Thursday 15 June 2017

Red Girls

Kazuki Sakuraba, 2006 [Jocelyne Allen, 2015]
(June 2017)

Red Girls is a family saga, spanning sixty years in the town of Benimidori. It’s a company town, built around steelworks owned by the titular Akakuchibas, and we follow the family’s rise and, if not decline, then stagnation, as three generations of its women (and the town itself) exemplify the experiences of post-war Japan as a whole. This fictional community, it’s probably worth mentioning, is located on the very real, very provincial San’in coast of Chugoku, which is not so very far from where I live now.

The first section of the book focuses on Manyo, abandoned in Benimidori by a mysterious tribe of mountain people and raised by a family of factory workers. Manyo is clairvoyant, and repeatedly sees visions of a floating, one-eyed man, as well as of other more prosaic things like accidents, deaths, and economic crises. Following a perhaps not-so-chance encounter with the matriarch of the Akakuchiba’s, she marries their eldest son and eventually becomes the ‘madam’ of the clan herself. The second part shifts to Kemari, Manyo’s eldest daughter. As a teenager she’s a fully-fledged member of the sukeban subculture of the 1970s and 80s, terrorizing the region with her motorcycle gang of delinquent girls. Following the death of her older brother (and heir-presumptive to the steelworks), she ‘grows up’ at the height of the Bubble, marries a husband chosen by the family for his business acumen, and then works herself into an early grave as an obsessive artist for a weekly shojo manga series. The narrator of both these sections is Toko, Kemari’s daughter, and in the final third she tells us her story, which is that of the supposedly listless youth who came of age during the lost decades, and who lack the drive and fervor of their parents and grandparents to Make Japan Great Again.

It’s tempting to label this book as magical realism, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I certainly understand the urge to do so, however, the urge to account for the deftly light touch with which the fantastical is interwoven with the mundane: a hillside wind so strong it gradually strips away all the accoutrements of Manyo’s bridal cortège, until she ends up walking the final yards in a tattered dress; an impermanent grove of wild roses in a mountain valley containing the coffins of all Benimidori’s suicides; Kemari’s inability to even see her obsessive, man-stealing half-sister. It’s also, as with all the better examples of the mode, very well written; there’s a measured delicacy to the prose which means that, even at more than 450 pages, this book never feels over-long.

However, the magical realism label doesn’t really fit, and, as I’ll come to, assuming it does may negatively affect the reading experience. First, however, there’s the question of just how ‘magical’ it really is, or at least it’s supposed to be received as. Without wishing to disappear too deeply down the ‘Mystic East’ rabbit hole of bollocks, the paranormal (such as Manyo’s clairvoyance) seems to be fairly readily accepted as fact in Japan. I’ve any number of Japanese acquaintances who claim that they’ve seen ghosts, or are psychic, or can tell the future. Of course, I know a few such people in Britain, too, but in Japan these revelations are always presented as fairly mundane—tossed out casually, with none of the defensive or embarrassed edge that suggests disbelief as a default. Of course blood type affects personality. Of course some people know when they’re going to die. Of course Manyo receives a warning about the Oil Shock from her recently deceased father-in-law.

So if the magical is not so magical after all, that leaves us with what? Realism? Not quite, but it does serve to telegraph the allegorical nature of much of what happens here: If it’s not quite magic, and not quite real, then metaphor is really all that’s left. This brings me to the second point, which is that, for all Red Girls’ many admirable qualities (which include but are not limited to that elegant prose, the entrancing imagery, and the generally ambitious sweep of tone and tenor), throughout it all I read with mild yet nagging sense of irritation. Not a major annoyance, but persistent, like when you get an eyelash out of your eye but the itch continues anyway. I’m still not convinced I know exactly why I felt like this, but I think it’s to do with how the social history in the story is integrated and interrogated—or not.

I’m fully prepared to accept that this is a personal hobby horse, but I’m going to take it for another ride anyway. To briefly reiterate the basics: Every nation builds national myths about themselves, which often have a kernel of truth but fail to stand up to closer scrutiny. One of the biggest of Japan’s national myths is that of harmony, that its people are unified, of one mind and heart, etc, etc. That there is, to borrow a phrase, a hegemony of homogeneity. This attitude—Japan’s* uncritical acceptance (and often deliberate propagation) of what are, at best, broad stereotypes about itself being universally applicable to one and all—is one that gets frequently rehashed in Red Girls. All too often the main narrative will be interrupted by a sociocultural infodump presenting a media-identified trend (and we all know how reliable those are) as though it were a universally mandated law of the land, followed by a description of one of the characters as the embodiment of that trend: Kemari as juvenile delinquent and Toko as millennial freeter being just the two most obvious examples. These infodumps stand out all the more for being so bald and un-nuanced in comparison to what is an otherwise gracefully written book.

The final section does go some way towards the interrogation which is otherwise lacking elsewhere, as (in amongst some fairly repetitive commentary on how aimless and lacking in passion both she and her peers are) Toko investigates a shock deathbed confession from her grandmother. As a conceit for the reckoning Japan’s current youth must make with the choices of previous generations it’s pretty well done, but it doesn’t really do enough: by this point of the story the pattern’s been set and this belated attempt at inquiry and critique feels a little after-the-fact.

I should make it clear that, much as its particular manifestation here rubs me slightly the wrong way, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the device of characters personifying wider social shifts. I think my issue is, to return to the point, that it sits quite uneasily with what I’ve come to expect from other magical realist ‘growth of a nation’ type novels. Books like Midnight’s Children, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, and, most obviously, One Hundred Years of Solitude use their fantastical aspects to accentuate exactly how much fantasizing is involved in these communities, to heighten their liminality and explore the transitional, (and, indeed, transitory) nature of building a society and a nation. It’s also notable that all three of those novels are postcolonial works, and I’ve seen decent arguments made that magical realism is an inherently postcolonial mode. Red Girls begins in 1953, just after the end of the American occupation of Japan, adding to the anticipation that we’re going to get something recognizably in that vein here as well. But that’s not really what happens; despite the book having the word “legend” in the title, it is, for the most, not all that interested in the processes of national mythmaking, just in (re)telling the myths themselves.

Which, you might decide, is fair enough. It depends on what you want (or are expecting) from a book, and in general there’s a lot to like about Red Girls; what it does, it does very well, but that can sometimes serve to throw what it doesn’t do into sharper relief. If you’re after a well-told family melodrama, if you’re after a faintly ethereal, other-worldly intergenerational saga, hell, even if you’re after evocative broad-brush social history, then I’d have no hesitation in recommending this to you. If you want more than that, however, then be aware of what you’re getting: The surface imagery is undeniably captivating, but it’s a book that’s perfectly content to admire the play of light on the shallows without ever really striking out for deeper waters.

*I recognize the irony of using a singular metonym here.

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