Akutagawa Prize #147: Meido meguri, by Kashimada Maki

Kashimada Maki 鹿島田真希Meido meguri 冥土めぐり.  2012.

Winner of the 147thA-Prize, for early 2012.

The title story is the winner:  a novella whose title could be translated “A Tour of Hell,” or maybe, “Running Around in the Afterlife.”  Or, in a more Gothic mode, “The Darkling Land and Its Rounds.”  The author has been writing since 1998;  this was her fourth time as a finalist for the A-Prize, and she won the Mishima Prize in 2004.  In other words, she’s hardly a newcomer, and on that score alone it’s a somewhat mystifying choice.

The story itself feels almost too perfect for the A-Prize.  It’s not first-person, but it is a typical A-Prize mix of semi-epiphanic present and endless, aimless reminiscence.  And the point of view character, Natsuko, is so laden down with misery and frustration, and so inarticulate and emotionally paralyzed in response, that the story reads almost as a parody of serious literature.  She’s mired in a low-paying part-time job, caring for a husband with a brain illness;  her father also died young of a brain injury, leaving her mother and brother and her in poverty;  her mother, a former stewardess, and her brother are irresponsible with money and leeches on Natsuko’s income and time.  Any one of these situations would be enough, but Kashimada throws them all in.  By the time we learn that Natsuko’s first job ended when sexual harrassment at work forced her to quit, the whole thing starts to feel a little Dickensian.  I guess that’s where the title comes in:  the story is kind of a tour of Hell, cira 2012.

Most of the story takes place on a Sentimental Journey.  One day Natsuko sees a notice advertising a special low rate at a hot-springs hotel that the ward uses as a public retreat.  They can afford it at that rate, so Natsuko takes her husband, Taiichi.  It so happens that this hotel once knew better days.  Natsuko’s mother had gone there as a child when it was a true luxury hotel, and then she once took Natsuko and her brother.  Yes, a dilapidated hot springs hotel by the sea – Atami isn’t named, but could it be anywhere else?  And this, too, is rather a cliché…

The family’s awfulness is well evoked.  The former-stewardess mother is obsessed with luxury, despite being poor – she tasted luxury as a stewardess, and as a child, and constantly puts on airs.  She explicitly expected Natsuko, who we gather is good-looking, to marry a rich man and support her mother in the style she’s not accustomed to but pretends she is.  Meanwhile the younger brother takes after his mother.  Wastes any money he gets his hands on.  No sooner gets his first job out of college than he gets into debt trouble drinking and carousing, and his mother has to sell their condo to pay it off;  the rest of the money they seem to spend entirley on expensive restaurants.  The payout from Natsuko’s sexual harrassment lawsuit likewise goes straight into their hands, and out again.  Neither of them work regularly.

Natsuko seems to have lived her life in rebellion against her mother and brother’s insatiable greed and laziness.  Rather than becoming a stewardess and/or marrying a doctor like her mother wanted, she gets a part-time job at the local community center and marries a kind, simple man she met there, Taiichi.  Her mother and brother behave abominably toward him – a local government worker’s salary isn’t going to buy them fancy French meals – but he doesn’t notice.  And then he has his strokes, and Natsuko spends all her time nursing him.  This seems to suit her, too, as being the utter opposite of her mother’s values.  Self-negating sacrifice seems to be what Natsuko craves.

Then again, she seems more emotionally dead for most of the story than emotionally fulfilled by her life of service.  At least that seems to be the point of the epiphany near the end of the story, when she realizes that her husband, despite all his debilities, has a clearer bead on what he wants and enjoys in life than she does…

The prose is clear but not particularly striking.  The protagonist’s travails, as described here, seem like they might offer interesting subtext – a critique of consumption-obsessed modern life, or something – but if so, Kashimada is content to suggest it, without particular emphasis.  Rather, the subtext she seems most interested in us picking up on is that of the title.  If this is a tour of Hell, then Hell is family.

Which makes this story a very strange and clever contrast with the other novella in the book, “99 no seppun 99の接吻,” or “99 Kisses.”  Which is by far the better story – that’s not rarely the case, I’m finding, with the bonus stories in Akutagawa-Prize books, but I’ve never seen a more drastic disparity than this.

The story is narrated by Nanako, the youngest of four adult daughters who live with their mother near Yanaka in Tokyo.  A lot of the story turns on perceptions of Tokyo’s shitamachi – expectations that everybody will be earthy, laid-back, and (particularly the girls) loose, contrasted with Nanako’s insistence that their neighborhood’s residents, at least, have a kind of purity and nobility and pride that nobody knows.  As an exploration of a particular kind of Tokyo localism it’s a successful story, working in playful references to the literary traditions of that side of the city (she name-checks figures as disparate as Kawabata Yasunari and Hiratsuka Raichō).

But the main literary antecedent for this story is Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.  This is evident first and foremost in the glowing descriptions of the older three sisters, reminiscent of several strong and intensely feminine characters in his ouevre.  But it’s also there in the strange sexuality at the heart of the story.  Simply put, Nanako loves her three older sisters with a love that verges on, and at times seems to actually be, sexual.  Yes, sisterly incest is contemplated here, and presented to the reader for erotic delectation.  But in true Tanizakian fashion it’s handled with such verve and passion that the reader buys it as more than perversion, as a beauty and a love that’s just too pure to be contained…wink wink, nudge nudge.

It’s amazing that both of these stories are products of the same pen, really.  And that, more than the Prize-winning story itself, makes me want to know more about this author.