Book Review: Where the Wild Ladies Are

Cover Image Where The Wild Ladies Are by Aoko MatsudaThe seventeen modern female short stories by Matsuda Aoko are inspired by Japanese folktales and traditional plays in her new book published in 2020. The Japanese female writer and translator made her debut in 2013 with the book ‘Stackable’.

Some of her stories in this anthology are based on plays, in Japanese rakugo 落語, which are performed on a Kabuki theater stage by a solitary storyteller.

Matsuda Aoko’s short stories are powerful modern ghost stories. You can understand them without knowing the Japanese traditional background. When it is necessary for the understanding there is a short introduction to the theme. In the back of the book, you find a list with titles of the original tales.

Many cultures believe that death is not the end but it is a transformation into another form of being. Folktales are based on myths, narrations about ghosts and strange occurrences. The strong ancestor worship tradition in Japan is a sign of this belief: this world and the afterlife is connected, and the dead can visit you.

Matsuda’s stories are not mere retellings, but original, sometimes funny, mostly empowering stories about contemporary women who meet a ghost, are ghosts or know about ghosts.

Many women grew up with the belief, that they are not good enough and with ideal body images, that results in the conviction they should be different. Matsuda is questioning traditional female role models and attributions. She writes about transience, change, self acceptance and empowerment.

My favorites stories of this collection are the following:

  • ‘Smartening Up’ is a hairy story of empowerment. An online version of this story is published at https://granta.com/smartening-up/
  • ‘My Superpower’– Leads to the question: “What is your superpower?”
  • ‘Quite A Catch’– A tale about skeleton fishing.
  • ‘Silently Burning’ is based on the famous Yaoya Oshichi folktale.
  • ‘The Missing One’– A homage to Okiku who inhabits the well of Himeji Castle.

This book is a gem and I really, really liked it. Matsuda Aoko has also inspired me to read old myth and folktales.

If you like to read more traditional stories, you can start with some old anthologies for free at gutenberg.org. Here is a short list of interesting titles.

Reviewed Title:
Aoko Matsuda. Where the Wild Ladies Are. Translated by Polly Barton. Tilted Axis Press, 2020 (Cover).

Book Review: Moshi Moshi

cover image Yoshimoto Banana Moshi Moshi“When we start something new, at first it is very muddy, and clouded. But soon, it becomes a clear stream, whose flow conducts itself quietly, through spontaneous movements.”

‘Moshi Moshi‘ is a love declaration to Shimo-Kitazawa, the beloved neighborhood in Tokyo with the hipster, Bohemian air. Famous for the many cafés, bars and restaurants, the secondhand shops. A lively, colorful atmosphere. The young and vibrant city district is known for its varied nightlife, local art, and design. Some call it the coolest part of Tôkyô.

Shimo-Kitazawa 下北沢 is six stops from Shinjuku with the Odakyû Line or four stops from Shibuya with the Keiô-Inokashira Line, a district in Tokyo (Setagaya).

But this quarter is in danger. City officials planned to build an 81-foot-wide thoroughfare, which will tear the neighborhood apart. In 2013 the train tracks were removed, and the station is under construction. Plus, it will be allowed to build higher buildings, which was restricted before. (links to articles about Shimo-Kitazawa with pictures: https://trulytokyo.com/shimokitazawa/ and https://www.shimokitazawa.info/ and https://www.odakyu.jp/station/shimo_kitazawa/).

The story in outlines
Yoshie–Yocchan– a young woman moves to Shimo-Kitazawa after the death of her father. He had died in a mysterious double suicide with a strange woman. On this day he forgot his cellphone at home and could not call for help. Ever since, Yoshie is haunted by dreams and her wish to call her dad because she wants to know who the woman was, and if he really wanted to die with her.

As she moves into a small, shabby apartment in Shimo-Kitazawa she feels free from the home of her parents. She tries to get rid of her memories. She grieves but gets better when she takes a job in the café Les Liens. Then, her mother comes to visit her, and asks if she can stay with her in Shimo-Kitazawa for a while. Imagine your mother wants to move into your tiny student apartment with you! So, that is the situation in the beginning.

Moshi Moshi もしもし means ‘hello’, especially on the phone. Or, if you want to say ‘excuse me!’, when calling out to someone. (for different use and meaning, please see: https://ejje.weblio.jp/sentence/content/もしも).

Evaluation
The story is told by Yoshie’s point of view. You learn about her inner thoughts and her emotions in an interior monologue. The narrator reflects about the death of her father, about childhood and her future as the story moves on. The setting of Shimo-Kitazawa is essential. It becomes a symbol of the transience of all things.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel sounds a little nostalgically, but it is understandable, because she describes changes, which are not only due to a natural cause, but due to gentrification of the beloved Shimo-Kitazawa. So, this is not mere regretting of the past, but some critical viewing about modern capitalism.

As always, I liked the writing style of Banana Yoshimoto. And I liked especially this novel, because I once knew the Shimo-Kitazawa, she is describing in her book very well. So, farewell lovely Shimo-Kitazawa, it was good to know you.

Reviewed title
吉本 ばなな. もしもし下北沢. 2010.
Banana Yoshimoto. Moshi Moshi. Translated by Asa Yoneda. Counterpoint, 2016 (Cover).

Art on Tuesday: Flower Viewing

spring landscape with mount fuji by hokusai 36 views of mount fuji

This picture is an additional ukiyo-e from Hokusai’s series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’. It is called ‘Tōkaidō Shinagawa Goten’yama no Fuji (東海道品川御殿山の不二)’. Mount Fuji seen from the Gotenyama hill in Shinagawa.

