‘Life Ceremony’ by Sayaka Murata (Review)

It’s August again, and we all know what that means: Women in Translation Month#WITMonth was started back in 2014 by Meytal Radzinski, of the Biblibio blog, and the aim is to spread the word about great work by women originally written in languages other than English.  Recently, Radzinski has started a new site, Women in Translation, which acts as a home for the event, and if you want to get an idea of what is covered, follow this link, which collects all of my contributions so far.  This time around, like every year since the inaugural event, I’m booking the month solid for some fine female fiction in translation (although there might be the odd spot of non-fiction thrown in), and that starts today with a look at a new book from a familiar name – or two!

Thanks to her novels Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings (and, of course, to her translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori), Japanese writer Sayaka Murata has quickly become one of the more recognisable names in fiction in translation, and her latest book in English is now out.  Life Ceremony (again translated by Tapley Takemori, review copy courtesy of Granta Books and their Australian distributor, Allen & Unwin) is a collection of stories very much in the same vein as Murata’s novels, with the writer taking us through worlds that are fairly normal, except for one crucial detail.

You see, many of the stories here take as their starting point a fairly mundane conversation, only to quickly unsettle the reader by introducing a rather less than common concept.  This begins on the very first page, when a familiar scene of a few women chatting over afternoon tea takes a sudden turn:

Yumi opened the menu and ordered a second cup of tea, then noticed the sweater I was wearing.
“Hey, Nana, that sweater… is it human hair?”
“Oh, can you tell?” I beamed at her, nodding.  “Yes, one hundred percent.”
“Fantastic!  It must have been expensive.”
‘A First-Rate Material’, pp.1/2 (Granta Books, 2022)

In a clever piece that gives more than a nod towards our treatment of animals, the writer explores a world where there’s a kind of life after death, with human remains being carefully crafted into clothing, furniture or jewellery.  It sounds rather macabre, but it’s all cleverly done, and all in the best possible taste 😉

‘A First-Rate Material’ is just one example of an approach running through this collection.  Where the novels are set in our world, inviting us to react to individuals who transgress social norms, here the world has often changed, and the main protagonists, representing the reader, are slightly appalled by these new norms.  A case in point is ‘Life Ceremony’, a story set in a future Japan.  With a shrinking population, funerals are now seen as happy affairs, opportunities for people to come together and procreate.  There’s also drink and food – prepared by the family of the deceased…

Not all of the stories are about dealing with death, though, and among several other themes, the writer casts her eye upon our attitudes towards food.  In ‘A Magnificent Spread’, we explore how one person’s idea of a healthy meal might differ significantly from what others would expect, while ‘Eating the City’ continues the theme of food from a different angle.  Here, a woman struggling with the taste of bland vegetables in Tokyo decides to start gathering her own greens, in the process challenging us to be critical of her unusual methods.

Another two (related) tales explore how we decide to spend our lives.  ‘A Summer Night’s Kiss’ is a vignette about two old women, a highly sexed OAP and one who’s never been kissed.  The couple then return in ‘Two’s Family’, except that there’s been some sort of multiversal shift, and we now see how their lives might have turned out if men hadn’t got in the way…

Life Ceremony contains a range of approaches, including several shorter, stranger pieces.  ‘The Time of the Large Star’ is a short, allegorical tale of a girl moving to a land where nobody ever sleeps, while ‘Poochie’ features two schoolgirls with a rather unusual pet.  Most bizarre of all, perhaps, is ‘Lover on the Breeze’, a tender tale of a love triangle involving a girl, a boy and… a curtain!  One stand-out among these is ‘Puzzle’, in which an office worker, liked and admired by her colleagues, feels divorced from humanity:

She could see the reflections of light on the saliva inside the girl’s mouth when she sighed.  Life-forms were a spring from which all kinds of fluids gushed forth.  Saliva was one, and urine and blood and other liquids, and around them hung the rank smell of air permeated with the stench of inner organs that erupted from the mouth.  Each of these things was totally lifeless when emitted by Sanae, however.
‘Puzzle’, p.147

It’s only when she becomes involved in a confrontation between a colleague and her ex-boyfriend that the wall between Sanae and others dissolves, and she begins to embrace the world of the flesh, with disturbing consequences.

For me, however, Life Ceremony is often at its best when the writer plays it fairly straight.  While ‘Body Magic’ does refer back to Earthlings in the mention of kissing cousins, it’s actually a lovely story of a teenage girl learning about her body and trying not to be forced by peer pressure into experiences she’d rather not have.  Meanwhile, ‘Hatchling’ rounds things off nicely with the story of a woman who adapts her personality to suit the expectations of those around her.  Yes, that’s something we all do to some extent, but in this excellent story, Haruka has somehow developed five distinct personalities she inhabits when with various groups of people.  The problem is that she’s getting married, and everyone’s invited…

Overall, Murata’s latest offering in English is an impressive collection of stories, variations on a theme that are all intriguing.  Tapley Takemori again does sterling work in bringing across the writer’s cool, stripped-back style, making the bizarre normal and challenging our beliefs regarding what is ‘acceptable’ behaviour:

“Do you think we’re weird?”
He shook his head.  “No, I don’t.  I mean, normal is a type of madness, isn’t it?  I think it’s just that the only madness society allows is called normal.”
‘Life Ceremony’, p.106

And Murata shows that time after time, making for twelve enjoyable scenes subverting the accepted view of how we should live our lives…

…but make that thirteen.  You see, although the original Japanese version of Life Ceremony consists of twelve stories, the Granta edition of the English-language version actually has one more.  The bonus here is ‘A Clean Marriage’ (taken from the wonderful Granta 127: Japan), the prototype of the scenes of sexless marriage that appear in Murata’s novels.  Alas, I don’t think it appears in the US edition from Grove Press, but anyone with the vivid orange Granta edition will be able to prolong the reading experience just a little 🙂

8 thoughts on “‘Life Ceremony’ by Sayaka Murata (Review)

  1. This is an excellent review and it really highlights both the virtues of the writer and that of her translator.


    1. Grant – I must admit that ‘Earthlings’, as well-written as it was, wasn’t always my cup of tea, but this is well worth a try.


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