In 1948, when Yuko Tsushima was just over a year old, her father, the novelist and lifelong enfant terrible Osamu Dazai, and his mistress, Tomie Yamazaki, committed suicide by throwing themselves into a Tokyo canal. It was Dazai’s fifth documented attempt; a previous suicide pact resulted in the death of a young waitress he’d just met and Dazai’s rescue by a fishing boat. His work and life were steeped in the despair of the times—his best-known novel, The Setting Sun, is a harrowing portrait of a family in desperately reduced circumstances at the end of World War II. But he was also taking part in the long-running literary tradition—Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, and D.H. Lawrence were clear influences—that emphasized the (usually male) individual’s rebellion against society’s oppressive strictures. His final published novel, No Longer Human, is a fictionalized chronicle of his self-destructive exploits. Published in English by New Directions in 1958, it now seems to fit broodingly on that literary era’s shelf of heroic selfishness, alongside Jack Kerouac and Cesare Pavese.
Dazai is still a major figure of modern Japanese literature, and The Setting Sun and No Longer Human have remained in print in English, if not as widely read as his national successor in violent angst, Yukio Mishima. But it seems somehow fitting that his daughter Tsushima’s work now feels more vital than his celebrated novels; it is, among many other things, intensely concerned with inheritance and survival, often in the face of male carelessness. Rather than providing a direct counterargument or corrective to Dazai’s legacy, Tsushima, who died in 2016 at the age of sixty-eight, draws on the fierce, sometimes monstrous tradition of individualism in which her father participated, and makes of it something strange and new.
Tsushima published over thirty-five novels and many more short stories in Japanese, and the books that have made it irregularly and nonchronologically into English since the 1980s—four novels, most recently a new translation of Territory of Light, and two collections of stories—almost all depict the trials of single motherhood, from the myriad logistics of childcare to the frustration of dealing with uncomprehending and recalcitrant family members, lovers, and ex-husbands. Across her first three novels, originally published in Japan from 1978 to 1980, Tsushima created a gallery of female protagonists, each of them caring for a child at a different stage of its life. By shifting the ages of her characters in each book, Tsushima emphasizes the way that relationships between the same people—mother and daughter, or the members of a couple, together and apart—are subject to a remarkable range of variation over time.
In her essayistic story “The Watery Realm,” recently published in the UK in a small volume with her late story “Of Dogs and Walls,” the narrator reflects on her experience (echoing Tsushima’s) of being raised, along with an older sister and a brother with developmental disabilities, by a single mother after her wayward father’s suicide by drowning. She recalls visiting his grave as a small child on a day when
the paths among the graves were so wet and slippery that I refused to take a step further and was left behind by the adults to wander, alone and lost, through alleys that were like tunnels to a child. The dread of those moments stayed inside me, coming back to me in any graveyard I visited after that. The one next to our house was my father’s. Just as my mother belonged in the kitchen, my father belonged in the graveyard.
The elements that Tsushima brings together in this passage—a depiction of the past as a morbid, watery realm, the ironized dichotomy between domesticity and death, the concern with childhood experience—give some sense of the landscape of her fiction, though her subtle touch makes her, despite the heaviness of some of the themes, a consistent pleasure to read.
Territory of Light, originally published as a series of stories in a Japanese literary magazine from 1978 to 1979, has been elegantly translated by Geraldine Harcourt, who is responsible for all but one of Tsushima’s books that have made their way into English so far. Each of its twelve chapters represents a month in the year that the unnamed protagonist spends with her two- (eventually three-) year-old daughter in an apartment she has rented after separating from her husband. While Tsushima is a master at creating character and atmosphere in all of her work, the compressed form of the short chapters puts a welcome pressure on this novel’s quotidian dramas, giving each incident a sharp-edged significance. By isolating these episodes, Tsushima elevates them to something like parables, though their meanings remain as opaque to the narrator as they do to the reader.
In this way they resemble, at times, the stories of Amy Hempel and Grace Paley, which are rich in details that capture the uncanniness of everyday life. Also like Paley and some of her recent inheritors such as Rivka Galchen in her nonfiction book Little Labors or Lydia Kiesling in her recent novel The Golden State, Tsushima chronicles the difficulties of motherhood, but with a mordant self-awareness that tends to emphasize the protagonist’s identity outside of her role as a mother. Tsushima has an unorthodox approach to narrative that can be alienating at times—perhaps this is part of the reason my proselytizing for her work has so far not yielded many converts. Whether writing in first or third person, she brings a clinical tone to her depiction of her characters’ choices and psychological states. Her heroines often behave impulsively toward their family members and romantic partners, after which the reader is left to piece together their motivations. In one memorable scene in Territory of Light, for example, the narrator berates a man she has invited over for not helping her clean up some spilled ice, then immediately apologizes and goes to bed with him.