You see a scene in springtime. The trees with flowers in bloom. People are celebrating ‘hanami’ 花見, which means flower viewing. They are having a picnic on the hill or take a walk in the beautiful countryside. It is a tradition until today to do ‘hanami’ with family and friends or colleagues, enjoying the cherry blossoms and sit under a tree, drinking sake, eating and sing songs. Everybody is enjoying the coming of spring.

The Making of Japanese Woodblock Prints

triptych by Utagawa Kunisada process of ukiyo-e makingThis triptych presents seven women working at different workstations showing the process of woodblock printmaking, although women were not typically working as artists or crafters in the Edo era. This picture, a woodblock print itself, was made by Utagawa Kunisada (歌川 国貞 1786–1865) in 1857. On the left we see the painter with different colors and brushes. Wood carvers are working in the back at small tables. The person in the middle is brushing on paper, and the woman on the right is sharpening tools.

The making of Japanese woodblock prints is a complex and laborious process:

  • It is always a collaboration between artists, wood carvers, printers and publishers.
  • First, the painter is drawing the artwork on paper, using black ink with a brush. These outlines are called hanshita-e.
  • Second, a skilled wood carver is laying this drawing on a wooden plate and carves the outlines into the wood. Most commonly cherry wood is used in Japan.
  • The painter produces more different hanshita-e for each color. These are also handed over to a carver, who produces several woodcuts accordingly.
  • These woodcuts are now used as printing-plates one after another. Usually painter and printer discuss the printing order.
  • This woodblock-printing technique was established in the 1760s in Japan. It is called nishiki-e 錦絵. The style was made popular by the artist Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木 春信 1725-1770). It was also used later for the ukiyo-e, which became famous in the Edo era, and are therefore known as Edo-e 江戸絵.

Examples for black and white hanshita-e

hanshita-e by Hokusai Drawings (hanshita-e) for a three-volume picture book from Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849). The drawing was made in 1823-33. (Picture source: https://collections.mfa.org/download/129501)

Utagawa Yoshimune (1817–1880) ca. 1860, from the chapters 4, 5 of Legends of the Dog Warriors. (Picture source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/78752)

Video
For a better understanding the following YouTube videos show the fascinating process of Japanese woodblock printing:

1. Japanese Woodblock Printmaking
“Local printmaker Jennifer Worsley demonstrates the Japanese woodblock printmaking process, also known as moku hanga, using a mix of traditional and contemporary techniques and tools.”

2. Woodblock Printing Process – A Japan Journey
“Tokyo-based woodblock printmaker David Bull narrates a video showing the step-by-step process of making one of the woodblock prints in the 2019 subscription series ‘A Japan Journey’, designed by Jed Henry.”

Book Review: Breasts and Eggs

Mieko Kawakami is probably most famous for her book ‘Breasts and Eggs’, which has been translated into English and published in 2020. The first part, a novella, was originally published in 2007 by the monthly magazine ‘Bungakugai’ (Literary World) and was awarded with the Akutagawa Award in 2008.

The book with the English title ‘Breasts and Eggs’ is called 夏物語 (natsumonogatari) in Japanese, which means ‘summer story’ or ‘Natsu’s story’ and consists of two parts.

The first part is an edited version of the Japanese book called 乳と卵 (chichi to ran) which means ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The second part is the prolonged story of the narrator Natsume Natsuko. I do not know why the whole book was published with the title of the first part, but I guess ‘breasts and eggs’ sounds catchier than ‘a summer story’. Still, I find it confusing.

The first part is a novella which can be read alone.

Makiko and her daughter Midoriko are visiting Natsuko in Tokyo. Makiko is 39 years old and works as a bar hostess in Ôsaka. Midoriko is a teenager. Natsuko and her sister Makiko grew up in poverty in Ôsaka. Their mother had been working as a hostess too, she died of cancer, so had their grandmother. Natsuko tried to escape the tristesse and poverty by becoming an author in Tokyo. The novella is about a short visit of three days, which grows slowly but unavoidable into a tragedy.

Japanese_Cover_Breast_and_Eggs

The second part tells the story of Natsuko years later. Makiko and Midoriko are playing minor roles in the background.

Natsuke is now a female writer in her late 30s. We read about Natsuko’s mostly lonely life in Tokyo as a successful writer. This part reads more like a journal, where we get to know about her daily routines and meetings with friends and her female editor. When Natsuko hears about an ex-boyfriend’s marriage, she is reflecting her lifestyle as a single woman in Japan. She gets obsessed with the idea of getting pregnant by sperm donation from a direct donor. The atmosphere is oppressive, her reflections are meandering and repetitive.

‘Breasts and Eggs’ deals with feminist themes: female body image, life as a single woman, female sexuality, pregnancy, single motherhood, poverty and poor working conditions in Japan. All of these are exciting and important topics to discuss.

Evaluation

I liked the first part very much. It is originally and skillfully narrated. It is lively, and I read it in one go. I was very much impressed and emotionally touched. It is an exciting stand-alone novella.

The second part, however, is clearly not written as well as the first part. It is different in style and both parts seem to be glued together. Natsuko’s days are boring. She is depressed. Nearly nothing happens. And then, suddenly, she wants to get pregnant. All characters are rather stereotypical, and the story is far too long. At around page 256 I had enough and wanted everything to be over but had to read another 174 pages to finish the novel. I do not say it often, but the second part was rather a disappointment. Mieko Kawakami is strong with novellas like Ms Ice Sandwich and with the original ‘Breasts and Eggs’. The longer version was not as exciting, as I hoped.

Reviewed title
川上未映子. 夏物語. 文藝春秋,2019 (Cover).
Mieko Kawakami. Breasts and Eggs. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. Europa Editions, 2020 (Cover).