Jigokuyuki: Kazuki Sakuraba


It’s Women in Translation month! I am a woman in translation! I translate women authors! So basically, this month is my time to shine! Also: buy my books! There are a lot to choose from! But if you’re looking for some other translations to while away the lazy days of August with, you have so many options! While the majority of authors translated into English are men, the situation is getting better for us of the lady persuasion. Mostly because we keep yelling about it with things like WIT month. So come! Yell with me today, readers! Raise your voice for books by women from other lands translated into English! (Bonus points if the translator is also a woman!)

My brain tends to battle mostly books in Japanese here, but we have tackled more than a few translated works, and so many of them by women! Take a peek and find a new book to love. Or you can check out this great list from the always amazing Words Without Borders. How about a nonstop feed of lady greatness on Twitter? Maybe Tumblr is more your jam? Or do you like your info old school in the form of a blog post? Everyone everywhere is talking about women in translation this month! And my brain wants to be part of the fun!

But my brain and I just got back from Japan (we are always just coming back from Japan, it seems) where we stocked up on Japanese books. So we have nothing in translation to battle. But a twist on the theme seems like a fun idea, so let’s talk about Kazuki Sakuraba, a fine woman in translation. I translated two of her books, in fact! They are both great and you should buy them. And not just because I said so. A lot of people who are not me have been saying really nice things about both of them. And come on, you know you want to read a book about “matriarchs, manga, and murder.” The other one is BL-adjacent vampires, so the thing sells itself.

All this translating by this lady translator of this lady author got me curious about her other work. And fortunately, my favourite pastime is going to Tokyo and hanging out in bookstores, so it was inevitable that I would end up stumbling across her at some point. That point is now! Or rather, last month when I came across a signed copy of Jigokuyuki, a collection of short stories that the jacket copy would have you believe is an examination her development over a ten-year period. But it’s actually a clump stories from 2005-ish and then a clump of stories from the last couple years. The only way it’s any kind of overview is the variety of genres she manages to get into in seven stories.

“Bokun” and “Shibo Yugi”, the first and the last stories in the book, function as a set and are nicely placed as bookends here and good reminders of just what Sakuraba is capable of. “Bokun” feels like horror with a dab of ghost story and a pinch of fantasy. On her way home from school one day, grade eight student Hisui is on her way home in the backwoods of Shimane when she discovers her neighbour’s entire family brutally slaughtered, save for a classmate from elementary school. She starts to freak out when her best friend, the extremely fat and beautiful Shasara appears and takes charge of the situation. Hisui tells the story of where things go from there in a series of vignettes: Scene 1, Scene 2, etc. The murder isn’t the direct focus of the rest of these, but rather Shasara and her strange ways, like the “black book” reading group she started at their Catholic school, where girls gather to hear her read from the dangerous adult books they suddenly have access to when they start junior high.

We get the other side of Shasara in “Shibo Yugi” as we see her through the eyes of her childhood friend and neighbour, Kenichi. And now Sakuraba gives us more coming-of-age plus love story and less horror/mystery as she shows us Kenichi coming to understand some pretty serious things about Shasara and why she suddenly got so very fat. It’s really a marvel the way Sakuraba smoothly shifts gears to look at the same characters from an entirely different perspective while still managing to keep the two stories feeling very much like a set, not just in terms of characters but in terms of tone and style as well.

Then she swings us around into sci-fi with a dollop of fantasy and social justice in “A”, the tale of the last idol, the ideal of pure girlhood. Back in the day, A was the young talent, singing and dancing with an idol group, making her mark on TV, at the pinnacle of her fame when a certain incident occurred, and she dropped off the map and took with her the very concept of an idol. Now fifty or so years later, Trend Co. is looking to bring her idol power back and harness it for the powers of capitalism again. Sakuraba is clearly taking aim at the way the Japanese idol industry chews girls up and spits them out, but she also manages to get some digs in about the way the industry and capitalism in general warp the world around us and damage us all.

“Robot Me” is the longest story in the collection and maybe the most mind-twisting. With the abnormally close relationship between the narrator’s new bride and her mother, it starts out feeling like a murder mystery in the making: tense, tense, tense. Then you start to feel like you’ve crossed over into ghost territory, like maybe the mother is a supernatural force. And then you’re maybe thinking, “Ghost murder?” before you’ve moved onto just plain heartbreaking. It’s a beautiful, tightly wandering tale that forces you to both hate and empathize with the narrator throughout. It’s also the second story in the book (after “Bizarre” another story that twists and turns into places you never saw coming) to have Twitter be a fundamental plot point, which I find pretty interesting. Maybe I am not reading enough stuff in English (and I’m probably not), but I feel like Japanese authors are generally readier to make use of social networking apps like Twitter or Line in their work, as an integral part of characters’ lives. 

She goes full-blown murder mystery meets family drama in “Godless” when Kaoru introduces his daughter Nino to his new boyfriend and things go very, weirdly south. And the title story “Jigokuyuki” has a young high school teacher running off to see sand dunes with her student like two children in a dream. In all the stories, though, whatever genre Sakuraba sets up as her lens, we’re peering into the heads of her characters, seeing how life brought them to this moment and how they will move forward from here. She’s always showing us their internality rather than focussing on dialogue or descriptions of the external world; we navigate the strange territory they find themselves in right alongside them. This makes for some beautiful thoughtful moments in the weirdest places, giving even straight-up, real-world coming-of-age “Jigokuyuki” an air of the supernatural. In this collection, Sakuraba somehow manages to give us realism that is magical.    

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