A lot of the Japanese books coming my way these days are about women and pregnancy and babies and bodies, and I’m starting to wonder if someone put something in the water over there. First, there was Nemu Yoko’s pregnancy-by-months manga, and then I had to take a deep dive into Kawakami Mieko’s last novel, Natsumonogatari, and the English translation, Breasts and Eggs, which are both a whole lot of book that I am still processing to be honest. I’m interpreting for Kawakami for this year’s International Festival of Authors, so I have had to spend a lot of time with these books, not just reading them, but reading reviews of them, listening to podcast interviews about them, watching videos from other events Kawakami has been doing, in order to get to know the books on a level closer to how the author herself sees them. Because, you know, I have to basically be her for a couple hours while interpreting.
And now I finally have time to take up Yamamoto Miki’s latest, Kashikokute Yuki Aru Kodomo, only to find a strange overlap with both Kimi ni Aetara and Breasts and Eggs. Like Kimi, there is a joyfulness to this tale of pregnancy. The moment Sara and her husband learn that she’s got a bun in the oven, they’re thrilled, filled with anticipation and a desire to meet this child of theirs and learn all about who she is. They drive home from the clinic with hearts trailing behind the car, a sign of their love for each other and this new life that they’ve created. Sara buys book after book about genius children excelling in one way or another and sets them out in a kind of vision board in the crib in one corner of their apartment, a prayer for the clever and brave child they want to have. The majority of the pregnancy flies by in a flurry of excitement and preparation, which Yamamoto depicts with a series of dated Polaroids showing Sara struggling with morning sickness, the first ultrasound where they can clearly see the baby, the husband taking over more of the household chores, and other tiny moments in the life of this young couple.
But the larger part of the book is taken up with a question that also occupies Kawakami in Natsumonogatari: Is it right to bring a child into a world full of pain, to live a life of pain? And while this question was not unknown to me before I dug deep into Kawakami’s book, the fact that it is actually a philosophical position known as anti-natalism was. During my research, I ended up down the rabbit hole of David Benatar’s writings, and I have to say the idea that we have a moral obligation not to create unhappy people is pretty compelling. Who gets to decide what unhappiness is, of course, is a whole other issue and can lead to some pretty repugnant thinking (I’m looking at you, Peter Singer). But Kawakami argues it quite compellingly from the point of view of a life of pain (and I can’t imagine there is a single person who would argue that the life in question has not been one of pain), and Yamamoto goes to this same place in the latter half of Kashikokute.
One of the genius children Sara falls in love is Malala Yousafzai. But a mere five days before her due date, she comes home after a coffee date with a friend, laden with groceries, and turns on the TV to the news that Malala has been shot in the face. And suddenly the world goes dark. She can’t stop imagining the scene in her head, and soon she sees terror and pain in every child. She envisions her own daughter, the child in her stomach, threatened by this same man with the gun at soccer practice, at school, at a piano recital. And she is wracked with guilt and anxiety at the fact that she is bringing a child into this world to suffer. She sinks deep into depression, compulsively reading books about children dying cruelly—Anne Frank’s diary, the massacre in Norway—and pulls away from her husband and the dreams they had shared for their first child.
Yamamoto does the whole book in pencil crayons with the occasional watercolours, and the style is so perfect for the story she wants to tell. The soft lines of the crayons really invite intimacy, asking the reader to come in and sit down and be with these people in a very real way. Black ink is used for facial expressions and outlines, so that faces really pop and we can see every emotion flitting across them. Every page is stunning, which is no surprise coming from Yamamoto. Her previous two books were gorgeous and deeply meaningful, so I naturally went into this one with high expectations. And this is her first work in full colour, since it was originally serialized online rather than in a magazine. But she wisely keeps her palette to a minimum, with a keynote of red, so that the colour enhances rather than detracts from the story.
Her pacing is also incredible. The way she pushes through the heady early days of the pregnancy reflecting how time seems to contract when you’re happy and excited, the way the final week or two stretch out to fill the majority of the book in step with Sara’s depression. And there’s a brilliant section when Sara’s hit her due date, and her husband leaves for work on the left side of a two-page spread and comes home on the right while Sara remains on the sofa the entire day, power-reading her sad books, which pile up on the page beneath these panels. It’s a simple bit of story-telling that is immensely powerful in the narrative.
Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Yamamoto’s work, so it’s no surprise that I fell in love with this latest volume from her. But there’s a reason I’m such a fan. Yamamoto is constantly striving to dig deeper into womanhood and tell those stories with new artistic practices. It’s such a pleasure to watch an immensely talented artist push herself to grow in new ways and become an even more powerful voice. We had to wait six years for this book. I hope we don’t have to wait as long for the next one.