Life Ceremony

Readers of Sayaka Murata’s novels, Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, will not be surprised by the content of the stories contained in Life Ceremony, translated once again by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Originally published in 2019, the collection also contains the story which introduced Murata to the English-speaking world, ‘A Clean Marriage’ which appeared in Granta in 2014. It is predicated on the narrator’s idea that “a family should not have anything to do with feelings of love between and man and a woman – it should be a simple partnership.” As Murata tends to do, this idea is taken to its logical extreme and the couple in question, who both happily have sexual partners outside of marriage, engage in a strange form of artificial insemination in order to have a child.

The idea of a sexless marriage is also seen in two stories connected by the names of their protagonists ‘A Summer’s Night’s Kiss’ and ‘Two’s Family’. In the first, Yoshiko, now in her seventies, remains a virgin despite having been married:

“She had never even once had intercourse with her older husband…Both of her daughters had been conceived by artificial insemination…”

In the second, Yoshiko also has children via artificial insemination, though in this case she remains unmarried – and, fulfilling a promise made when at high school – moves in with a friend, Kikue. She places this friendship before any sexual relationship, declaring she will be chief mourner if Kikue dies:

“It was absolutely clear to her that she would play that role, not any of Kikue’s former lovers.”

These stories are slight but, like all of Murata’s work, nudge the reader to reconsider the way in which society prioritises relationships. In the more traditional ‘Body Magic’, the teenage narrator, Ruri, is fascinated with her friend, Shiho’s, relationship, but here Murata suggests a purer kind of sexuality:

“The two of us just made it up by ourselves. When I later read in a book about other people doing it, I felt a bit relieved…”

The arousal created when Ruri hugs Shiho infuses her whole body in a way that exceeds the mechanics of sex which so interest her peers:

“Little by little the cells began vibrating, and particles, fizzing as though made form stardust, started moving around my body.”

‘Hatchling’ is also a story with a realist setting, returning us to the territory of Convenience Store Woman. As the narrator, Haruka, goes through life she finds herself adopting different personas when she is with different groups of people:

“Soon after I started university, I realised I didn’t have a personality of my own.”

At school she is Peabrain, regarded as a “goofball” by her classmates; at university she suddenly finds herself at the centre of male attention and begins to dress differently in “outfits more suitable for Princess.” By the time she is getting married she has five different characters to contend with – and of course five different sets of guests coming to the wedding. The story is a good example of the way in which Murata takes something that everyone experiences to some extent and drives it to its logical conclusion.

Although sex and relationships feature in many of the stories, in others Murata focuses on similarly primal aspects of society such as eating and death. In fact, the two are combined in ‘Life Ceremony’ where she describes the ritual which now accompanies death:

“…the custom of eating the flesh of the dead has become so deeply ingrained on our society that little by little, I’m becoming less confident about what things were like before.”

The narrator’s mixed feelings about this change when a close friend of hers dies and she becomes involved in the preparation of his body for eating. Not only does her own view alter, but the readers; perception is cleverly manipulated so that what at first feels shocking seems far less so by the conclusion. Murata’s point is made: we often fail to question the customs which we are used to.

Murata applies the same logic to more fleeting trends. In ‘First-Rate Material’, Nan has adopted the fashion of wearing human hair:

“The jet-black hair was closely knitted into rows of braids, with an intricate weave at the cuffs and neck, and it glistened alluringly in the rays of light shining in through the lobby windows.”

We enter a world in which jewellery and furniture are also made from human remains, a world that Murata cleverly navigates via Nan’s relationships as her fiancé, Naoki, who objects to this particular fashion, much to her friends’ horror.

In general, the longer the story, the better. The shorter stories tend to do little more than showcase an idea but, with length, Murata develops her ideas in interesting ways, often creating an entire world around them. Read in succession, they can seem a little too focused on turning society’s expectations on their head, but the best of them have the same power as her novels.


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6 Responses to “Life Ceremony”

  1. hopewellslibraryoflife Says:

    Good review. I loved Convenience Store Woman

  2. Tony Says:

    A nice collection, but as you say, not every story hits the mark. It’ll be interesting to see what makes it into English next as I still feel CSW is the best of her books so far.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s so interesting to read your review of this one, Grant. I thought it was a very clever collection, particularly the questioning of society’s views around taboo subjects. As you say, many of the stories were different riffs on a similar underlying theme, albeit from different angles.
    Would you recommend I read Earthlings, or is it another variation of the same ideas?

    (PS I really loved the story with the two women in their seventies – Two’s Family or Two’s Company, I think it’s called? Such a touching piece, partly because the tone felt so different from the others!)

    • 1streading Says:

      I think you will find that Earthlings has more in common with most of the stories than Convenience Store Woman – it certainly uses shock tactics! Like you, I enjoy the way she exposes social conformity – I though the story of the two women was a gentler version of that.

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