Sunday, January 15, 2012

Yoshimoto Banana: There Is No Lid on the Sea (2003-2004)

This was serialized in the Yomiuri Shinbun in weekly installments from November 2003 to May 2004 as Umi no futa 海のふた, and the translation was serialized simultaneously in their English-language version, The Daily Yomiuri.  That’s a neat idea;  I don’t know if it’s ever been done before.  I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the newspaper novel, which I always read about in the context of Sōseki and other early writers, but we don’t have such a thing in my country, and so all I could do was imagine what it would be like to read one.  If you decide to hunt down microfilms of the Daily Yomiuri for 2003 and 2004, you can have that experience.  And since, surprisingly, Emmerich’s translation has never come out in book form, and (even more surprisingly) doesn’t seem to be floating around the web, that’s what you’ll have to do if you want to read this in English. 

It’s worth doing, if you can.  Not only is this in the top tier of her translated works, but it’s kind of fun to see the story unfolding in these regular, dated installments (with breaks that don’t always correspond to where she breaks the story in the Japanese book edition), surrounded by ads (some of which have an interesting accidental resonance with the story), and with all the illustrations intact.  Each installment came with a woodcut by NakaBokunen 名嘉睦稔 (unfortunately, microfilm reduces these to murky black and white – to see them in color you have to track down the Japanese original) – beautiful things, even if Bokunen seems to have swallowed Munakata Shikō’s style whole.

It’s about a girl named Mari who, fresh out of college in Tokyo, moves back to her small hometown in Izu and opens a snow-cone shop.  The town is dying, just like the coral in the sea, and Mari wants to do her tiny part to revitalize it.  Of course Banana is drawing a parallel here between economic decay and environmental, and it hits home, if you’ve ever been to one of these disintegrating beach towns.  On that level, too, the story works as an updating of Tsugumi, revisiting the beach-resort milieu twenty years on.

The other character is Hajime, a girl Mari’s age who comes to stay with Mari’s family for the summer (their mothers are friends).  Hajime’s grandmother, to whom she was very close, just died, and Hajime is here to both deal with her grief and escape the family debates about how to carve up her grandmother’s considerable estate.  Hajime also has terrible burns over half her face.  Here, too, there’s a parallel with Tsugumi:  here the disfigurement is physical rather than emotional. 

There’s very little plot, even for Banana.  Somewhat self-consciously, the novel takes the form of the quintessential Japanese summer coming-of-age story.  Lots of swimming, eating snow cones, walking on the beach, staring at sunsets, and thinking nostalgic thoughts.  No romance, though:  very late in the story a couple of boys are introduced, but they can’t hope to compete with the tight relationship Mari has with Hajime.  In fact in one passage the two of them agree that Mari is the man and Hajime is the woman in their relationship – emotionally, although not physically, they’re presented as a couple, and there’s a lot more dwelling on essentialized gender roles than usual here.

Partly that’s because Banana is intent here on creating an elemental world, in evoking Izu as a sort of Age of the Gods primeval paradise, on the edge of extinction, and in painting Hajime and Mari as unconscious shamanesses channeling this paradise.  It’s not as explicitly magical as Taguchi Randy’s work by any means, or even as Banana’s own Hardboiled and Hard Luck, but there’s definitely an overtone of worship here (enhanced by Bokunen’s luminous prints – Munakata’s folk-religion style is quite appropriate here).  In the end Hajime even goes into business making seashell fetishes – she’s starting her own religion, even if she doesn’t realize it.

The problem for me with this story is the nostalgia.  As in her other work from this period, Banana has settled on employing narrators/p.o.v. characters who are the age she was when she first started writing and found an audience of people her age.  Her experiment in letting her characters age with her and her initial audience seems to have ended, and she now (okay, this is ten years old:  but still) seems to be writing for girls, as a girl.  But Mari’s nostalgia is patently that of a 40-year-old, not a 22-year-old.  She describes events of her childhood with far too much distance – and far too many details describing actual changes in the world – for these things to have happened a mere seven or eight years ago.  On the other hand they make perfect sense as the observations of an author remembering things from twenty-five or thirty years ago. 

Of course nostalgia has always been a central theme of Banana’s, but as better analysts than me have pointed out, when she was young it was nostalgia for things she hadn’t experienced, or things that she was experiencing in the moment;  either way it wasn’t true nostalgia, if you will, but rather the anticipation of nostalgia.  Feeling the present moment so intensely that you can imagine a moment twenty years from now when you’ll look back on this moment with nostalgia:  a kind of vision of the future as radiated from the present moment.

Now she’s old enough to experience real nostalgia – that is, to look back on her life and realize that things really have changed, that modern society is working its ravages on the world in ways that she can bear witness to, rather than just imagine.  And those feelings inform this book in a powerful way – it contains some of her most evocative writing.  But the book is weakened by insisting that we imagine these views as proceeding from these characters.  Banana’s got hold of some good stuff here, but she can’t let go her schtick long enough to figure out exactly what to do with it.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I haven't read this, but I am interested in the idea of Izu as an "Age of the Gods"-type paradise. My image of the place (based on a few short visits and Kawabata's story, admittedly) is more of a Bakumatsu-through-early-Showa place: quiet, gloomy, reserved, but (=and therefore) comfortable. Which is totally different from the hot, glarey Age of the Gods, when the emotions were as vivid and unconcealed as the scenery.

(Maybe this describes the inland part better. The closest I've gotten to eye contact with the ocean down there is, like, Yui.)