Out-of-Body Experience

Could it be that Japanese literature is experiencing a new literary golden age? The past few years saw the rise to fame of new voices in the vast ambit of Japanese literature. Whilst they have established their names in their own homelands, the translation of their works into English have helped raise more interest in their works. This led to renewed interest into their earlier works. This is the case for Yōko Ogawa’s 1994 novel Hisoyaka na Kesshō which was translated into English in 2020 as The Memory Police following the successful translation of her more recent works. The Memory Police was even shortlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize and helped further establish Ogawa’s status as a literary star on the rise.

The same can be said with Sayaka Murata. Murata made a sensational entrance to the literary world when her debut novel, Junyu (Breastfeeding, 2003) won Gunzo Prize for new writers. She also won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2016 with her tenth novel, Konbini ningen. The translated version, Convenience Store Woman published in 2018, garnered Murata an even greater audience. It did not take long for another of her novels to be translated in English. Published in 2018, Chikyu Seijin was Murata’s eleventh and most recent novel. Two years later Chikyu Seijin was translated into Earthlings, becoming Murata’s second novel to be published in English.

At the heart of Earthlings is Natsuki, who was also the novel’s primary narrator. She begins her story with several seminal experiences from her childhood which helped shape who she is in the present. The younger of two daughters, Natsuki was never favored and was often overlooked by her parents who ostentatiously doted on their older daughter. Her mother constantly berated her, and at times, physically abused her, while her older sister bossed her around. The taciturn patriarch, on the other hand, rarely offered any objections. In a family of four, Natsuki was an outcast and worse, she it was inculcated into her system at a young age: “The person who had given birth to me said I was a dead loss, so I decided it really must be true.”

“So what? Adults are expected to turn a blind eye to anything abnormal, aren’t they? That’s the way it is. Why so virtuous now? You’re just a regular adult, after all. All you have to do is ignore it, just like any other regular adult.”

~ Sayaka Murata, Earthlings

With the treatment she received from her own family, Natsuki started to disconnect herself from the physical world. She found comfort and company in a plush toy hedgehog she called Piyyut. Her ability to interact with Piyyut made her believe that she was not of this earth, that she was an alien from a planet called Popinpobopia. Piyyut was also from the same planet and was tasked to help Natsuki in her special mission of saving the Earth. It then piques the reader’s mind, and it becomes fitting to ask the question: what exactly are Popinpobopians saving the Earth from? Presented in this linear manner of questioning, the story related in the ensuing pages started to make sense.

To find the answer to the question, it is important to sift through Natsuki’s experience, especially when she was younger. Apart from believing that she was an alien, Natsuki was your typical young girl who enjoyed the outdoors. She always looked forward to the holidays so that they can visit her grandparents in the countryside of Akishina, Nagano. Soaking in the company of her extended family, it was one of the rare instances she felt she belonged. She had one more motivation to look forward to these visits – her cousin Yuu approached her and admitted that he was an alien, possibly from Popinpobopia as well. In each other, they found allies but fate would intercede and the narrative would take a darker turn.

Earthlings underscored several timely subjects with particular emphasis on the pressures contemporary society deals on everyone. The tackling of this subject was complimented by Murata’s treatment of Natsuki; she was treated not as a child or a minor, but as an adult. At a young age, she already possessed a deep discernment of what her role in society was going to be once she grows up. “Factory” was a term ubiquitous in the narrative and was an allegory for society in general. In one passage, Natsuki described her realization after a sex education class in fifth grade: My womb was a factory component and would couple with someone’s testes which were also a factory component, in order to produce babies.

With this growing awareness, Natsuki increasingly detached herself from society. She carried on her her rejection of society until she became an adult. However, to appease everyone, she made concessions but still to her satisfaction. After the constant prodding of her family, she managed to find a husband who rejected the factory and its capitalist philosophies. Tomoya was Natsuki’s mirror image. He fervently refused to be absorbed by the factory but also received the same pressure that Natsuki received from her parents. In a way, Natsuki and Tomoya were the perfect pair and as husband and wife.

Both Mom and my sister kept going on and on about how wonderful motherhood was, as if it were some kind of religion. I was still hoping to be brainwashed. But repeating “motherhood is wonderful” over and over like a Buddhist chant was hardly going to be enough to brainwash me on its own. It just made me feel uncomfortable.

