On Aoko Matsuda’s Deceptively Delightful Call for Systemic Change
Polly Barton Reads Where the Wild Ladies Are
The Halloween season is upon us, and it’s possible that a good number of people, lured by the promise of contemporary takes on Japanese ghost tales, will be reaching to Aoko Matsuda’s collection Where the Wild Ladies Are for their scare fix. Fright-seekers will be disappointed, though. Matsuda’s stories aren’t scary—not by anybody’s standards.
Take “Quite a Catch,” for instance, a tale of a young woman who goes fishing for the first time and unwittingly catches a human skeleton, only to be confronted later that night by Hina-chan, the kimono-wearing specter of said skeleton’s former owner. Like all the stories in the collection, “Quite a Catch” was inspired by an existing tale from the Japanese storytelling canon; Matsuda has said that, coming across a rakugo version of the original tale, Kotsutsuri, which ended with a punchline at the expense of homosexual romance, she decided to rewrite the story as a queer love story, with the kind of simple happy ending never usually granted to same-sex romances in the Japanese canon (in this case, munching avocado tortilla chips on the sofa in a vision of contemporary domestic bliss).
“Quite a Catch” is not only not scary; it’s joyous, redemptive, and quietly radical in the normalcy it grants this relationship between two women, one of whom happens to be from over two centuries ago, not of this world, and visible only at night.
In fact, there’s a strong case for calling WTWLA not just unscary but positively anti-scary, turning as it does a critical eye on the very concept of “scary”—or, as one reviewer put it, “‘ghosting’ [the] ghost tales on which it is premised.” One of the clearest glimpses into how Matsuda’s “anti-scary” treatment works happens at the moment when Hina-chan first appears before the narrator.
As Hina-chan describes the terrible treatment she endured on earth which has caused her to stay tethered to this world, we observe the narrator’s initial terror (“I let out a shriek”) transforming into compassion: “I started to feel unbearably sorry for this ghost standing in front of me. What a bastard [her unwelcome suitor] was!” The contrast between these two states brings into relief the lack of concern shown when seeing someone as a “ghost.”
As the reader considers this alongside the lack of concern shown to Hina-chan during her lifetime, we can clearly see the message underpinning these linked stories: fearing and othering are intricately intertwined. It is no coincidence that women treated terribly throughout their lives are then, in death, held up by living society as the epitome of everything that is terrifying (it should be stated that Japanese ghosts are, almost without exception, women).
Matsuda’s solution is to offer these ghosts compassion and, ultimately, redemption. Be it through happy romance, fulfilling work, or the satisfaction of being so much more screwed-on than their mortal counterparts, these spirits of the past are liberated by Matsuda’s bottomless bag of inventive devices.Her prose may be deceptively delightful, but Matsuda is angry, and the solutions that her fiction envisages are not in the realm of characters who accustom themselves to difficult situations through psychological growth or suitable choices.
I’m aware that in the English-speaking literary world, it sounds a little odd to speak about “messages” in the context of fiction—a tad moralistic, or at least overly earnest—but one of the things I love about Matsuda-as-author is her unapologetic approach to articulating a clearly defined mission for her work. Her calling, as she characterizes it, is to give a home on the page to people who have experienced marginalization, and to make them feel less alone.
The most obvious form that this takes is with respect to the treatment of women: in Japan, the word “feminism” is still either wrapped in the shroud of academicism and seen as something that has no point of contact with everyday folk, or else seen as the preserve of highly strung women with a victim complex. An important part of what Matsuda does is to spell out in an accessible way the way that living in a patriarchal society impacts their lives. Even the humor and the almost cake-like enjoyability of her stories has an articulable rationale: to ensure that people actually enjoy what it is that she is doing.
This is why Matsuda’s fiction doesn’t slot easily into any pre-established category of fiction, and this is perhaps particularly true in her native Japan, where the general assumption among the literary establishment is that if you are going to treat serious things—particularly, if you intend to criticize the status quo at a radical level—you must do so in a reverent, literary, serious-seeming fashion. Matsuda picks up this assumption and lovingly tosses it in the rubbish.
Throughout her diverse range of work, only a small fraction of which is available in English, we see some variation in how close to the surface this thread of criticism runs. In the chapbook “The Girl Who is Getting Married” (Strangers Press, translated by Angus Turvill; excerpted from Matsuda’s debut collection, Stackable) the attack remains richly subtle.
Through a series of monologues centering around the mysterious, almost wondrous central figure referred to throughout as “the girl who is getting married,” Matsuda explores the enormous social weight attached to the concept of marriage within society; in the place of overt criticism, we find instead an off-kilter disquiet, bubbling under the surface of her pellucid prose. As Karen Russell comments in her preface to the book, when it comes to perfectly judged ominousness it’s hard to top a paragraph-opener like, “In the 15 years that we lived there, nothing terrible happened.”
Meanwhile, in Matsuda’s latest work and first full-length novel, The Sustainable Use of Our Souls, her criticism finds its most pointed articulation yet. Here, a polyphony of voices from across society combine to form a relatable yet damning indictment of idol culture and endemic sexism in Japanese society, deftly blending elements of extreme realism and science fiction.
As in Matsuda’s other works, the prose cascades with inventiveness at the sentence level, but now even the structure seems restless, hopeful, and unwilling to be contained, like a contemporary Japanese take on Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. In an interview with the Tokyo Shimbun, Matsuda comments: “Thanks to social media, women’s voices are finally being heard, and lots of people are starting to realize that this weird discomfort they’ve been feeling all this time is actually due to the gender imbalance. Japanese society stands on the brink right now. Even if I’m thought of as uncouth, I want to tell it like it is.”
That quality of uncouthness, which is to say, using fiction as a platform to say the very things cultural mores deem “unsayable” about entrenched sexism and other forms of social prejudice, is something we have seen more of in translated Japanese literature of late. Now that a more representative proportion of the Japanese books making it into English are written by female authors, the Western market is enjoying a surge in works of mainstream fiction painting a picture of what it is like to be a woman in Japanese society, such as the already semi-iconic Convenience Store Woman by Sakaya Murata (Grove Atlantic/Granta, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), and the recently published Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (Europa Editions/Picador, translated by David Boyd and Sam Bett), both of which are rightly labeled feminist literature.
Yet my feeling is that Matsuda’s feminism differs from the kind found in these and almost every other work of contemporary Japanese fiction, both in its intensity and in the depth at which it informs her novelistic choices. Her prose may be deceptively delightful, but Matsuda is angry, and the solutions that her fiction envisages are not in the realm of characters who accustom themselves to difficult situations through psychological growth or suitable choices.
Matsuda wants systemic change, and the feats of the imagination she conjures up should not be read purely as escapist fantasy but also a kind of training in grasping towards a better world.
This brings us back to the anti-scary ghost stories. The more time you spend with them, the greater the sense that they are grasping at something enormous. Sometimes I think that if WTWLA were not a nuanced work of fiction but a rambling, semi-incoherent kid’s story, it would end with the punchline-not-punchline: “And it turns out that the really scary thing is us!”
Matsuda is clear that there is more terror in the world than can be held in the mind at any time, and we are the source of it, through the myriad ways in which we objectify and otherize other creatures, and fail to extend them compassion. Given that, maybe WTWLA is the perfect Halloween read after all.
Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, trans. by Polly Barton, is available via Soft Skull Press.
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