Review: Sally Breenon Sayaka Murata

Of Darkness and Stars

Japanese author Sayaka Murata erupted onto the world stage in 2016 with the release of Convenience Store Woman, a novel which sold over a 1.4 million copies. As is often the case with non-Western authors who achieve sudden global recognition, the depth and breadth of her oeuvre was downplayed in favour of a narrative of overnight success. Easier to sell the story of an unknown author who has walked out of a vacuum and just begun, but this is not the case. Sayaka Murata published her first book Breastfeeding in 2003, has published eleven novels in Japanese since then and won all of Japan’s major literary awards. But until recently only two of her novels had been translated into English. Muraka herself worked in a convenience store throughout her literary career and would have continued to do so but was forced to quit when she was stalked by a crazed fan. In an interview with The Guardian in 2020, she said she had become attuned to the rhythm of working and ‘found it hard to sit around all day writing.’ In the pictures that accompany the article her expression is blank, something I find curious. In nearly all the other available images of her online she is animated, smiling, cheeky. It’s as if The Guardian wanted to project a particular stereotype of a demure Japanese woman, even though she’s known for work which openly satirises patriarchal systems and attitudes, particularly the reduction of people to ‘nesters’ and breeders.

Muraka’s attitude towards sexuality is also manifest in thematics ranging from asexuality, celibacy, vivid adolescent sex, self-love and sex with objects and entities (she once wrote a story about a woman having sex with a convenience store). I get the impression that many contemporary Western critics don’t quite know how to read her. General readers too – if the extreme love-hate reactions to Earthlings online are anything to go by. This is because many readers are attempting to interpret her ‘oddball’ fiction with little to no understanding of Japanese literary traditions. While Convenience Store Woman was ‘quirky’ many Western readers in online forums such as Goodreads find the overt darkness in Earthlings ‘offensive’. When Murata says many of those who liked Convenience Store Woman don’t like Earthlings she’s right. They don’t like it because they’re not familiar with her history as a writer or the stylistics of Japanese fiction – principally the symbiotic interplay between light and dark. ‘I was a cult writer before that success. People are saying the old Murata has returned.’

We first meet Natsuki, the narrator of Earthlings, as an elementary school girl in a car with her family on a winding climb into the mountains en route to Akishina, an otherworldly old-world space where her grandparents live, far from the high-tech glitz of Tokyo, largely undeveloped and untouched, ‘where fragments of night linger even after midday.’ The steep roads and bends are nausea-inducing, especially for Natsuki’s sister Kise, indulged and fawned over by their mother—much to Natsuki’s disdain. The opening lines of the novel are portentous and deceptively simple:

I gazed out the window at the swaying trees, at the undersides of the leaves so swollen they looked as though they would burst. That was where the pitch-black darkness was. I always felt an urge to reach out into that blackness, the colour of outer space.

This desire to grasp hold of the deep dark is a cultural tendency celebrated to beautiful effect by Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki in his essay In Praise of Shadows (1977). Tanizaki takes us through Japanese preferences for cloudy patinas and muted light, moving between jade stone, lacquered tableware, lanterns and the rich textual qualities of Japanese paper. He suggests that the ‘mysteries of the Orient of which Westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of … dark spaces’ alcoves in Japanese rooms which make sensitive use of shadows and light. A similar interplay defines Earthlings.

In the opening pages of Earthlings we learn quickly that Nasuki is a strange but extremely strong girl, in obsessive love with her cousin Yuu, drawn to wild imaginings and the potentially potent forces of magic, not because she’s silly or unintelligent but because she is routinely ignored and abused, by her family and by other ‘grown ups’ into whose care she is entrusted.

When Natsuki tells us that Piyyut, the soft toy or Kuwaii hanging off her backpack is the alien god of Popinpobopia – a distant planet in another solar system – it does seem rather absurd but plausible enough. The worship directed toward ‘all things cute!’ in Japanese popular culture elevated to cult superpower, and in this case, alien status. But Popinpobopia is just the beginning. Murata’s stretching of the writer-reader contract is remarkable. Yuu, another outsider in this extended Japanese family, is convinced he’s an alien because his mother told him so; he worries he’ll never be in the right place at the right time to find the spaceship that dropped him here to take him home. Both kids suffer under the weight of maternal abuse and neglect which draws them towards fantasy and each other.

