Akutagawa Prize #150: Ana, by Oyamada Hiroko

The 150th Akutagawa Prize, for the second half of 2013, went to Oyamada Hiroko 小山田浩子.  She was born in 1983, debuted in 2010.  She won for the story “Ana 穴” (Holes).

Unlike the last story, this isn’t being advertised as “horror.”  But I’d submit that it is literary horror.  There is a supernatural/horrific aspect to this story.  It is (I’m going to spoil it) a ghost story.  Told in a fairly creepy way.  But for literary rather than visceral effect.

This and Tsume to me represent, I think, a kind of triumph for the J-horror genre.  Horror has of course always been with us, and this isn’t the first time “literary” authors have dabbled in it;  but I think you could argue that the present generation of literary authors dabbling in it are specifically the product of the horror boom of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Oyamada’s and Fujino’s formative years.  Authors like Suzuki Kōji, mangaka like Itō Junji, directors like Kurosawa Kiyoshi.  I’d want to argue that, anyway (maybe I just did).

The narrator is a woman whose husband is transferred suddenly from the city where they’ve been living to a small town elsewhere in the same region.  It so happens to be the same small town where he was born and raised, and it turns out that a rental house his mother owns has just gone vacant, so his mother offers to let them live there rent-free.  So the narrator and her husband decide, rather than have him commute long distance, to move there, even though it will mean the narrator has to give up her job.  Her job is just temp work, not something she terribly identifies with, and even though their income will fall they’ll more than make up for it by saving on rent.

They make the move, and the rest of the story plays out over the course of the summer after the move.  They only have one car, and the husband drives it to work;  the house isn’t within easy walking distance of anything but a convenience store, so the narrator is somewhat trapped in the house.  She has no children, so there are few demands on her time, and she’s reluctant to spend money when she’s not working so she has little to do with her time.  Her mother-in-law lives next door, but she works, and so does her father-in-law;  her grandfather-in-law is the only one in the neighboring house who she sees regularly, and she can’t seem to communicate with him – deaf or senile or both.

So the narrator falls into a funk.  Her enforced solitude and idleness begin to take their toll.  One hot day she’s walking along the road to the convenience store, past a field with a stream flowing through it, and she sees a strange black beast.  She follows it into the weeds, trying to figure out what it is, and then she falls into a hole.  It’s only about neck-deep, but still it’s deep enough and the dirt soft enough that she can’t climb out on her own.  She’s saved by an older woman in a white dress who introduces herself as her neighbor.

The beast – it’s never named, and she can’t identify it – appears again one day when she’s at home.  She sees it in the yard, and then she sees it run into her in-laws’ house.  But when she investigates, it’s nowhere to be seen.  But she finds another hole, in an alley hidden by a concrete wall.  And there she also runs into another “neighbor” – in fact, he introduces himself as her husband’s older brother.  He says he lives in a shed on the property.  She wonders why her husband never mentioned him, but he explains that he’s been a shut-in for decades, so the family is keeping him a secret.  They talk for a long time – he even takes her to see the beast’s lair, the hole by the riverbed.  While there she sees a bunch of children playing happily by the river.

The last encounter with the mysterious brother-in-law is by night:  she sees her grandfather-in-law walking out of the yard and into the street.  She runs out to try to catch him, and finds the brother-in-law aiding her.  She brings the father-in-law back.  The last scene is the father-in-law’s funeral – presumably his nighttime wandering made him sick.  At the funeral the narrator notices the brother-in-law is missing, so she goes out to the outbuilding – it’s full of junk that hasn’t been touched in years, dust and insects.  Nobody lives there.  He was a ghost.

This has the makings of an entertaining, if run-of-the-mill, ghost story.  The author presents it in such a way, though, that it’s obviously meant to have deeper resonances.  Some of these are easy to identify.

You’ll notice that I don’t name anybody.  Most of the characters in the story are conspicuously left unnamed.  The narrator refers to her family members by their relationship to her:  “my husband,” “my mother-in-law,” etc.  And when she moves into the rental house she finds herself referred to by everybody as “the bride,” even though they’ve been married for many years.  None of this is particularly unusual in Japanese, but Oyamada is putting particular emphasis on it here, and the “bride” business in particular, to make the countryside setting suggestive of traditional family roles.  In the city the narrator may have had an identity of her own, as a working woman, but in the countryside she’s nothing but an appendage of the family into which she has married.  Some of the other ghostly encounters reinforce this impression:  the woman in white may be a ghost, and in addition to pulling the narrator out of the hole, she shares with her a recipe, thus encouraging an adjustment to housewifely cooking.  Later at the funeral some old lady mourners (it’s not clear that anybody else sees them) tell the narrator to change the way the flowers on the altar are arranged – we do it differently here, they say, thus encouraging her to adjust to local ways.  Like a good housewife.

Her status as a wife is one of the interesting issues in the story.  Her loss of individual identity, coupled with her slide into I-see-dead-people psychological instability as she slips into solitude and idleness in her new home, seems to be a critique of traditional gender roles.  She’s a modern woman suddenly placed in an old-fashioned situation, and this is what it does to her.  However, this reading is complicated by the fact that her mother-in-law is herself a working woman, and is surprised that the narrator is so willing to quit her job.  We never learn much about the mother-in-law, but it is suggested that she finds some fulfillment in her job and expects that the narrator would have felt the same.

