A year ago in Tokyo, two Japanese films achieved great success with a public consisting largely of young girls and homosexuals. This was because they had a common theme. Both films were about young women forming relationships with gay couples. One was called Okoge, meaning fag hag; the other was entitled Kira Kira Hikaru, which might be translated as Shining Brightly. In Okoge, directed by Nakajima Takehiro, a spirited young woman called Sayoko offers her bedroom to a male couple she has befriended at the beach. While the men make love upstairs, she crawls into her futon in the living room, and leafs through a book of Frida Kahlo paintings. She can only enjoy the passion of her two “lovers” vicariously, but at least she is spared the oppressiveness of more conventional arrangements.
Kira Kira Hikaru, directed by Matsuoka Joji, is a less anarchic and more ambivalent film. The story revolves around an arranged middle-class marriage, which would be conventional enough were it not for the fact that the husband is gay and the wife is alcoholic. She wants her husband’s lover to join the ménage, but she would like to have a baby, too, to please her parents. She craves freedom, but becomes confused when she achieves it, a common enough dilemma, not only in Japan. The fascination with male homosexuality among young women is not unique to Japan either, but it is nonetheless a remarkable phenomenon.
Japan can easily give the impression of a country of fag hags. Comic books for young girls feature beautiful youths falling in love with aristocratic men, or androgynous rock stars. Japanese girls like David Bowie at his most camp. The film of E.M. Forster’s Maurice played to full houses, mostly of young girls. Luchino Visconti was a teen-age idol, as was his star, Helmut Berger. The most popular theater company for young girls is the all female Takarazuka, based in a dreamlike little spa near Osaka, with pink bridges and pink houses, and a large pink theater. One of the most popular Takarazuka roles—apart from Rhett Butler and Lieutenant Pinkerton—is that of a young woman at the court of Louis XVI, who grows up as a boy named Oscar. As a dashing military officer, Oscar falls in love with a Swedish aristocrat, who is already in love with Marie-Antoinette. But Oscar in turn is adored by her/his groom, who is unaware of his master’s female identity. The play is entitled Rose of Versailles.
All this would be camp, if it were knowing. But it is not. Young Japanese girls appear to find the pink bridges, the gay romances, the rock stars in drag, the girls dressed as boys who fall in love with other boys, beautiful. Akogare, romantic longing, is the term they use for this dream world, far removed from the demands of reality. What would be the highest of camp in another context can become cute in Japan, redolent of childhood. It is rather like the chosen name of the author under review. Banana is the kind of sobriquet that would suit a Brazilian drag artist. But the publicity photograph of Yoshimoto Banana, hugging her little puppy dog, is cuteness personified. The fact that her father is the most famous philosopher of the 1960s new left gives her name an extra air of incongruousness, as though there were a young German novelist called Banana Habermas.
Yoshimoto Banana’s extraordinary success—more than six million books were sold in two years, and she is still in her twenties—has made her so famous that the Japanese foreign ministry was handing out copies of her book to foreign visitors at the G-7 Summit in Tokyo. They may not realize what peculiar fantasies lurk behind Yoshimoto’s cute exterior.
Yoshimoto Banana’s stories are clearly related to the androgynous teen-age universe of Takarazuka and girls’ comics. The characters in Kitchen, a book of two short stories, include a transsexual father and a boy who dresses up in his dead girlfriend’s school uniform. Yet there is nothing overtly kinky about these transformations. In the first story, entitled “Kitchen,” a young girl called Mikage, who is left alone in the world after her grandmother dies, goes to live with Eriko, the transsexual, and his/her son, Yuichi. She more or less lives in their kitchen, cooking delicious food, trying to soothe her lonely heart. In a way, the kitchen is to Mikage what drag is to Eriko: a refuge from loneliness after the death of a loved one. Yuichi explains how his father became his mother:
“After my real mother died, Eriko quit her job, gathered me up, and asked herself, ‘What do I want to do now?’ What she decided was, ‘Become a woman.’ She knew she’d never love anybody else. She says that before she became a woman she was very shy.
In the second story, entitled “Moonlight Shadow,” Hiiragi’s taste for wearing his dead girlfriend’s clothes is equally matter-of-fact. And it, too, is an escape from loneliness. His girlfriend, Yumiko, died in a car crash, together with his brother Hitoshi. Hitoshi’s girlfriend is called Satsuki, and the story is told in her voice. She wants to know why Hiiragi insists on going around in Yumiko’s school uniform:
When I asked him if he wore it for sentimental reasons, he said that wasn’t it. “Things are just things, they can’t bring back the dead. It just makes me feel better.”