There’s also an element of auto-fiction in Tsushima’s method; she is working in the tradition of the Japanese “I-novel,” a confessional mode that draws on the author’s life, and as the daughter of one of the country’s most infamous twentieth-century writers, her work would have been read with the understanding that she was grappling with the trauma of his death and reputation. But even after taking that into account, her work is unusual in the interpretive demands it makes of the reader, though the prose itself is always clear and accessible. She has an unsettling tendency to describe, in precise detail, a scene of pain or humiliation, then refuse the reader the comfort of psychological insight into it.
Tsushima’s early novels are always implicitly, though rarely explicitly, political; their insistent focus on women asserting their independence from strictly enforced family structures and gender expectations place them squarely in the feminist tradition. But it is the remarkable specificity of her characters and situations, the sense one gets of having lived these lives alongside them, that makes her work so worthy of rediscovery. “Relatability” is a dirty word among serious literary people for a reason—too often the “relatable” writer or character is merely ingratiating. But Tsushima’s work is a great reminder of the pleasures that can be found in good—which is to say, flawed, complex—company.
In Child of Fortune, her first novel, the main character, Kōko, is navigating a difficult relationship with her eleven-year-old daughter, who is resentful of her mother’s relatively straitened circumstances and prefers to spend time with her more affluent aunt and cousin. In the midst of more or less constant conflict with her daughter, Kōko comes to believe that she is pregnant, at the unspeakably advanced age of thirty-six. The drama unfolds in a series of agonizing steps: first, keeping the pregnancy secret, she draws brutal criticism from her sister and daughter for gaining weight; once she reveals it, she faces even more intense opprobrium for not having gotten an abortion sooner, given her age and lack of support from a husband. Then, in the novel’s most devastating turn, Kōko finds out that she isn’t pregnant after all—in her isolation, she has imagined herself so, and subconsciously developed the physical characteristics to support her invented condition. The humiliation of this realization is devastating, and leads her to consider suicide:
Kōko was conscious of a question growing at the bottom of her belly in place of the baby: why did she go on living still? There was no justification, none. The same thought had often haunted her as a child….The more she thought about it, the less reason she saw to carry on. Yet she made no attempt to die, and this very fact added to her humiliation. Dying was too frightening, after all, to be seriously contemplated. The closest she could come to it was gazing down on the school playground from the rooftop, or fingering a bottle of some poisonous reagent in the science lab.
She finds a way to continue. In one of the book’s last scenes, she draws unlikely strength from her ex-husband’s paternalistic attempt to marry her off to his best friend, with whom Kōko has carried on a fitful relationship. The condescending ambush is a final blow to her self-esteem. “How could she have come here, unarmed and unsuspecting?” she thinks. “But it will never happen again, she told herself, and by letting her chagrin rule her she managed—barely—to get out without looking back.”
Woman Running in the Mountains chronicles the difficult first year of motherhood for Takiko, as she attempts to take care of her newborn son, Akira, while working a series of low-paying jobs. She lives with her family, but the presence of a violent, alcoholic father, a judgmental mother, and an indifferent younger brother is anything but comforting. The novel is somewhat carelessly paced—there are long stretches of verbatim logbook entries from Akira’s first weeks in daycare that, while they accurately capture the tedium of childcare, can’t help but test the reader’s patience. The novel opens up when Takiko takes a job at a plant nursery, where her duties consist primarily of watering and replacing plants in office buildings. Her would-be romance with a gruff coworker who has a developmentally disabled son shades heavily into melodrama, especially when she accompanies him on an overnight trip to the company’s other location in the mountains.
Like Takiko, the reader is liberated by the change of pace and setting after the claustrophobic depiction of early parenthood and domestic cruelty that dominates most of the book. As in much of Tsushima’s writing, there is a clash of styles at work, an uneasy blend of raw detail and more conventional fiction that threatens the book’s tonal coherence. (Territory of Light, for example, is marred by a number of dream sequences that unnecessarily underline the novel’s themes.) In Woman Running in the Mountains, however, Tsushima makes the novel’s escape into romantic fantasy feel, viscerally, like an escape—she won’t solve the problems of her life with this man and job, but she can replace them, for a time, with something less painful.
