Let’s welcome in this new year with books, the best way to start a year, a month, a day—any moment in your life that needs starting! How about this book I translated and am producing with my pals over at the new press started by The Beguiling’s Peter Birkemoe?? Magician A is a wild ride through smutty town, a collection of stories that examine desire and capitalism and spirituality in ways you will never see coming. (No, that is not intended as a pun.) I know I have been hassling you about maybe backing the Kickstarter for the book, but I promise this will be the last time. Because the Kickstarter ends this week! So if you’ve been halfway persuaded by my previous sales pitches, maybe this will push you over the edge and you will buy my sweet translation baby?? It is worth it, I promise. (If you need more convincing, see my post about the book back when it came out in Japanese and was not yet even a dream in this translator’s eye.) There are stretch goals even. French flaps! Build a tiny book fort with fancy flaps! And a special interview with creator Natsuko Ishitsuyo in which we discuss mythology of all kinds and go to the shrine to pray for the success of the English translation among other things.
But if you are feeling less comics-oriented in this new year and more word-y, perhaps you would be interested in Sayaka Murata’s recent Chikyu Seijin, which comes out in English translation by my pal Ginny Tapley Takemori in this the year of our Lord 2020. And now that I have read the book, dang! I do not envy Ginny this difficult task. In fact, when I turned the last page of the book, I said out loud to my empty apartment, “What the fuck, Murata-san?” This book is taking you places you maybe didn’t want to go, but too bad, Murata’s got you in her sights now, so you’re going whether you like it or not.
The truth is, I finished this book a while ago and have been sitting on it until now because I honestly didn’t know what to do with it. It is a lot. Even if you have been reading Murata and following her work up to this point (as I have), it is a lot. It’s the extreme extension of everything she’s done up to now, a logical next step in her work and utterly thematically coherent with her novels and stories thus far, but way, way darker and way, way funnier at the same time. So here is where I say content warnings of every kind! There’s every kind of child abuse in these pages, painfully honest and unaware told from the perspective of the child in question, so that I was flinching my way through the first third of the book. Also present: emotional and mental abuse of adults, plus cannibalism. It’s all in the service of a pointed commentary on the societal roles thrust upon us and the way we respond (or don’t) to that pressure, but still, be aware that Murata pulls no punches with this one.
Not like she’s pulled many punches with her previous works, but to follow up the wildly popular, award-winning Conbini Ningen with this novel, which is in her own words, sadder and harder to read, is pretty daring. Where Conbini Ningen is light-hearted, sugar-coating its criticisms of modern Japanese society and the gender roles we are pushed into, Chikyu Seijin is brutally honest, unflinching in its deconstruction of the worker-cog machine aspects of modern capitalistic society. As a child, protagonist Natsuki soon sees through to the essential nature of the world we live in: workers in the societal machine, baby makers to propagate the human race. Much to her own chagrin, however, she is not the machine part that she should be, that she aspires to be. Her parents and the world around her constantly let her know how unfit, how unsuited she is to the role she should be playing. She wants desperately to be brainwashed by the majority around her and is constantly disappointed in her own inability to fit in. Her only solace is her cousin Yu, an alien from another planet, or so he has been told by his own mother. While Natsuki wishes she could be an alien, too, she has her hands full with being a magical girl destined to save the world, complete with magic staff and talking companion animal.
After a childhood that could only be defined as traumatic, Natsuki makes it to adulthood, convinced that she, too, is an alien. Traumatised by the experiences in her childhood, she marries a fellow refugee from the factory and finally escapes her childhood home and the societal policing of her parents and sister. As long as she is married, she should be safe from prying eyes; she’ll look like a productive member of the human being factory. Except of course, she doesn’t. Much like Keiko from Conbini Ningen and other Murata protagonists, Natsuki is destined to be forever out of step with what the world wants from her, and like the women who came before her, she finds her own (extremely disturbing) answer to the problem.
Murata has never shied away from tackling head-on the way modern society warps and distorts our basic humanity, and Chikyu Seijin is no different. But while she has couched her criticisms in gentler form before, she takes the gloves off in this one. Like, I said before, we’ve got people eating people here. Which sounds gruesome out of context (and is actually gruesome in context), but honestly, this story really couldn’t have gone any other way. As always, Murata gives us an painfully honest look at the world we live in and all its absurdities. Steel yourself and read it Japanese, or spend the next few months until the English translation comes out mentally preparing yourself for the darkest comedy you’re likely to encounter this decade.
UPDATE: The English translation is called Earthlings and it has the best cover.