What cooking is to Mikage, jogging is to Satsuki. As Satsuki says: “His sailor outfit—my jogging. They served exactly the same purpose…. Neither recourse was anything more than a way of trying to lend some life to a shriveled spirit. It was a way to divert our minds, to kill time.”
The Italian scholar Giorgio Amitrano pointed out the connection with girls’ comics in his introduction to the German edition of Kitchen. He wrote that Yoshimoto’s stories, with their odd sexual disguises and morbid emotions, are not only like many Japanese girls’ comics, but also owe much to horror movies and the impressionistic style of Kawabata Yasunari’s novels. This is more weight than the book can possibly carry, but the point is well taken. For a fascination for horror and death is as much part of girls’ comics as the cuteness and androgynous fantasies.
The tone of Yoshimoto’s stories is strange, for it veers from childlike naiveté to flights of bizarre fancy, which is just like most Japanese comic books for teen-agers. Sometimes her prose is direct and simple, and sometimes it reads like a young girl’s diary, filled with poetic sadness: “Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness…”
Children often dream of flying out the window of their bedrooms, following some fairy or another, to a never-never land without parents, to a new family of children and freaks. Yoshimoto’s characters are a bit like the children in such tales—except that they are not children; they just dream like children. Instead of fathers and mothers, there are the surrogate fathers and brothers, dressed in women’s clothes.
But neither of her stories celebrates or even suggests new sexual possibilities, as one might assume. Indeed, sex, like real parents and siblings, is absent. Yuichi never becomes Mikage’s lover, and neither does Hiiragi in Satsuki’s case. Not sex but death permeates both tales: the death of Eriko, stabbed by a mad suitor; the death of Mikage’s grandmother; and the deaths of Satsuki’s boyfriend and Hiiragi’s girlfriend. Death, loss, the melancholy fleetingness of life, these are brooded over endlessly with the feverish sensibility of Victorian children’s tales. This is where Kitchen is both contemporary and very traditional—hence, perhaps, the perceived shades of Kawabata, who, incidentally, wrote some of his stories for an audience of young girls. But it is a pop version of Kawabata, as though The Izu Dancer, or Snow Country, were written for the Takarazuka theater.
The two most common phrases in classical Japanese literature, as well as in modern pop songs and in Yoshimoto’s book, are sadness (kanashimi), and nostalgia (natsukashisa). Translated into English, this can sound odd: “The sound of his voice made me want to weep with nostalgia.” Or: “Somewhere deep in my heart I felt I had known her long ago, and the reunion made me feel so nostalgic I wanted to weep tears of joy.” Weeping tears of nostalgia is not something one comes across often in Western literature. Not that the emotion doesn’t exist, but it is not usually so histrionically expressed; or rather, what sounds histrionic in English is perfectly ordinary in Japanese. Perhaps nostalgic isn’t even quite the right word for natsukashii, but I wouldn’t know of a better one.
Nostalgia is closely linked to that other key element of Japanese aesthetics: mono no aware, the sadness of things, lacrimae rerum. Sadness about the transience of life, is, in Japanese art, a thing of beauty. Again, like nostalgia, it is not easy to translate. But you find instances of it all through Yoshimoto’s book: “When I finished reading I carefully refolded the letter. The smell of Eriko’s favorite perfume tugged at my heart. This, too, will disappear after the letter is opened a few more times, I thought. That was hardest of all.”
Nostalgia is one reason why so much in Japanese art is about reliving the past, or fixing the flow of time, as in a haiku. The ghosts of the dead appear in Noh plays, rather as Christ did to his disciples after the crucifixion. Sometimes they return to torment or exact their revenge, and sometimes to liberate the living from being haunted by death. And sometimes just to say goodbye. In “Moonlight Shadow,” Satsuki sees her dead boyfriend for one last time, when he appears one night on a river bank: “My tears fell like rain; all I could do was stare at him. Hitoshi looked sadly back at me. I wished time could stop—but with the first rays of the rising sun everything slowly began to fade away.”