Territory of Light opens with the narrator and her daughter beginning life in their new apartment with “windows on all sides,” situated on the top floor of an otherwise commercial building. Her marriage has ruptured, but the status of her relationship with her husband remains ambiguous—even though he has moved out, he insists on going with her to look for a new apartment, a melancholy pantomime of a young couple’s house-hunting expeditions. (In a strange coincidence—as if such a thing can truly exist in a novel—the last name of the owner of the building she chooses is the same as her married name, resulting in her “constantly being mistaken for the proprietor” of the office block.)
The narrator’s initial search for an apartment also yields the first of what will be many ominous portents throughout the book, moments of observed or recounted horror that echo her (and Tsushima’s) own past. While touring a suspiciously cheap and pleasant apartment, the realtor admits the grisly truth: it was the site of a murder-suicide after a divorce battle, in which an entire family was killed by gas. “And as if that weren’t bad enough,” he continues, “when a couple moved in next, the wife went and hanged herself.” The narrator is, understandably, discomfited, even as the realtor explains blithely that the place has been renovated: he “pointed to a corner of the smaller room” where the gas valve is located: “A heap of corpses met my eyes on the tatami, toppled around the outlet.” She does not take the apartment.
An even more disturbing incident occurs on an otherwise happy evening that the narrator and her daughter spend at a neighborhood festival. The night has been one of serendipity and nostalgia: “The nearer we got, the more people we saw in yukata, and both of us quickened our steps excitedly. The lights of the vendors’ stalls came into view. So everyone was here, I thought. I was happy not to have been left out.” (Tsushima is very good at capturing the way a city-dweller’s mood is dependent on this kind of merging with the soul of the crowd.)
Tsushima describes, with her characteristic exactitude, the process of lighting sparklers with a young child, the daughter standing “with her arm held out stiffly, intent on the fire with which she’d been entrusted.” She makes a rare connection with another mother, whose daughter attends daycare with hers, commiserating over the passage of time and the way that childhood pleasures slowly erode. In the middle of this tender scene, however, she hears what she thinks is a scream: “A voice that seemed to plummet. A voice whose sound obliterated the ground beneath my feet, turning it to murky darkness.”
The next morning she finds out that a developmentally disabled boy fell to his death that night from a walkway in a nearby housing complex. She imagines his final moments, attempting to convince herself that his last feeling could have been wonder rather than terror:
What was he seeing as he fell with that cry? It was night-time; the glow of streetlamps, lighted windows, and neon signs must have streamed like water around his falling body. Perhaps he gazed in amazement at the unfamiliar torrent of lights, wondering where he was going. That yell did seem more like a whoop than a scream, now that I thought about it.
Deaths seem to pile up vertiginously around her: the fatal illness of her supervisor at the library where she works, a subway ride delayed by a suicide on the tracks. The narrator takes these deaths personally, analyzing what they might signify in her own life. These incidents also put her in mind of her father’s death when she was a child, causing nightmares of a figure sitting with his back turned to her in the center of a room. She always wakes as he turns to face her, “unable to bear whatever was coming.”
At various points in the narrative, darkness comes in the form of harrowingly self-destructive behavior. In a chapter entitled “A Dream of Birds,” she decides, the night before her daughter’s third birthday, to invite a few acquaintances over to celebrate. When each, in turn, declines owing to the short notice, she decides to go out drinking by herself, leaving her daughter asleep in the apartment. At the neighborhood bar, she strikes up a conversation with another woman drinking alone. When the woman tells the narrator that she is learning Sanskrit and “leaving soon for India,” never to return, any reader who has spent time in the bleak company of Eugene O’Neill’s deluded alcoholics knows that nothing good will come of this encounter. But the narrator sinks gratefully into shared oblivion, singing and falling off her stool as the drinks continue to flow.
