I love Murata Sayaka’s work, but after reading enough of it, I’ve developed a certain wariness when I approach a new release. After all, this is the author that has dropped in some surprise cannibalism and envisioned a world where you can murder people as long as you have some babies first. Even something as innocuous as a magical girl can lead straight to trauma town in Murata’s world.
So despite the fact that the obi boasts a blurb from none other than Moto Hagio (can you imagine getting a blurb from Moto Hagio?? And then tacking on “manga artist” in brackets after her name, like there is a single potential Murata reader who doesn’t know who this shojo master is), this book of four short stories has been sitting on my shelf since it arrived in a box from my man on the inside, waiting for its time to shine, a time when I would be ready for a charming tale about a group date to swerve into a meditation on how eating kittens has become normalized and to not eat kittens is just weird now. And that time came quietly, unexpectedly, when I needed a book that would lie flat while I ate a burrito and thus would not have the extra hands to hold the pages down. If you are looking for something to read with minimal hands, this is the volume for you!
But also if you are looking for a surprising glimmer of hope and joy in an otherwise grey adult existence. When I was little, I used to marvel at the fact that adults didn’t play. Or at least they didn’t play in a way that I understood. I would lose myself in my toys, the way I lost myself in books, totally immersed in the other world, hearing the voices of those little ponies and having deep conversations with stuffed animals. I also treated my toys very well because I was slightly concerned that the more clever among them might incite an insurrection and murder me as a cruel overlord in my sleep. I had a very vivid imagination. But seeing the adults around me, I knew that one day I too would stop hearing the voices of my toys and stop playing, and it made me really sad. So digging into the titular story of this volume was weirdly nostalgic in a way that I didn’t expect. (Murata always gets me somehow.)
Rina is an office worker in her mid-thirties with a secret. She’s actually a magical girl with a mission to save the world from a secret cabal of evil witches. She carries a compact for her big transformation sequence and her animal advisor is a mysterious creature from the land of magic, Pom Pom. Except none of that is true. It’s all a game she’s been playing with herself since she was in grade three. She had thought she would give it up at some point, but the opportunity never really arose and here she is now, slipping into the washroom to transform to defeat the evil witches who are attacking her in the form of overtime data entry. It’s a bit of fantasy injected into the every day, although of course it goes awry, otherwise there would be no story. But it is possibly the purest thing I’ve ever read by Murata.
The other stories are not quite as pure, but still, no cannibalism, so I’m calling it for Team Pure. “Himitsu no Hanazono” seems to start out in a similar vein to “Marunouchi” with protagonist Chika slipping into the washroom when she is out having coffee with a friend, so she can have a moment with the silver key she carries around locked up in a cutesy container. Given the title of the story (Secret Garden), I was ready for her to slip that key into a wall and open a door to another world. But no, it’s the key to her own apartment for a special lock that can’t be opened from inside. Her family put the lock on the door to keep her grandmother from going out wandering after her dementia got worse, but Chika is currently using it to keep classmate Hayakawa prisoner while her family is out of town.
One of Murata’s major themes is sex and sexuality, and she takes up this thread again in both “Himitsu” and in “Musei Kyoshitsu”, about a world where children grow up without gender until they graduate from high school. All students use gender-neutral names at school, and from grade five on, they wear special binding undershirts to keep any boobs under control and all chests equally flat. Yuto is in high school and has a crush on Sena, whose gender remains ambiguous to her, even though it is clear from Adam’s apples and slender builds who is a girl and who is a boy in her class.
I love love love the way Murata affirms non-binary identity in this story in a surprising way, opening up possibilities for people of all genders to love each other in whatever ways they want. But I was a bit disappointed that the degendering of children basically means making them conform to traditionally masculine standards, like trousers and “boku”, a masculine first-person pronoun. It felt like another one of those subtle reminders that masculine is the default and everyone else is “abnormal”. Why not have everyone in skirts using a feminine pronoun? Japanese has enough first-person pronouns to really play with in a situation like this. Why not dig deep for the archaic “chin” to really neutralize things and make it all majestic at the same time?
Also, this story would be a nightmare to translate.
The final story “Henyo” tackles another of Murata’s favourites, a societal shift in “normal”. After quitting her job to spend two years taking care of her sick mother and a father who can’t do even the simplest of household tasks, Makoto starts working part-time at a family restaurant and discovers that she has gotten out of sync with the outside world at some point during the last couple years when the only people she really spoke with were her parents and her husband. Anger has gone out of fashion. Young people don’t feel it. Which seems impossible to short-tempered Makoto and of course, makes her angry. She seeks out the company of an old co-worker who always used to yell at her about the need to have sex, despite the fact that sex was not a thing that people did anymore and Makoto was quite frankly disgusted by the idea.
It’s an interesting look at how culture shapes us and how we shape culture, and also an examination of what emotions are even for. And Murata gives us a double change of norms in this one—the shift away from sex and love, which is taken as a norm by Makoto who has known nothing else, and the fading of anger as an emotion that people feel, the new norm she struggles with. This story would also be a nightmare to translate. Fortunately, I can just read it and enjoy it without wondering how to properly translate the new words for new emotions that Murata coins.