A year later, Natsuki and Yuu, now twelve years old, have awkward sex on the sacred grounds of their ancestors on another holiday visit to Akishina. It is a strange and tender scene, and an early indication of authorial fearlessness:

Yuu seemed to be drowning inside me. Transparent saliva dripped from his wide open mouth. I touched the water falling from him. Ever since I was born I had wanted to come here I thought. I had reached a place that was not Akishina or that white town where I lived or inside a spaceship, but much farther away. Relief was winning out over pain. Our organs were blending together and making the sounds of water. In our bellies we were quietly eating each other’s body heat.

When the pair are discovered, the adults banish them. Adults who have failed to protect Natsuki from other adults. When Natsuki builds up the courage to finally speak to her mother about her teacher Mr Igasaki’s escalating manipulation and sexual abuse – her mother beats her and accuses her of being the ‘dirty one’. This divide between the adult world and that of children, where a child’s safety or individualism might be sacrificed for saving face, stands in for the divide between conservatism and rebellion at the macro level – a defining trope in Murata’s work ‘The grown-ups who did what society wanted of them were shaken by those of us who did not. The grown-ups had become anesthetised and seemed unable to remember what life had been like before. They all seemed to be under some kind of spell.’ The family enact a plan seeking to separate her and Yuu forever and the visits to Akishina stop. And so Natsuki and Yuu make a pact, ‘survive no matter what’ and this promise will resurface again and again, defining the narrative intent of the book. Like Convenience Store Woman this is a novel about characters trying to wriggle out from underneath the pressure of other people’s expectations of them, from their control, a pervasive and profound alienation and when that pressure bursts the consequences are huge.

When Natsuki returns to the long flat streets and identical, uninspiring developments of outer Tokyo she is shamed and locked up in her room, separated from and dreaming of her alien lover, until finally, she escapes in the middle of the night and gets her murderous revenge on Mr Igasaki. Spurred on by the voice of Piyyut, Natsuki believes she must kill the wicked witch that inhabits him before the witch kills her. This could be seen as a contemporary reimagining of the Japanese folk tradition of mono no ke where your spirit can leave your body while you are sleeping and perform all sorts of heinous acts. Mr Igasaki’s house turns pink and so do Natsuki’s hands, his body is a ‘blue lump’ and his blood ‘golden liquid’ spurting and spraying all over the room. It is a scene of such dramatic out-of-body violence that as a reader you seem to enter that state too – hovering over the book as it unfolds not quite trusting where it might take you.

I’ve thrown a few books against walls but not many have thrown me physically – as in my body squirming or bolting up from the bed, a feeling of disappearing. It happened when I read American Psycho and it happened in the intensely violent sections of Earthlings. You get body-shocked, caught in this wrenching moment where part of you understands that maybe all this mayhem is a metaphor – you can sense the wry smile rippling underneath – but you’re still writhing as the violence unfolds in a surreal and stylised way. The comparison between Earthlings and American Psycho is pertinent here despite the cultural differences. Narrative representations of highly performative violence might be atypical in Western literature but they are not uncommon in Japanese culture. American Psycho, which Easton Ellis intended as satire, came wrapped in plastic in Australia, as if the mere sight of the words would be enough to corrupt impressionable minds.

In Japan, extreme forms of abuse and violence erupt in artistic expression all the time, in literature, film, theatre, anime and manga in part because they are the inverse of a Japanese sensibility which prizes self-effacement and deplores exhibitionism and because unfettered and unregulated artistic expression is prized in ways which are very different to the cancel culture climate gaining momentum in the West. In 2009 the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Sexual Violence Against Women urged the Japanese government ‘to ban the sale of video games or cartoons involving rape and sexual violence against women.’ By 2020 the pressure was peaking with some suggesting the continuing capture of global market share by both artforms is driving a need to control it. When Love Hina creator Ken Akamatsu was asked by his government what measures where needed for Japanese Manga to survive in the world he announced , ‘First and foremost freedom of expression, compared to other countries Japan’s forte is its freedom of creativity. However, with foreign platforms becoming more and more dominant I would like to avoid a situation where Japanese artworks are regulated by foreign standards.’

