Hardboiled and Hard Luck (1999)

Published in 1999 as Hādoboirudo/Hādo rakku ハードボイルド/ハードラック (note that the two elements are linked with a backslash, not an ampersand), translated 2005 by Michael Emmerich.

Two short stories (“Hardboiled” and “Hard Luck”), written especially for this volume. It was published by a publisher named ロッキング・オン, which comes out to Rocking On in English (but they mercifully [?] romanize it Rockin’on). Yes, it’s a music mag; in this case, the book-publishing arm of it. This is one of several publishers Banana seems to maintain relationships with, and given her penchant for name-checking her favorite bands (in the after-material to Lizard she mentions Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain), it’s not an inappropriate one.

I could go farther. Banana’s initial burst of popularity was partly a factor of the way she confounded the categories of pop and pure lit – writing at times like a gushy romance novelist, but often refusing to write stories that resolved themselves like that. Part of what confounded the categories was the venues she wrote for – Marie Claire marked her as pop, but Kaien marked her as pure. By that token, Rockin’on seems to represent a decisive step in the pop direction – pop in two senses here. Which is interesting because these two stories are, I’d say, on the pure-lit side of Banana’s output.

Another thing: the English translation sports a cover illustration by Nara Yoshitomo 奈良美智. This isn’t just a rare bit of appropriate trendiness on the part of the American publisher: it reflects the fact that this book was a collaboration with Nara: it featured four color illustrations plus one for the dust jacket. (The cover of the American edition is one of the interior illustrations from the Japanese edition.) This was the first, I believe, of Banana’s collaborations with Nara, and not the last. I haven’t yet teased out all the nuances of this pairing – in some ways I think Nara’s pouty, sociopathic girls are perfect for Banana’s work, and in some ways I think they couldn’t be more wrong.

“Hardboiled” is the first and longer story, and I like it quite a bit. The narrator is walking along a road in the mountains; she encounters a foreboding roadside shrine; she spends the night at a haunted hotel; she thinks about the woman she just broke up with.

Two things to me seem worth remarking on in this story. First is the fact that it takes the motif of romantic/sexual love between women, a theme that Banana had been flirting with (pun intended) for some time, and makes it explicit. As far back as Asleep female homoeroticism had a place in Banana’s world, but it was never really the theme like it is here. (It may be in something yet untranslated: I haven’t started to delve into her deeper oeuvre yet.) I’m not sure what to think yet of the place of lesbian love in her fiction; in some ways it’s the utterly normalcy with which she depicts it that is most striking.

Second is the tone. The supernatural motifs – ghosts, eerie shrines, etc. – are by no means new in her work. But all these motifs seem to be deployed with much more care here than previously, and they work together with setting and the measure way with which the narrator’s reminiscences are doled out to create a genuinely haunting tone. The deserted mountain-road setting reminds me of the barking dog sequence in Kurosawa’s Dreams, and this is just about as vividly done. There is, I guess I’d say, a control on display here that puts this up with her best work.

“Hard Luck” isn’t quite as memorable. The narrator is falling for the brother of the fiancee of her brain-dead sister. The general pattern – love feeling its way around the obstacle of a dead sister – echoes the relationship between Sakumi and Ryūichirō in Amrita. This is a neater rendition of that pattern – more satisfying, but less ambitious. More perfect, but less interesting.

By this point Banana was 35. No longer a shōjo, and old enough that it had to be sinking in. This would have been a big challenge for someone so identified with an aesthetic of youthfulness. Maybe allying with a rock magazine and a pop-art phenom were forms of overcompensation, ways to reassert her relevance to a new generation of youth at the end of the century. But in other ways she seems to be trying to grow up. The narrator of “Hardboiled” especially strikes me as an adult, and the sober tone of the story strikes me as aimed at adults.