So the narrator’s life in the city, as a modern woman, also seems to be called into question.  She has no emotional investment in her work.  And her life with her husband is a drag, as well – since they both work, they live on takeout food and hardly see each other, and when they are together he spends all his time on his smartphone, totally ignoring her.  This is why she can accept the idea that her husband has a brother he never told her about, I guess.  So she seems to be facing anomie and anonymity whether in the country or the city, whether surrounded by in-laws or not.

I didn’t find it a very impressive story, to be honest.  Oyamada’s narration is very thick – her paragraphs go on for pages at a time, regardless of how many people are speaking or how many times the topic shifts.  And while her descriptions of place and atmosphere are very vivid, her evocation of people is not.  All of the characters, even the flesh-and-blood ones, feel like ghosts or shells.  These factors combine to make reading it a slog.

The narrator’s passivity is the biggest problem.  Anomie and anonymity, I get it – and I’m a Murakami Haruki fan, so I’m used to passive.  But his characters at least want something – even if, following Vonnegut’s advice, it’s just a sandwich (or sex, or a Chet Baker record).  Oyamada’s narrator is passive far beyond the point of believability:  she is completely disengaged from her own life.  And because she never tells us what she feels, we’re left with only two likely explanations for this passivity.  Either she’s paralyzed by the meaninglessness of existence, or this is the only way Oyamada can think of to create suspense.  Neither is a very satisfying answer.

The first bonus story is called “Itachinaku いたちなく” (a pun:  could be read as Weasel-less, or as Weasel Cries).  It’s narrated by a middle-aged husband whose wife wants a baby;  they can’t have one, but it’s not clear if the problem is with her biology or his.  Early in the story she asks him to give her a sperm sample so she can have it tested.

The main thread of the story concerns an old buddy of the husband’s who has married a much younger woman and moved out to the country.  They’ve renovated an old house and moved into it, doing the country life thing to a T, but now they find they have weasels in their attic.  Nothing works.  They keep catching them but more always appear.

Eventually the narrator and his wife go to visit the buddy and his wife at their country home.  Over a dinner of wild boar nabe they talk about the weasel’s, and the narrator’s wife, who had a country upbringing herself, tells a long intense tale about how her family got rid of weasels in their house when she was a girl.  They caught the mama weasel, and then her grandmother drowned it in a bucket in the front yard.  The girl and everybody else was harrowed by the weasel’s screams, but then the grandmother explained that those screams were the mama weasel telling the rest of its family to stay away from the house or you’ll get drowned.  It would only work with a mama weasel:  a baby weasel would just cry, and a papa weasel would fight until he was worn out.  Only a mama weasel would use her dying breath to warn her family.

Later the narrator’s wife gets a call:  the buddy’s house is now free of weasels.  And the narrator doesn’t know what happened with the sperm test, but his wife has stopped talking about kids.

It resonates with the title story in some obvious ways:  clearly this author is thinking about marital issues, and rural-urban issues, and using the one to get at the other.  And animals.  There’s less of an emphasis on trad gender roles here – though perhaps that’s because we’re getting the husband’s perspective, and maybe he’s a bit clueless.  He claims not to know what the result of the sperm test was, but as my wife points out, if the wife stopped talking about kids it probably means it’s his biology at fault, and she’s just being tactful.

The way the last paragraph reads, it’s clear that the weasel story is meant to somehow explain or comment on the fertility/virility issue.  I’m not quite sure how, though.  Is it just a vision of primal mommy-daddy behavior, meant to contrast with human ineffectuality?

The third and last story, “Yuki no yado 雪の宿” (A place to stay in the snow, or:  Yuki’s Home), connects to the second.  The buddy’s wife has a baby, a daughter named Yukiko, and the narrator’s wife is with her during the birth.  A little while later the narrator and his wife drive up to visit the buddy and his wife and get caught in a blizzard.  They have to spend the night.  There’s a lot of business about walking quietly around the sleeping baby, cooing over it when it’s awake, etc.  And a bit about an elderly neighbor woman (mentioned in the earlier story) who brings over some food when she sees the stranded guests’ car.

During the night the narrator and his wife sleep in a room with tropical fish tanks, and he has a kanashibari episode – a night paralysis in which he dreams that one of the fish, a big arowana, has jumped out of its tank and is dancing on his belly, while his wife has gone out of the room.  In the morning the narrator and his buddy are playing in the snow, and the neighbor lady comes over and whispers to the narrator that his wife is pregnant.  Implying that the dream about the fish, the night paralysis, was anxiety over unconfirmed but dimly sensed impending fatherhood.

And a complete lack of communication with his wife.  This is the real connection between this pair of bonus stories and the title story:  a picture of married people with, evidently, nothing at all to say to each other.  They may even be essentially (not literally) the same people – that the picture is much less bleak in the second and third stories than in the first may simply be a function of them being narrated by an oblivious husband, rather than by a wife who’s bothered by his obliviousness.  But that may not really be what Oyamada’s trying to get at here – it may be incidental.  She seems far more interested, at least in this book, in the symbolic meanings of animals.  I’ve been analyzing these stories mostly for their social commentary, but I may be on the wrong track.  Dream analysis might be more appropriate.