~ Sayaka Murata, Earthlings

Natsuki and Tomoya’s refusal to conform to the expectations of society were also palpable in their marriage. They lived totally independent lives and were sleeping in separate rooms. There were also no indications that they have consummated their marriage, a fact that was underlined when divorce was suggested. Despite these, they were united by their dream of going home to Popinpobopia. Society’s pressures, however, did not end with their marriage as the couple was constantly reminded of their role in the Baby Factory. Natsuki was often confronted by her mother, sister and friend about the beauty of motherhood. “Both Mom and my sister kept going on and on about how wonderful motherhood was, as if it were some kind of religion. I was still hoping to be brainwashed. But repeating “motherhood is wonderful” over and over like a Buddhist chant was hardly going to be enough to brainwash me on its own.”

The Japanese actually have a term for the social detachment exhibited by Natsuki and Tomoya. Hikikomori is used to describe total social withdrawal and those who seek total isolation from society. This reclusive behavior was underscored in the latter parts of the narrative. Unexpectedly, Tomoya was fascinated by Akishina, a place that Natsuki has not visited in twenty-three years. After spending a couple of days in Akishina, with Yuu, Tomoya was convinced that it was the perfect place for them – Tomoya, Yuu, and Natsuki – to wait to be saved by their fellow Popinpobopians. Since the Earthlings refuse to understand them, what better way to live than in isolation, away from the factory and its pressures.

It is at this point that the trigger warnings must be underlined. There are parts of the novel that are graphic, too vivid it can turn the stomach upside down. Abuses, in all its forms, was abound in the novel. In one scene, the readers were given the minutiae of how a male teacher, admired by everyone for his unimpeachable disposition, forced his student to give him a “BJ”. As the readers suffer from the bile taste with the victim, what ensued was even more appalling. The traumatized victim reported what happened to her parents but her claims were dismissed. After all, what credibility does a child with a wild imagination have over a man of “high morals”. This echoes the current reality sexual abuse victims face. It is no wonder that most victims choose suffer in their silence rather than hear demeaning words from others.

There were also vivid descriptions of murder and instances of incest. Incest, at one point, was portrayed as a means of piercing the veil that shrouds the eyes from seeing the “real world”. These all require trigger warning but the most graphic part of the novel was its intricate details of cannibalism. It was not, simply, for the faint of heart. Seen on a different light, the incest and cannibalism are extreme metaphors to underscore the desires to negate the demands and expectations of society. It was an extremely graphic portrayal of achieving liberation for the physical and mental body. After all, society’s established formula for happiness and contentment rarely works.

“After my mother died, I obeyed the voices of my college professors and other adults around me. When I went to work for the company, I obeyed the company voices. I lived my life unthinkingly obeying orders. When out of the blue I was told the company was virtually bankrupt and was being bought out, I did what the company wanted and resigned. But ever since then I’ve stopped hearing the commands that controlled my life. I no longer know what to do or how to live. Obeying those silent orders was how I had always survived.”

~ Sayaka Murata, Earthlings

Beyond the gory details, an interesting facet of the narrative was Natsuki. At a young age, she exhibited an astuteness that made her seem more adult than child. She was also a keen observant of her environment. With the circumstances surrounding her childhood, it was not difficult to discern why she matured ahead of her peers. The narrative, however, jumped from when Natsuki was eleven to when she was already 34-years-old, skipping the important formative years. Despite the absence of two decades, nothing seems to have changed. Natsuki, frozen in time, was still driven by her belief that she was an alien. This can also be attributed to her traumatic childhood but her development, or lack of it, is the antithesis of a Bildungsroman.

Earthlings was an eccentric take on the pressures society place on both men and women. Through the story of Natsuki, Murata offered her readers an out-of-body experience that is unique but can shock one to the core. The lyrical and descriptive quality of Murata’s writing delivered, complimenting her prose and storytelling. She slowly but masterfully reeled the readers in while raising seminal, albeit dark and complex, subjects such as victim blaming, body autonomy, and sexual and child abuse, to more extreme subjects such as social isolation and reclusive existence. However, it is not a story that will suit everyone’s taste. Murata was well on her way towards a meaningful and insightful discourse before careening towards horror, bordering on the gory. With its frenzied climax, Earthlings was a bizarre and disarming read that requires the reader’s tolerance.

