IF HIROMI KAWAKAMI is not well known in American literary circles, it isn’t due to any lack in her gifts as a writer, but what the critic Takayuki Tatsumi once identified as Japanese literature’s status abroad as a “paraliterature” — its existence on the margins. Japanese authors can occasionally find an audience outside their home country by winning major awards (e.g., Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburō Ōe), and, in the singular case of Haruki Murakami, can even become so famous that each new release creates lines at bookstores from Brooklyn to Bellevue. But for the most part, despite the valiant efforts of ventures like Monkey Business, Chin Music Press, and Stone Bridge Press, from across the Pacific, Japan’s thriving literary scene is largely invisible.
Thus, despite the fact that Kawakami’s fictions have been turned into television dramas in her home country and have garnered international awards like the Man Asian Literary Prize, it is perhaps not surprising that the short story collection which won her the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary honor, has only recently appeared in English. Record of a Night Too Brief, translated by Lucy North and published by the London-based Pushkin Press, quietly appeared earlier this year, two decades after its original publication.
Aside from the publisher’s odd decision to reorder the three stories and North’s sometimes stiff translation, the collection has arrived largely intact. This English edition of Kawakami’s book takes its title from the most experimental of the three stories, an assemblage of 19 vignettes that alternates between episodes featuring a narrator and her female companion navigating their way through the night and a series of more improvisational sketches. These playful pieces evoke Scheherazade’s storytelling in One Thousand and One Nights, as well as Natsume Sōseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams, which Kawakami reportedly claims as her favorite of the great Japanese modernist’s works. As with Sōseki’s stories, one thing that is striking about Kawakami’s collection is the way the author successfully juxtaposes elements of contemporary Japan — in Kawakami’s case, postmodern Japan, with its high-rise apartment buildings, highway service areas, radio stock market reports, and advertising jingles blaring from parade-float loudspeakers — with myths and folklore that gesture toward a lost, pre-modern imaginary.
This is most evident in “A Snake Stepped On,” the final piece of the English edition, which also contains the strongest writing in the book, and is the title story of the original Japanese collection (Hebi wo Fumu, 1996). The narrative centers on a young woman working for a husband and wife who make and sell Buddhist prayer beads out of their store in Tokyo. When Miss Sanada accidentally treads on a languid, autumn snake, it takes human form and installs itself in the protagonist’s apartment, claiming to be her mother. At first Miss Sanada’s reserved nature prevents her from dismissing the snake, but she eventually grows accustomed to the domestic convenience of its presence, as it cooks and cleans for her every night before reverting to its snake form and slithering up into the ceiling to sleep. Around this time, we also learn that Miss Sanada failed at her previous career as a science teacher at a girl’s school and, like many young people in Japan’s big cities, she lives alone and struggles to find her place in society. Snakes have a place in both Buddhist and Shinto myths and appear in legends, like the story that forms the basis of the Noh play Dōjōji. But Kawakami’s serpent doesn’t seem to parallel any specific tale so much as, to paraphrase the scholar Susan J. Napier, it evokes a past that has been all but obliterated by the technological, hyper-rational consensus of late-capitalist Japan.
This connection to the pre-modern is underlined when the narrator recalls the story of her great-grandfather, who purportedly disappeared for three years in the middle of his life; when he returned, he eventually told a story about the woman he abandoned his family for, whom he realized was a bird only after he’d been bewitched. Of course, this story cannot help but put the reader in mind of the crane wife legend, and it also contains similarities to the backstory of the prayer bead store’s owners. Nishiko, who strings together the beads, had been married to another shop owner until she fell in love with his apprentice, who she ran off with and married, prior to them opening their current store. As it turns out, Nishiko has a snake of her own and the older woman’s affection for her second husband has dissipated even as her relationship with the reptile has increased in intensity. Nishiko longs for a chance to go back and take her snake up on previous offers to join the “snake world,” a warm, cozy place that promises endless sleep and the absence of anything that would “make you feel different.” This womb-like plane of existence stands as an alternative to the alienating, materialist world of contemporary Japan, where the self is irreparably fractured and even prayer beads circulate as commodities.
While the magical animals and supernatural forces that appear to subvert modernity and postmodernity in the stories are certainly fantastic, these aspects of Kawakami’s fictions are also associated with the elements of the pre-modern visible in contemporary Japanese society. Such traces include the bacchanal, often violent festivals that come into bloom across the country every summer and fall: in Osaka’s Kishiwada Danjiri Festival, carts race through streets, often crashing into houses and injuring participants, while deaths are a regular occurrence at the sexennial Onbashira Festival in Nagano.
In this same vein, in “Missing” the older brother and father of the story’s central family, whose youngest daughter also narrates the piece, are enlisted to participate in a local festival, where they must slather themselves with a sweet-swelling lotion to lure swarms of poisonous insects away from the festivities. In naming this role in her original story, Kawakami uses the characters for hitobashira, a word typically used to describe human sacrifices buried alive to bless large-scale building projects; while the men are not killed, the festival leaves them badly injured and unable to move from their beds for a month. In addition to this dark side of the fantastic, the family’s young daughter is aware that although conventions can seem like long-established traditions, they are just as often arbitrary inventions meant to paper over the anxieties of contemporary life. When the family goes to a neighboring apartment building to seal the marriage arrangements for their oldest son, she observes that the visit’s highly proscribed rituals didn’t “exist during my grandmother’s time — on the contrary, it seems to have been pretty much anything goes.” Similarly, her family possesses an enormous urn, which is polished by the male head of the family, and, while the methods for cleaning it were “rather willy-nilly” in past generations, “as the decades passed the procedure [has gotten] more formalized and codified.” Like the remains of Japan’s historical and legendary past, the urn is treated with museum-like care, even as its meaning has become increasingly remote.
At the same time, in “Missing” Kawakami joins her contemporaries — filmmakers Hirokazu Koreeda and Naomi Kawase, and writers Akito Inui and Yoko Ogawa, to name a few — in chronicling the disintegration of the traditional Japanese family. In the story, families are prohibited from having more than five members by an official edict that recalls China’s one-child policy, though like that rule, the policy is irregularly enforced. And much like the actual, average Japanese household during the 20th and 21st centuries, the family in “Missing” is gradually whittled down from five members to three with the third on the verge of departing by the end of the piece. Notably, this story, which is so reliant on the atmosphere created by the daughter’s narration, suffers the most from translator’s tendency to chop up Kawakami’s long, rambling sentences into bite-sized chunks.
While the use of folklore and the fantastic is remarkable in Record of a Night Too Brief, it is certainly not territory that belongs exclusively to Kawakami. The magical realism employed by Latin American writers, many of whom also used the technique as a way of escaping the stifling conditions of modernity, is an apt comparison. But so is the work of Kawakami’s peers in contemporary Japanese literature, such as Hideo Furukawa, Kiyoko Murata, Yoriko Shono, Banana Yoshimoto, or Yoko Tawada, whose most recently translated novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear also deals in fantastic beasts, although the bears in Tawada’s book admittedly are of the Russian-circus variety. If this list seems heavily female, that is due at least in part to the fact that much of the most interesting and acclaimed Japanese fiction is currently being written by women. Perhaps this is why the repurposing of pre-modern myths seems to be something of a trend among the current generation of Japanese writers. After all, in the country’s folklore women are often transgressive threats to the symbolic order. Who better, then, to claim these tales for their own, mine them for their latent power, and deploy them against the excesses of a new era?