The 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.
- In Ghostly Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn
- Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, by Lafcadio Hearn
- Japanese Fairy Tales, by Grace James, Illustrated by Warwick Goble
- Japanese Fairy Tales, by Yei Theodora Ozaki
Aoko Matsuda. Where the Wild Ladies Are. Translated by Polly Barton. Tilted Axis Press, 2020 (Cover).