In a fit of drunken generosity, she invites the woman back to her house to continue the party, only to encounter her husband inexplicably waiting for her in the doorway to her building. He is furious with her for leaving their daughter alone and returning drunk, and they grapple violently in the street, a passage that recalls the most feverish scenes in Elena Ferrante’s short novel The Days of Abandonment. (How he knew she was out is never explained, but the only logical explanation—that he lurks regularly outside her building late at night—is troubling in itself.) She throws herself at him again and again, scratching his face and pulling his hair, and he in turn throws her repeatedly to the ground. The encounter reaches an abject climax:
I was on all fours in the street, unable to move. My stomach heaved and its hot contents poured out when I opened my mouth. I was wondering blearily what I had done. All I understood was not wanting to let go of my husband, because his body brought back such memories.
When she stops vomiting, her husband is gone, and she angrily dismisses the woman from the bar. She cries as she climbs the stairs to the apartment, but tells us that “not a single clear emotion came with the tears.” Here again is the emotional ambiguity that makes Tsushima such a consistently unsettling writer.
Though Tsushima can be reluctant to spell out her characters’ motivations, the physical surroundings of the narrator in Territory often dictate her emotional temperature. Her apartment is imbued with a distinctive character, defined, as the seasons change, by the quality of the light it provides and the quirks of its layout and location. The apartment also serves as a conduit for encounters with neighbors, those pesky reminders that the world carries on outside of our heads and walls. In one scene, an elderly couple living next door to the narrator grow furious with the noise and damage caused by her daughter’s unfortunate habit of dropping things out the window onto their roof. When the old man arrives at her doorstep, insisting she come downstairs and account for her daughter’s behavior, the narrator apologizes and promises to pay for repairs. But the harangue continues, moving beyond the child’s understandable naughtiness (she’s three!): surely her mother has helped throw things out the window as well.
This absurdity proves to be the narrator’s breaking point, and she can’t help snapping at them. The encounter leaves her shaken, doubting her own value and amazed at the neighbors’ refusal to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Even if I was an incorrigible fool,” she thinks, “I wanted to believe that there was still something fundamental in me worthy of my own respect…. Although I’d brought it on myself, I felt dizzy with disappointment that they’d turned out to be no different from all the others.” The resolution of this conflict mars the apartment’s one unequivocally great attribute: the owner of the building installs blue mesh fencing around its perimeter, causing the outside world to recede behind “a thick fog.”
But an earlier scene, in which the narrator is blamed for a leak into the office of the tenants below her, proves to be a rare instance of vindication. Eventually confirming that the leak isn’t coming from her apartment, the narrator and other tenants trudge upstairs, where they discover that the roof is completely flooded, transformed into a “great expanse of clear water.” Her daughter is overjoyed at the sight of the new splash park, and even the grumpiest tenant is sufficiently charmed by her enthusiasm to temper his pique. A few days later, repairmen come to drain the “sea,” leaving a blinding layer of silver waterproof paint on the roof. In the summer, the narrator notes, it will be unbearable. Yet she makes her peace with it: “This too was a fine view, I told myself. And this time, nobody can take the sea away.”
In these scenes, one comes to understand how Tsushima builds character through accretion and juxtaposition, allowing the reader to discover the narrator’s capabilities and feelings at the same time that she does. The silver “sea” is also a reminder that Tsushima’s work, despite its commitment to showing the hard realities of its characters’ lives, is never entirely without hope. She does not provide simple resolutions. None of these stories, despite the more or less constant peripheral presence of ex-husbands and lovers, is a comedy of remarriage. The exes remain stubbornly feckless and childlike, unable or unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to be responsible mates or parents. And Tsushima’s heroines are not interested in sacrificing themselves completely to men or to their children. The beauty of her work is in its depiction of her characters’ ongoing struggles, however inexplicable to the outside world, to protect their desires.
In the final chapter of Territory of Light, the narrator decides to move out of the top-floor apartment. Her divorce has finally gone through, and now that she no longer shares a last name with the building, she says, she is ready to leave behind the person she has been. She goes to see a potential place that seems distinctly unpromising: it gets very little sun, and the woman who currently lives there explains that the downstairs neighbor pounds on the ceiling at the slightest sound. Nevertheless, in a gesture of defiance, and perhaps against her own better judgment, she decides to rent it. The reader, who has been, it seems, drawing closer to the narrator’s inner life, is once again shut out. Is it the urgency of leaving behind her old self that motivates this decision? Has she spotted something in this dingy apartment that the reader isn’t privy to, some glimmer of light? Perhaps true freedom, for both the writer and the character, lies in not having to say.