“Yes, but I want to be the one who decides how to use my own body. I was never any good at handling freedom, but now for the first time I feel that if I am really free then that’s what I want to do.

~ Sayaka Murata, Earthlings
Ratings

64%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 18%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%

There certainly a noticeable increase in the numbers of Japanese works finding themselves in the international market; or I might have not really noticed it. What is interesting is that they are mostly female writers such as Mieko Kawakami, Hiromi Kawakami, and Hiro Arikawa. The latest name to pique my interest was Sayaka Murata whose novel, Convenience Store Woman, has become ubiquitous recently. About the same time, Murata’s second translated work, Earthlings was published and was also generating the same level of interest as its predecessor. A fellow book blogger’s concise assessment of Earthlings particularly took my interest and was the catalyst in my reading it first over Convenience Store Woman. Indeed, the novel did give me several WTF moments even though I was prepared for them. Whilst I realize the importance of Murata’s not-so-subtle messages, I can’t help but think that the shock factors were unnecessary. Earthlings was a unique, and thought-provoking albeit graphic exploration of body autonomy, and going against society’s suffocating norms.

Book Specs

Author: Sayaka Murata
Translators: (From Japanese) Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Grove Press
Publishing Date: October 2020
Number of Pages: 247
Genre: Literary Fiction, Bildungsroman

Synopsis

From the beloved author of cult sensation Convenience Store Woman, which has not sold more than one million copies worldwide and has been translated into thirty-three languages, comes a spellbinding and otherworldly novel about a woman who believes she is an alien.

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman was one of the most unusual and refreshing bestsellers of recent years, depicting the life of a thirty-six-year-old clerk in a Tokyo convenience store. Now, in Earthlings, Sayaka Murata pushes at the boundaries of our ideas of social conformity in this brilliantly imaginative, intense, and absolutely unforgettable novel.

As a child, Natsuki doesn’t fit in with her family. Her parents favor her sister, and her best friend is a plush toy hedgehog named Piyyut, who talks to her. He tells her that he has come from the planet Popinpobopia on a special quest to help her save the Earth. One summer, on vacation with her family and her cousin Yuu in her grandparents’ ramshackle wooden house in the mountains of Nagano, Natsuki decides that she must be an alien, which would explain why she can’t seem to fit in like everyone else. Later, as a grown woman, living a quiet life with her asexual husband, Natsuki is still pursued by dark shadows from her childhood, and decides to flee the “Baby Factory” of society for good, searching for answers about the vast and frightening mysteries of the universe – answers only Natsuki has the power to uncover.

Dreamlike, sometimes shocking, and always strange and wonderful, Earthlings asks what it means to be happy in a stifling world, and cements Sayaka Murata’s status as a master chronicles of the outsider experience and our own uncanny universe.

About the Author

Murata Sayaka was born on August 14, 1979 in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, Japan.

Murata’s interest literature was cultivated at a young age. She often read science fiction and mystery novels borrowed from her brother and mother. Her family moved to Tokyo after she completed middle school. She graduated from Kashiwa High School and later on attended Tamagawa University. During her fourth grade in elementary, Murata attempted to writer her first novel. She would realize that dream in 2003 when her first novel, Junyu (Breastfeeding) was published. It was an instant literary success that earned Murata the Gunzo Prize for new writers, her first of several accolades.

Her succeeding works would also usher in more success. Her second novel, Gin iro no uta (Silver Song, 2009) was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize and won the Noma Literary New Face Prize. Two more of her works were nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize – Hoshi ga sū mizu (Water for the Stars, 2010) in 2010 and Tadaima tobira (2012) in 2012. She finally made a breakthrough in 2013 when Shiro-iro no machi no, sono hone no taion no (Of Bones, Of Body Heat, Of Whitening City, 2012) finally won the Mishima Yukio Prize. In 2016, she received her biggest literary recognition when her tenth novel, Konbini ningen (Convenience Store Person, 2016) won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. With over 1.5 million in sales, Konbini ningen was a catalyst in Murata being listed by Vogue Japan as one of its Women of the Year. In 2018, Konbini ningen was published as Convenience Store Woman, Murata’s first work to be translated into English. Her latest work was Chikyu Seijin (Earthlings, 2018).

Murata has also published short stories that were published in prominent magazines. Interestingly, while pursuing her literary career, Murata was working part-time as a convenience store clerk.