The Japanese Literature Publishing Project is a Japanese Government program dedicated to promoting Japanese literature in translation. A noble goal, to be sure, but if this novel is anything to go by, they might want to rethink the texts they’re putting on their recommendation lists.
Unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband went missing thirteen years ago, Kei is drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru, where she hopes to find answers. In doing so, though, she comes dangerously close to losing those that are most important to her.
Kawakami taps into that very modern strain of Japanese literature made so popular world-wide thanks to He Who Shall Not Be Named, a genre in which bizarre things happen to people, leaving them isolated and alone in modern Japan. It is not a sub-genre that I can particularly get behind, so the quasi-fantasy setting, along with a very weak ending, did nothing for me.
The most intriguing parts come from the discussions between Kei and Seiji, in which he beates her for not being able to let go of her missing husband. Of course, this is probably wildly unfair, particularly when Seiji himself is still married with children—not exactly a model of commitment. Seiji is, annoyingly, correct though—Rei is living half a life, unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband has been missing for so long. In many ways, it would be better if he had been found dead—at least, then, she could find some kind of closure.
Kawakami, though, refuses to give her character (or her readers) any closure. About halfway through, there’s a slight hint that, actually Kei already knows what has happened to her husband, but is subconsciously choosing to repress the memory. Which is fine, but after about three pages, it’s never mentioned again.
Combined with this inability to move on is the very real fact that her daughter, Momo, is growing up and very much moving on with her life, as only teenagers can. Rei finds herself increasingly unable to understand her daughter’s actions. It is perhaps this isolation that drives her to the seaside town of Manazuru, sent by a gut feeling and, as it turns out, a mysterious spirit woman who seems to be able to communicate from beyond the grave.
I have no problem with fantasy, or even magical realism—and I get why Kawakami is using it here—but that doesn’t preclude it from being mind-numbingly dull here. There’s enough material here (from Kei’s meditations on family and motherhood, to the increasing isolation between mother and daughter—over two generations) to not have to rely on these cheap parlour tricks. Instead, though, we have another novel written in the wake of He Who Must Not Be Named that thinks his style is the only way to write a contemporary Japanese novel. Which is just plain wrong.
Just one final fun fact before I end this. I looked up Manazuru to see if it was a real place—it is. But in my research, I also discovered that another author, Shiga Naoya (志賀直哉) wrote a short story in 1920 also called Manazuru, about a young boy who falls in love with an older woman. I can’t find a lot of information on it, other than a few blog posts, but if anyone knows more about it—and the relationship to this novel—I’d be super interested to hear.