Reviewed by Sailaja Sastry
Inside and Other Short Fiction--Japanese Women by Japanese Women offers a corrective to Western and Japanese stereotypes of Japanese women's sexuality. The stories in this collection are connected by an exploration of women's sexual liberation, and provide a female readership with a sophisticated equivalent to the sexually graphic print media heavily marketed to Japanese men. The women in Inside generally do not conform to traditional gender roles that stress early marriage and motherhood. But the multiplying of sexual trajectories available to them is not unambiguously celebrated. Instead, the collection delves into the complications of women's sexual self-awareness and desire. While the protagonists in these eight stories span a range of ages and occupations, they all experience sexuality as-at least in part-alienating and anxiety-provoking.
The most explicit stories feature first-person narration by single women. Komugi, the stream-of-conscious narrator of Tamaki Daido's "Milk," navigates her last days of junior high school with a veneer of arrogant self-confidence. The socially acceptable sexual freedom available to Komugi and her friends has degenerated into a practice of casual dating in which men "trade" them for other girls. Komugi's blasé attitude toward losing her virginity is an attempt to mask her ongoing insecurity about the social status she will assume in her new high school, though she is complicit in the system of peer classification that she fears. In her mid-teens at most, she is already conscious of boys' career prospects, a consideration of marriageability that is flagrantly in conflict with her own behavior.
In the post-high school world of "Piss," by Yuzuki Muroi, the complex social web that ensnares Komugi is dangerously absent. A harsh portrait of late-adolescent isolation, "Piss" chronicles the last days of its narrator's legal childhood, before she turns twenty (the Japanese age of majority). Abandoned both by the friend who introduces her into prostitution and by the boyfriend to whom she loans months of advance wages, Miyuki descends into a pattern of more degrading sexual transactions, softened only by a birthday gift from her steadiest (and most submissive) client.
Junko Hasegawa's "The Unfertilized Egg" explores its thirty-six-year-old narrator's sense of worthlessness, which is sharpened after she is dumped by her married boss. The workplace has been the social focus of her life, but socializing with her much-younger colleagues only intensifies her feelings of loneliness. The story is punctuated by transparently allegorical dreams fueled by her anxiety about a family "tradition"-giving birth in the Year of the Horse. In the last Year of the Horse, marriage and childbearing seemed a distant concern, but now, unmarried and childless, she reflects with increasing anxiety on the next one, when she will be forty-eight.
The other stories are less fraught. The collection's title story, by Rio Shimamoto, provides a counterpoint to the sexual anxiety running through the rest of the collection. Though its first-person, teenage narrator, like Komugi in "Milk," contemplates the imminent loss of her virginity, she desires sex because of her personal connection to her boyfriend. And the two stories about married women, "My Son's Lips" and "The Shadow of the Orchid," are the least tumultuous by far. Their domestically stable protagonists negotiate relationships to husbands and coworkers in the wake of the changing demands of motherhood.
Some stories in Inside read better than others: "Her Room" and "The Shadow of the Orchid" are quiet in tone and artfully plotted, while "Milk," though provocative, is often rambling. The narrator of "Fiesta," frustrated Desire residing in the body of an ugly woman, is engaging, easily the most distinctive voice in Inside.
Yet "Fiesta" reveals the bias of the collection: that an adult woman's single status is a plight in urgent need of remedy. The professional women in "Fiesta" and "The Unfertilized Egg" do not need husbands for their financial survival, but the thwarting of their sexual desire is devastating. Inside's teenage girls and married women lead psychologically complex lives, their insecurities mitigated by hope and curiosity, but the women heading toward a lonely middle age experience a relentless, crude anxiety. Still, though single women are presented as unmoored and pitiable, a disappointing-and familiar-portrayal, the roles of mother, wife, schoolgirl and newly independent young adult have been revised with excitement and sensitivity.
Sailaja Sastry is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
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