Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Goddess Chronicle

(July 2015)

As I write this it’s mere hours after the Nadeshiko have been rather freakishly drubbed in the World Cup final, so it’s fitting that we return once again to the subject of gender relations in Japan, and especially so that we do it in consideration of a book whose notionally feminist message I am decidedly ambivalent about.

I’m ambivalent about the book as a whole, to be honest. The Canongate Myths series is billed as reimaginings of various myths (the clue’s in the name, really), and Kirino seems to have interpreted this brief fairly literally. The second quarter of The Goddess Chronicle amounts to a Greek-style chorus relating the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki pretty much blow-for-blow, and as with any creation myth there’s a fuckton of begatting and proper nouns and repetition and it’s all quite dull. If even your characters are getting bored of it then no amount of lampshading after the fact will help gloss things over:

Hieda no Are looked up at her and released a long sigh. For the first time she noticed that her monologue had put Izanami in a bad mood.

Her and me both. This is made worse because it follows an opening which is as promising as it is frustrating. Namima is our notional narrator, a priestess of Izanami, and already dead. The book opens with a recounting of her life and early death in the furthest and poorest of what I assume to be the Ryukyu Islands. She’s initially engaging (though never really develops beyond this), but because we know her death is immediately pending, the plot point whereby she must deliver food to her priestess sister—but never open the basket!—blows past the usual Bluebeard, don’t-open-that-door tale of temptation and redemption, into a grating holding pattern where we mostly circle aimlessly while anticipating the inevitable. What could possibly happen next? Though in fairness, and at the risk of some possibly unwarranted mythical cross-pollination, the fact that it’s Namima’s boyfriend who persuades her to eat the forbidden fruit is a nifty reversal of the roles in the Abrahamic creation story.

Sadly this is pretty much the only truly imaginative engagement with gender in the book, and it may well be one I’m reading into it by myself. This is not a book which embraces the fluidities of gender construction, with its constant (and frequently tedious) banging on about the inherent duality of existence and yin and yang and day and night and lightness and dark and death and life and sun and moon and Jets and Sharks and blue-and-black and white-and-gold. It’s resolutely binary, is what I’m saying, and these binaries seem to me (a straight, white, middle-class Englishman, so caveats obviously abound), to reinforce the notions behind Japan’s suffocating misogyny, not challenge them.

Here we shall digress slightly for an anecdote, which I may have told before, so forgive me. This is my second stint in Japan, and it began with a job interview back home. My interviewer was obviously used to interviewees with no first-hand experience of the country, and had a checklist of questions she was working through in order to see how people would deal with what we might charitably call culture shock. One of these was about ‘perceived’ Japanese sexism, and was posed by way of a flimsy but apparently sincere apologia in which she explained that actually, because wives traditionally controlled the household finances and husbands had to hand over their wages and request an allowance, it wasn’t a sexist society at all, you see! I deflected the question by wittering on about my former supervisor’s penchant for pachinko and his grumbles at the end of the month when his wife wouldn’t give him any more money for it, because I wanted the visa job and you generally don’t get one by pointing out that your interviewer is talking bullshit.

There are of course any number of ways in which this argument is bullshit, but what we’ll focus on here is how it elides women with wives, and the way in which it limits their ‘power’ to the private, household sphere of home and family, while men get to stride the world in public, striking deals and doing great deeds. The second half of The Goddess Chronicle jarringly switches focus to the earthly incarnation of Izanaki, Izanami’s husband (and brother; you know what gods are like), as he criss-crosses Japan fucking any women with a pulse and foisting his babies upon them. He does this not because he likes getting his dick wet, oh no, but because when he abandoned Izanami in the underworld (gods are like arseholes, in case you were wondering) she cursed him by promising to kill one thousand people daily, and he countered by promising to make sure fifteen hundred babies are born every day. He appears to be interpreting this promise as a personal challenge, so while Izanami remains confined to the underworld, keeping the hell-fires burning and contenting herself with wreaking petty revenge and spoiling her husband’s fun—she kills his lovers preferentially—Izanaki gets free rein in the outside world. Furthermore, Izanami’s ‘power’, such as it is, comes as a direct result of her husband’s actions. Ringing any bells there?

So far so standard; creation myths are rarely the most egalitarian of tales. But this is a reimagining, not simply a retelling, so where does Kirino take us from here? On the one hand, she’s very (very) determined to point out the inherent unfairness of Izanami and Namima’s situation: both fated to live subservient lives due to their gender. This is good and necessary. But on the other she presents us a world in which characters are, well… fated to live in certain ways due to their gender. While social structures which leave women disproportionally grasping the shitty end of the stick get roundly and deservedly clobbered, the determinism presumed to be driving the underlying gender paradigm goes entirely uncritiqued: fate is determined by biological sex, and gender roles are irrevocable, for all that Namima and (somewhat surprisingly) Izanaki make equivocal attempts to cheat theirs.

Both Izanami and Namima are betrayed by the men in their lives, and both ultimately take revenge on them by causing their deaths. However, thus freed from the weight of social, gendered, and spousal obligation, the book ends with both women choosing to just keep on doing what they were doing anyway, but now with added spite. Izanami continues killing one thousand random people every day, and Namima remains her even more devoted servant. This would explain Japan’s shrinking population, at least, but provides a very uncomfortable answer to the question, “What would these women change if they didn’t have to submit to the patriarchy?” It turns out they wouldn’t change a thing.

While I don’t think this book was intended to provide any easy answers (though there’s so much blunt, repetitive philosophizing that it can’t be accused of over-estimating the reader’s intelligence, either), I can’t help but feel that all it offers is a slightly chilling reinforcement of the status quo; a reaffirmation of the power of learned helplessness. Don’t cross the woman, bruh; bitch be crazy and she burn your shit down.


  1. So I am behind on reading your (and others') blog(s), so a bit of binge reading to catch up. This reminds me of your reaction to The Cage of Zeus (I think it was), with its inability to break beyond the binary and inevitability of gender.

    A sign of deeper problems within Japan maybe? Or are there actual feminists out there?

    1. Talking of being behind...

      Yep, CoZ was definitely in my mind as I was reading this, and I think that both you and I know that the problems in Japan run very deep indeed. That said, I do wonder how much the word 'feminist' gets used as just a marketing tool, and then we start wondering down paths marked "Intersectionality," First Wave," "Second Wave," and so on and I get lost and start hyperventilating a little.