I have been rearranging my bookshelves because that is a thing I enjoy doing and also a thing that needs doing. I keep my books organized by genre, and I read more in some genres than others, so shelves were starting to buckle down under the weight of books piled on top, behind, and around the books that were there so neatly in the beginning. Plus I always have more books than my shelves have homes for, so it takes some real creative rearranging to keep my entire apartment from looking like a used bookstore in Jimbocho.
In the course of shuffling books from here to there back to here and then to way over there, I discovered some lost treasures including Funukedomo, an early novel from Motoya that I picked up in its paperback form at the Roppongi Hills Tsutaya back when it was still new and fresh. (And typing that makes me feel incredibly old, but yes, children, I was there when Roppongi Hills opened. I might turn to dust at any moment.) I know this because inside the book, I found a fancy Tsutaya bookmark complete with a little map of where to find the Tsutaya. I didn’t remember the book until this reshelving adventure, but I do remember the moment of buying it with startling clarity. Chatting with my friend about how I’d heard of this author, her encouraging me to pick it up then, both of us feeling somehow like the nouveau riche shopping at the fanciest Tsutaya I had ever been in until the one in Ginza Six opened up. And it’s not even that fancy, I was just used to going to the ancient grimy one in Shinjuku.
It happens sometimes. You make a connection with a book before you’ve even read it. But I figured I should at least read the thing to finish the memory-story. So I did, and wow! It’s like all my favourite classic shojo manga with the Extreme Drama, but polished into a beautiful prose gem. It might only be two hundred pages long, but Motoya packs a whole lot of emotion and ideas and story into this thing.
It starts off literarily enough. The story is set in a very typical Japanese country town, surrounded by mountains and full of quiet dusty roads and the deafening cry of cicadas in the summer, sure to call up a fond feelings in every Japanese heart, even those who were born in a big urban centre. This is the Japan of our collective nostalgia. You’ve seen it if you’ve watched enough Japanese movies.
In a big house in this idyllic pastoral setting, complete with the engawa walkway running around the outside, Machiko slips out of the funeral to check on Kiyomi, hiding in another room, The chanting of the priest can be heard faintly through the sliding doors. We soon learn that Kiyomi’s parents have just died and that Machiko was recently married to Kiyomi’s older brother Shinji. Soon, Shinji appears and before too long the final sibling, Sumika, arrives and the cast is assembled at last.
What begins as your standard family drama, bereaved children grieving the loss of their parents, quickly morphs into something entirely else. None of these people, nor their relationships, are anything close to what they seem at first. Sumika appears to be the big dreamer of the family, striking out for Tokyo to become an actress as soon as she graduates from high school. Kiyomi is the quiet bookish type, in the shadow of her beautiful older sister. Shinji is the protective older brother, keeping the peace. Machiko is the new wife, unfamiliar yet with the ways of her new family when the tragic death of her new in-laws throws everything into confusion.
But when Sumika comes home after four years away to be at their parents’ funeral, all the secret dynamics and unspoken issues come to a head. And not in the standard one sister slaps another and storms out of the room style. Motoya takes us back in time to show us why Sumika had to leave, what really lies in Kiyomi’s heart, where Machiko comes from and why she’s so content to be unhappy, and Shinji’s desperate attempt to save everyone. I don’t want to go into too many details because the surprises, while not everything this novel has to offer, are certainly a large part of the fun. Suffice to say, you will see absolutely none of this coming.
I love absurdly extreme drama, the constant one-up-manship of those old shojo manga, so I really loved how Motoya kept raising the stakes in this twisted family tale. She also does it in a really interesting and tricky way. Each chapter is narrated from a different perspective, a different member of the family, a different time frame. In one chapter in particular, she hands off the point of view from one character to the next in the middle of their interactions with each other like a relay race. It can be hard to make something like that feel like a coherent whole, but Motoya never falters, maybe because she was originally (and still is?) a playwright, so she has a handle on relating to different POVs at the same time.
Taking these situations to extremes allows Motoya to interrogate the roles we play in families and the ways that we lie to ourselves to prop ourselves up or deny truths about ourselves we’d rather were not true. Sumika’s insistence on her specialness, how she was made for something more than this country bumpkin life is relatable as hell, that desire to be better, more, special, for this life to have meaning. But more interesting is Kiyomi’s recognition of a dark urge inside of her and her attempts to rein it in when it nearly destroys her and her family only to find out that this might be who she really is and she is going to have to make her peace with that.
I was pleased to find that the delightful eye for detail that I saw in Yoneda’s translation of Picnic in the Storm is very much present on these pages. From the young man Sumika would rather not have encountered as having a “face that would likely take you back to the order Rodentia if you flipped through enough of his ancestors” to the souvenirs Machiko brings back from a surprise trip to the poetic repetition of the “child’s toy” sound of the family phone being set back in its cradle, Motoya brings this world to vivid life. Funukedomo is one of those novels that is a treat to read in every way and a stern reminder that I really need to read more of her work.