‘The Woman Next Door’ by Kuniko Mukōda (Review)

It’s always nice when you enjoy a book by a slightly lesser-known writer, with no expectation of anything else ever making its way into English, and then another of their works does end up being translated.  That’s the case with today’s choice, and once again it’s the good folk (or person!) behind the wonderful Kurodahan Press who are responsible for jogging our memories.  We’re off to Tokyo in the early eighties for a series of encounters with people who are just about getting by, but nothing more.  Life’s usually tough, albeit it with the occasional bright spot – the only problem is that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the light is coming from the end of the tunnel or from a speeding train…

*****
Kuniko Mukōda’s The Woman Next Door (translated by A. Reid Monroe-Sheridan, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of stories very much in the vein of an earlier compilation in English, The Name of the Flower (translated by Tomone Matsumoto, published by Stone Bridge Press), with very similar themes of people struggling through dreary lives.  However, the major difference here lies in the switch from breadth to depth.  While The Name of the Flower contains thirteen standard-length stories, this new collection has just five, each running to thirty pages or more.  The increased scope allows the writer to develop the stories more slowly, and makes for more impressive storytelling.

One of the major themes of the book is family, with several of the protagonists finding themselves held back by those around them.  This is certainly true of ‘Geta’, in which a man working for an art publishing company wonders why the young man delivering food during his frequent bouts of overtime keeps hanging around.  It’s not long before we find out why – as it turns out, he’s the man’s half-brother…  As the story unfurls, and the two men get closer, the older brother’s feelings start to spill out:

Getting older as he was, Kōichirō’s anger was endless.  He was angry most of all with himself, struggling again and again to carry this enormous burden that he couldn’t bear alone, his illegitimate brother.  He waved his hand around to chase away the black flies that were swarming around his face and buzzing impudently.
‘Geta’, p.129 (Kurodahan Press, 2021)

The flies plaguing him seem to be a physical manifestation of his worries, with the poor man torn between his duty to his mother, and to his abandoned sibling.

One unusual feature of ‘Geta’ is its foregrounding of male characters as the remaining stories in The Woman Next Door are very much about women.  Perhaps the strongest of these characters is Momoko, the protagonist of ‘The Walnut Room’, a thirty-year-old woman with little hope of marriage.  She takes control of her family after her father skips out on them for another woman and shows great strength of character and endurance in keeping the family together, even rejecting the chance of a little temporary warmth and happiness.  Eventually, though, she comes to wonder if it’s all worth the effort, and whether those she’s helping even appreciate her sacrifices.

Another runaway dad is at the centre of ‘Happiness’ when a woman’s relationship is brought into question after a visit to her sick father.  Here the focus is on the relationship between two sisters, with past events slowly oozing out to contaminate the present.  This is very much a hallmark of the writing in this collection, and Mukōda makes no attempt to sanitise her creations.  The woman’s strong bodily odours are a major feature of the piece, along with filthy clothes, dripping sweat and her lover’s oil-stained hands.

Many of Mukōda’s ideas come together in the superb opening piece, ‘The Woman Next Door’.  Running to more than forty pages, this one has a bored married woman, Sachiko, becoming entangled in the life of her neighbour.  The woman next door works at a bar and has male visitors over during the day – and with rather thin walls, Sachiko knows exactly what’s going on behind them.  As the story progresses, Sachiko goes off the rails and ends up making some rash decisions, but do these changes herald the chance for a new start, or is she merely destined to end up making the same mistakes again?

‘The Woman Next Door’ is a wonderful story of a woman looking for love after realising its absent from her marriage, and there’s a nice twist in the way her search for more has its roots in literature.  You see, her actions are highly influenced by a Japanese classic,  Ihara Saikaku’s Five Women Who Loved Love , and like Saikaku’s bawdy stories, Sachiko’s tale is an unashamedly explicit one at times:

Her neighbor’s rough, quick breathing intensified, and soon the wall began to shake lightly.  Sachiko was a little surprised to find herself matching the pace of her own breathing to theirs.  She felt hot, but surely that had nothing to do with what was happening next door.  She told herself it was because she was still wearing her spring clothes in this warm summer weather.
‘The Woman Next Door’, pp.2/3

There are no Emma Bovary flights of fancy for Sachiko here, merely a desire to break free and a wish to experience something better, if only for a short while…

And that’s what most of Mukōda’s protagonists really want – it’s just that their nature and social status mean they’re often destined to miss out.  Take, for example, the heroine of ‘Spring Has Come’, Naoko:

Despite all her pretensions, Naoko’s appearance was drab.  She was ordinary-looking, and her type wasn’t helped by nice makeup or nice clothes.  Even when she went to a wedding ceremony, people would ask her afterwards, “Oh, were you there too?”  Her boss had told her once when they met outside that she had the mien of a girl wearing some mundane navy blue jacket.  Hers was an existence with a faint shadow and no sparkle.
‘Spring Has Come’, pp.136/7

After an unfortunate incident, her new boyfriend gets to see her old house and her slovenly family, yet surprisingly sticks around.  His presence in the house provides new hope not just for Naoko, but also for the whole family, as they work on improving their lives for her sake.  And yet…  we sense that it just can’t last.  Naoko’s not the kind of woman to get a happy ending, and as much as we’d like to see her ride off into the sunset with a handsome husband, the feeling of impending heartbreak hovers over the story like a dark cloud.

However, Mukōda doesn’t make it all as easy as that for the reader, as the five slices of life contained in The Woman Next Door all end rather ambiguously, with neither a happy ending nor a tragic denouement.  The writer seems to be saying that this is just the way life is – things happens, and then you have to deal with them.  Impressively, given the condition we find the characters in, you get the sense that they all will.

The Woman Next Door is an entertaining and thought-provoking collection from a writer with an eye for the duller side of life, and thanks to Monroe-Sheridan’s work, it all reads enjoyably, too.  Even if Mukōda isn’t one of the major league names in J-Lit, there’s certainly a case for more of her work to be brought into English as there’s something about her ability to describe the lives of people struggling through their lives.  I’d certainly welcome another collection – fingers crossed it happens one day 🙂

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