Archive for the ‘Sayaka Murata’ Category

Life Ceremony

January 8, 2023

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.


January 12, 2021

Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) bears some resemblance to her earlier Convenience Store Woman: its narrator, Natsuki, feels different even as a child, and rejects the idea of ‘fitting in’ as she grows older. However, her sense of alienation takes on a far more literal meaning. At a young age she comes to believe that her favourite soft toy is from another planet:

“Piyyut was the one who’d given me my magical objects and powers. He was from the planet Popinpopobia.”

Soon this is linked in her mind with the only other important relationship in her life, with her cousin Yuu, whom she sees every year when the extended family meet at Akishina. Yuu tells her:

“Every time I come here for Oban, I’m always secretly looking for the spaceship that will come and take me home.”

Both children are treated badly within their families. “That child is hopeless,” Natsuki’s mother tells everyone, “She can’t do anything properly.” Yuu’s mother is equally cruel, as he explains to Natsuki:

“Mitsuko’s a bit crazy, and when she gets angry she always says she’ll throw me out of the house.”

It’s not difficult to see why both children might retreat into a world of imagination, and why they might promise to marry when they are older. Natsuki’s alienation is further exacerbated when she is abused by a teacher, Mr Igasaki:

“His hand came up inside the hem of my shirt and rubbed my back directly on my skin.”

Her mother is, of course, dismissive of Natsuki’s attempts to tell her of her fears – “I can’t believe you’re making out your teacher’s a pervert just because he told you off.” (In fact, even when she tells her sister and a friend when she is older they attempt to place the blame with her). The abuse escalates to fellatio, Murata highlighting Natsuki’s distress when she tells Yuu “my mouth was destroyed recently.” It is this, and the fact that her family are intending to holiday elsewhere, which compels Natsuki to ask Yuu to have sex with her even though they are still children:

“Before my body stops being mine, I really want to be physically married to you too.”

The parents’ reaction to discovering them together is placed in direct contrast to their refusal to believe Natsuki’s claims about her teacher. From that point on, Natsuki lives almost as a prisoner (“Even after I went to college and got a job, I was not allowed to leave home”) but she is still allowed ‘extra lessons’. It is at this point that the novel takes the first of a number of strange turns as Natsuki follows Piyyut’s instructions and goes to Mr Igasaki’s house one night:

“Hurry. Hurry! If the Wicked Witch kills you, it’ll bring about the end of the world. Only your magical powers can prevent that.”

As with Convenience Store Women, Earthlings explores the idea of what it is to be normal in a society where conformity is very important. As Natsuki sees it, “I was still expected to become a component for the Factory.” Increasingly she feels that she too must be an alien:

“So all I can do is keep my head down and pretend to live as an Earthling.”

To this end she enters into a marriage of convenience; her and her husband, Tomoya, live largely separate lives, but by being married they appease their families and friends. Like Natsuki, Tomoya has an aversion to sex. In fact he goes further and says:

“Deep down everyone hates work and sex, you know. They’re just hypnotised into thinking they’re great.”

When Tomoya loses his job, he asks that they go to Akishina – Natsuki has told him about her holidays there as a child – where Yuu is now living. Though Yuu, too, has found it difficult to settle into adult life, he tells Natsuki, “As an adult you have to squarely face up to problems.” No amount of persuasion, however, will convince Natsuki and Tomoya that they are wrong.

What makes Earthlings such a powerful and genuinely unsettling novels is the way it takes its premise – Natsuki’s premise – to its uncompromising conclusion. Her position is extreme but also plausible: life as a Factory with people nothing more than parts. It also accurately highlights the hypocrisy of what is accepted and what is condemned: Natsuki’s sexual abuse is ignored but her failure to become pregnant is seen as a fault. Readers generally sympathise with society’s rebels and, by the novel’s end we have been inside Natsuki’s head for so long – and we have so many reasons to sympathise with her – that it is difficult for the reader not to feel complicit. Despite this, it is unlikely anything will prepare you for the final chapters. While Convenience Store Woman may be a ‘better’ novel, Earthlings is, in many ways, a more effective one.

Convenience Store Woman

March 10, 2019

All literature, to some extent, answers the question of how should we live our lives, but Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, addresses it more directly than most novels. Its narrator, Keiko Furukura, admits “everyone thought I was a rather strange child” relaying stories which reveal a literal interpretation of the wishes of those around her, and a dramatic way of achieving them, when very young. She quickly learns that her only hope of not being seen as unusual lies in copying the behaviour of others:

“I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.”

She acquires her job in a convenience store in much the same way:

“I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.”

As the novel opens Keiko has been working at the convenience store for eighteen years. The job, she explains, is “the only way I can be a normal person.” She details the strategies she uses in order to fit in, copying the behaviour, habits and clothing of those she works with until she is able to state:

“My present self is formed almost completely of those around me.”

She even makes sure to get angry at the same things as everyone else as she notices this makes them happy.

Then life she has created for herself is disrupted with the arrival of Shiraha who is in many ways her antithesis, as is indicated on his first appearance by the fact that the store uniform does not fit him. He has little interest in doing the job well, arriving late and making disparaging remarks about the other staff and the manager:

“He really does seem useless… The way he talks the job down, saying it’s only a convenience store.”

It’s no surprise when he gets dismissed, but it is a surprise when, finding him loitering outside the store, Keiko first invites him for coffee, and then to move in with her. Despite their very different characters, she sees Shiraha as like herself, not only because he doesn’t fit in, but because he adopts a persona to disguise this fact:

“He really was just like me, uttering words that sounded human when really he wasn’t saying anything at all.”

Her motivation for allowing him to live in her apartment is that both of them will appear more ‘normal’. “These past two weeks,” she tells us, “I’d been asked fourteen times why I wasn’t married.” Her sister is delighted by the news (“She might just as well have been saying I was ‘cured’.”) even though she is far from impressed with Shihara:

“She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.”

Though the social expectations of Japan and the UK are not identical, the novel’s success can be attributed to the stubborn refusal of both societies to accept difference despite superficially embracing diversity. Shihara’s claim that:

“Our society doesn’t allow foreign objects. I’ve always suffered because of that.”

falls on sympathetic ears despite his unsympathetic character. The social norms expected of Shiraha and Keiko relate to both marital status and employment: ‘failing’ in one is acceptable, but not in both. It is particularly galling that Keiko has created a life for herself with which she is entirely satisfied, but must contend with the satisfaction of others:

“I made it known among old friends that I have certain health issues that make it more convenient for me to have a part-time job.”

Reading Convenience Store Woman it seemed obvious to question whether Keiko might be autistic, or, more properly, on the autistic spectrum. This possibility seems to have been excluded by many reviewers, the worst offender I encountered being Dwight Garner in the New York Times who wonders, “How did she get this way?”, questions how “deranged” she might be, and compares her to Norman Bates. Perhaps he was simply going out of his way to make the Murata’s point for her.

Convenience Store Woman is an awkward novel, with characters it would be awkward to meet, but the awkward questions it asks are also vital ones.