convinced the world owes her, and her faded beauty, a living. Unwilling to work hard to support themselves, the two are relying on Natsuko to leech off:
Natsuko’s mother had no doubt harbored these kinds of expectations for her daughter’s future partner ever since her own husband had passed away. And her brother was no different. They would both cheat Taichi out of everything given the chance. Not just money. His pride as well. They would rob him of everything that he had. Because they were the kind of people who thought that they could take everything while giving nothing back.
‘Touring the Land of the Dead’, p.70 (Europa Editions, 2021)
Taichi’s disability deprives them of an easy ride, and Natsuko consequently becomes the target of their scorn and demands, leaving her wondering how long she has to put up with such a draining life.
‘Touring the Land of the Dead’ is a beautiful story, where what starts with hints of a woman preparing to put an end to it all takes a more heart-warming turn. Gradually, we are shown how positive Taichi is despite his issues, and his determination to live life to the fullest, despite the obstacles in his way, rubs off on his wife. I suspect it won’t only be Natsuko, but also the readers, comparing her husband and her family, and finding the balance very much in Taichi’s favour. Given the mention of Kawakami and Ogawa above, it’s fair to make comparisons here with Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Housekeeper and the Professor, and Kashimada’s tale is a similar example of an unusual love story that simply works…
‘Ninety-Nine Kisses’, however, is a very different affair in which we spend some time in a house full of women in Tokyo’s Shitamachi district. Nanako, a university student, lives with her three elder sisters (Meiko, Moeko and Yōko) and her divorced mum, and the happy family spend their time together watching movies, drinking and laughing.
This easy existence is disrupted by the arrival of S, a handsome outsider who suddenly appears in their neighbourhood one day. Natsuko looks on as her sisters vie for the man’s affections, and suddenly, where there was fun and harmony, there are arguments and tears. The younger sister watches it all from a distance, wondering who’ll win the race for S, and whether it’s even a race worth running…
This one’s a slightly bawdier story (in Kawakami terms, it’s far more Mieko than Hiromi), and there are definite nods towards the original Breasts and Eggs story here. One theme running throughout the story is Natsuko’s obsession with her sisters:
I love them, all three of my sisters, but for some reason, cruel thoughts kept pouring into my mind. They should fight more, I thought. Because women are born to fight. At least, that’s the way that it has always seemed to me. I mean, I’m always paying attention to the how my sisters smell. Everything from their perfumes and makeup when they go out, to the scent of menstrual blood that they leave in the bathroom when they’re on their periods. Just thinking about it was enough to send a shiver coursing through my flesh.
‘Ninety-Nine Kisses’, p.87
There’s plenty more where that came from, and at times, as she describes wanting to touch her sisters, or how she caresses Moeko’s breasts in the local bathhouse, there’s a rather incestuous feel to the whole story.
The back-cover blurb claims that this one is modelled on a classic story by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and while I initially struggled to make the connection, I think this is a reference to his classic novel The Makioka Sisters. You can sort of see the parallels, with the focus on four sisters living in a traditional area of a big city (this time in Tokyo, not Kansai) and their personal relationships. It’s certainly a very different take on the story, but given some of Tanizaki’s other work, probably one he’d approve of!
Touring the Land of the Dead is a book with two very different sides, then, but both are entertaining, and it’s always good to see more Japanese writers, particularly women, make the literary journey into English. It is interesting (and I’ve no doubt that there’ll be a few comments regarding this) that a very female work has been translated by a man (c.f. Sam Bett and David Boyd with Breasts and Eggs), but I hope that doesn’t detract from Trowell’s work on a book that reads nicely, if differently, in both parts. I suspect this is likely to do well, and I have my fingers crossed for it – let’s hope we see more of Kashimada’s work in English very soon 🙂