Yukio Mishima, three times nominated for the Nobel Prize and the most successful writer of his generation, also prized freedom of expression and understood the importance of the dynamic interplay between death and beauty, poetry and blood, light and dark, so central to it. In footage featured in the 1985 BBC documentary, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima he said:

You can easily find two contradictory aspects of Japanese cultures or Japanese characters, one is elegance, one is brutality. But these two characteristics are very tightly combined sometimes. Our brutality I think comes from our emotion, it is never mechanised or systematised like Nazi’s brutality. I think the brutality might come from our feminine aspect and elegance comes from our nervous side. Sometimes we are too sensitive about refinement, elegance or a sense of beauty, and sometimes we get tired of it. We need sometimes a sudden explosion to make us free from it. For instance, after the war our brutal side was completely hidden but I believe it was just hidden … we still have a strong warrior mind.

Mishima, who claimed Samurai ancestry, took his own life by committing harakiri in the main military base of Tokyo in 1970 in a violent ritualistic act the motivations of which continue to be hotly debated and variously interpreted today. Politics or performance? Psychosis or a work a work of art? Most likely it was a combination, a fusion of these things. In the west we say the pen is mightier than the sword. In Japan the Samurai warriors were guided by an ancient phrase bun bu ryo do: ‘the pen and sword in accord’. The slight variation in perspective is profoundly instructive.

When we meet Natsuki again she is in her thirties and living an asexual life with her husband Tomoya. She has made a sacred pact with him too, to construct the appearance of a normal life in order to ward off the constant surveillance and pressure exerted on them by their families, to dodge the unquestioning conformity that in Muraka’s vision, defines contemporary Japanese life. Natsuki and Tomoya are outsider ‘aliens’ caught in foreign territory, chameleons learning how to imitate the ‘Earthlings’ – their mannerisms, speech patterns, even texting styles to give the impression they have effectively assimilated:

My and my husband’s womb and testes were quietly kept under observation by the Factory. Anyone who didn’t manufacture new life – or wasn’t obviously trying to – came under gentle pressure. Couples that hadn’t manufactured new life had to demonstrate their contribution to the Factory through their work. My husband and I were living quietly in a corner of the Factory, keeping our heads down. Before I knew it, I had turned thirty-four and twenty-three years had passed since that night with Yuu. Even after all this time, I still wasn’t living my life so much as simply surviving.

We know a reckoning is coming – that Natsuki must reunite with Yuu and confront her violent and abusive past. As the families close in, particularly Natsuki’s manipulative and vindictive sister Kise, the pressure bursts. Tomoya is spiralling, having lost his job, the prospect of shaming his family and being held accountable for it, bearing down on him so heavily he becomes increasingly frantic and delusional. The couple devise a plan – to escape and return to Akishina where Yuu is now living.

And so, the final act of this circular narrative plays out where it began – in the family home, now decrepit and crumbling with its dusty tatami mats and attendant ghosts in the mountainous region of Negano, symbol of a simpler more agrarian life out of reach to all the characters in these mechanised and hyper-modern times.

Tomoya chooses to sleep in the silkworm room, as if this hibernation, in a room that has witnessed all those years of rebirth, the silkworm energies melded into the fabric of the walls, will have the power to transform or perhaps even erase him. The reunion with Yuu is a driving factor of the plot, a steal from romance narrative that has us wanting Natsuki’s longing for him either to be consummated or at least healed. But the denouement is not what we might expect. Yuu and Natsuki and Tomoya form a sexless but sensual triangle, wandering the house naked and listening to each other breathe, with Tomoya drawn inexorably into the pact to survive no matter what. They decide they will detach from the system, from society altogether. Enacting that promise however proves more and more difficult and when the illusions of freedom fall away and two different states of being come into play – Dark Time and Light Time, signifying night and day but also the aesthetic symbolism so pertinent to Japanese culture. What to readers in the West might look like the negative operation of a binary, here the light and the dark are not in opposition but sympatico. In Murata’s world something can be a marvel then quickly morph into an act of cannibalism. A forbidden finger in your mouth when you’re a child becomes the finger you bite and feed on as you do what it takes to survive – characters gnawing on each other quite literally, in the ultimate act of defiance.

Sexual abuse, child abuse, incest, murder, cannibalism, suicide – these are how the macro implications of Earthlings, that is, the false impressions of liberty in contemporary life, get played out. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. In Muraka’s literary world, art precedes politics and not the other way around. But perhaps precedes isn’t the right word, suggesting as it does the stretch of space between two things requiring contraction, or super glue, that the closure of the space between art and politics is inevitable. This novel doesn’t exist just to push a point or to negate a politic as Albert Camus suggested some books do in his essay ‘Create Dangerously’. Earthlings explores imaginative possibilities, and the unpredictability of Murata’s writing is one of her greatest strengths. Her work might not be seamless, there are times when the childlike narration is grating or sections when the deadpan expression falls flat but overall, it unnerves and delights. Murata won’t be hemmed in or packaged, and this will lose her some fans who might expect a re-delivery of Convenience Store Woman or a reduction to more acceptable positions. But this doesn’t appear to concern her. She’s never played to the crowd.