The beautiful sadness of things is linked to the Japanese cult of purity, of uncorrupted youth, of the cherry blossom in full bloom. It is the fleetingness of the cherry blossom’s life (about a week in Japan), and the speed at which decay and corruption spoil the pure beauty of a young boy or girl, that bring on the sense of exquisite sadness. Here is where classical Japanese aesthetics meets the world of Takarazuka, girls’ comics, and Yoshimoto’s stories. For in all these instances, there is a deep nostalgia for the purity of youth, before sex roles are clearly defined, before social hypocrisy corrupts, before the rot sets in. In Japanese fiction of the seventeeth and eigteenth century, homosexuality was often celebrated for this reason: boys’ love was considered to be purer than the heterosexual kind; it was uncontaminated by the demands of reproduction and other family duties.
Since family duties are (or at any rate were) particularly onerous in Japan and the sexes so rigidly defined, it is no wonder that young girls so often long to stop time, and retreat into a fantasy world of purity, androgyny, and prepubescence. Yet, of course, women have written about sexual love. Lady Murasaki wrote about little else in her Tale of Genji. But even she, who still enjoyed a high status in the rarefied sphere of the Heian court, was filled with sadness: she pined, she longed, she was nostalgic. Since then the status of Japanese women steadily declined and women’s stories, whether written by women or men, became sadder and sadder. Love so often ended in tragedy, because there was no room in Japanese society for love. Marriage had nothing to do with romantic love. And women who loved outside the home, in fiction and in fact, overstepped their social borders, and their passion had to end in death. Sex, in the fiction of the Edo period (1603–1867), was almost entirely confined to the licensed quarters. But only men wrote about this floating world of paid love. Ihara Saikaku’s The life of an Amorous Woman (1686) is one of the masterpieces of this genre. Women, being confined to the brothel or the home, hardly wrote anything at all. They were the sacrificial victims of love in the male imagination, and often in reality too.
Love, wrote Tanizaki Junichiro in 1932, was liberated for the Japanese by European literature. He meant that romantic love in modern Japan had become a serious subject, not an excuse for dramatic suicide. Before there was only sex, with prostitutes, actors, boys; now sexual love would strike a blow for individual freedom. Women writers took up this theme too. But it is interesting that one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the early modern period (and indeed of modern Japanese literature tout court) should still be so traditional, in content and in form. It is a novella, entitled Growing Up, written by Higuchi Ichiyo and published in 1895. It is the story of a young girl growing up in a licensed quarter of Tokyo. What makes her sexual awakening, her growing up, so sad is that we know how she will end up, in the brothel with her elder sister. Freedom, as this story shows, belongs to the child. The loss of innocence means bondage not freedom. To become a woman is to enter the prison that society has provided, in this case a whorehouse, but it could just as well have been the home.
Things have changed since 1896, to be sure. Japanese women have more freedom than ever before. One of the most remarkable statistics of modern Japan is that since a few years ago, more women than men initiated divorce proceedings. (In Higuchi Ichiyo’s time, a woman did not even have the right to ask for a divorce.) And yet, as far as sexual love is concerned, things have not changed as much as it may seem. For the alternative to pure sex is still very often a sad nostalgia for lost innocence.
What has changed is that the description of sex, from a predatory point of view, is no longer a male preserve. A young woman writer called Yamada Emi made her reputation by writing novels about working as a dominatrix in an SM club, and her passion for black men. In Bedtime Eyes, she describes her lover, a black GI, as a sweating sex object. His character is as flat and featureless as the courtesans in pornographic wood block prints of the Edo period. Foreigners, and especially black men, have taken the place of prostitutes in the Japanese erotic imagination. A recent nonfiction best seller, entitled Yellow Cab, by Ieda Shoko, featured examples of wild sexual adventures enjoyed by Japanese women visiting New York. This is not the love that Tanizaki talked about. But at least it is women doing all the talking.
Sex with foreigners, in fantasy or in fact, is a long way from the pink dreams of innocent gender-bending. And yet there is a connection. Just as the licensed quarters were a traditional escape for men from the duties of family life, sexual adventurism overseas has become a modern escape for many independent women. Marriage for most Japanese women is still a social trap, commonly known as “the graveyard of life.” It means the end of a career, of economic independence. And since heterosexual love in Japan usually means marriage, an increasing number of career women are stuck with celibacy, with or without trips abroad.
The alternative is of course the sexless intimacy of the fag hag and her chosen friends. The heroines of Yoshimoto’s fiction are not exactly fag hags, nor are they innocent. Mikage and Satsuki are young women. But grownup sexual relationships are still beyond their grasp. Instead, in the security of their private kitchens, they dream nostalgic dreams, and shed melancholy tears about the passing of time. This is the stuff of great Japanese poetry, and absolute kitsch. Yoshimoto Banana is not yet a mistress of poetry, but she is a past master of kitsch.