In an article Murata wrote for the New Yorker The Future of Sex Lives in All of Us, she attempts to get to the heart of her unique depictions of sex but her struggle with other people’s incomprehension could also stand in for the way she views literature. Murata writes that she felt pressured by an all-seeing eye, a god, an authority to have and see and write sex a certain way. To conform. And people had strong reactions to her characters having sex with the Earth or constructing worlds where sex didn’t exist at all. When people didn’t see themselves of their sexual preferences, habits and identities reflected they grew exasperated even though Murata’s imaginings weren’t real.

“Sayaka, you’re young, that’s why you’re writing this stuff. Once you experience true ecstasy, we’re sure you’ll stop writing this kind of story. You’re still young and ignorant,” a couple of Japanese women said to me in exasperation. Both of them were in their late 50s. “It’s appalling. You’re writing this kind of story, but what will you do if sex really does disappear from this world?” This was from a man. I’ve also had people say to me: “You’re writing these things because you’re bitter about the world, aren’t you?” or, “Did something happen to you when you were little?” That’s when I understood. Many people, in many ways, were scared. They wanted to be reassured, and so insisted on having stories they could understand about things that were impossible to understand. Behind the invisible command that had been tormenting me all this time stood anxious people fearful of change and unable to think, just like me. I realized that my childhood dream had, in a strange way, come true. I was already standing in the mysterious world I had once dreamed of, in which discoveries continue forever. I had been there from the beginning, but was distracted by illusory information and others’ preconceptions.

In many contemporary literary texts, the reader is made too obviously aware of how the front-line ideologies are being manipulated. The light is too bright. We can see everything. The artistry sacrificed at times for the machine, for a reduced function. And while visible mechanics on their own can be beautiful (a Ferrari sitting in a driveway is still a Ferrari even though it’s not moving or doing what it’s been designed to do) a lot of the time the effect is static, predetermined or over designed. It lacks surprise, a sense of shadow, light and imagination. I’d get in a shitty old Toyota with Murata and let her take me anywhere. This desire to continue heading into the deep dark was proposed to future writers by Tanizaki in In Praise of Shadows. Frustrated by his country’s relentless turning towards the West, exemplified by an insurgence of neon and electric light, he suggested literature might provide a refuge of sorts.

I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.

Murata and other Japanese writers of her generation have heeded this call. In Earthlings, just as she has done in much of her work, Murata turns her razor-eye on relentless patterns of conformity, familial despair, motherhood, ambition. If Convenience Store Woman had been written by someone else, we might have been subjected to a more predictable tale of corporate greed, exploitation and working-class grind, companies holding people down, the capitalist system chewing up characters and spitting them out. And of course, while this does happen in the real world what we get inside Murata’s fictional universe is the opposite, less literal and more imaginative, the convenience store being one of the few places where Miss Furukura can find solace, away from her family’s relentless expectations of her. Corporations aren’t the source of her discontent. For her, hell is other people – not the strangers who demand her services in the store to whom she is devoted but her family. The convenience store is an aquarium, where the light infuses Miss Furukura’s skin, the rhythms of the shop becoming her rhythms, the store-bought food she lives off entering her system, so she feels as if she is becoming the store, merging with it, like one might enter the mouth of a whale.

In a similar way the final scenes of Earthlings can be read as a communion, a merging of bodies and flesh and sensibility and spirit. This is the way I prefer to see it. Three outsiders finally liberated from their struggles in a restrictive earthly realm. They hold hands, standing shoulder to shoulder, bellies pregnant (even the men), as they step out of the dark alcoves, prepared to be bathed in light before they board their spaceship. Or they could already be dead having eaten each other alive. The point is the end is open to interpretation. In Earthlings Murata takes us to the outer reaches of our small universes and dangles us right off – as if we’re all just bug-eyed plushies hanging off a giant alien school bag, frightened by the arcane darkness but also excited about the endless possibilities it contains.