In 1985, a character in a now-iconic cartoon by Alison Bechdel proposed three standards for a worthwhile story. It needs at least two women. They must have at least one conversation with each other. And that conversation must be about something other than men. One of the many issues raised by what is now known as “the Bechdel Test” is the failure of representation of female friendship in so many of the stories people consume.
That failure is manifest in many works of Japanese fiction published in English in the last twelve months by both men and women. For example, few women interact with each other in Matsugu Ono’s At the Edge of the Woods or Junichiro Tanizaki’s collection Longing and Other Stories. Yuko Tsushima’s Woman Running in the Mountains may pass the Bechdel Test, but it is about a single mother who finds consolation in a mostly-platonic friendship with a man. Even in Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt, which is about two women, the central relationship is sinister and obsessive rather than friendly.
Superficially, Mieko Kawakami’s latest novel in English, All the Lovers in the Night, isn’t about female friendship either.
Superficially, Mieko Kawakami’s latest novel in English, All the Lovers in the Night, isn’t about female friendship either. In fact, it is a stinging critique of the ways some women sabotage other women they think of as competition. Or of the ways they ostracize women who don’t make conventional life choices—such as career women or single mothers.
The novel’s protagonist, Fuyuko Irie, has always been profoundly lonely. Shortly before the novel begins, she leaves her full-time job to become a freelance proofreader because she’s too awkward to socialize with her coworkers. Her exuberant and unconventional editor, Hijiri Ishikawa is the only person she ever talks to.
But one afternoon, Fuyuko catches a glimpse of herself in a window, “the dictionary definition of a miserable person”:
What I saw in the reflection was myself, in a cardigan and faded jeans, at the age of thirty-four. Just a miserable woman, who couldn’t even enjoy herself on a gorgeous day like this, on her own in the city, desperately hugging a bag full to bursting with the kind of things that other people wave off or throw in the trash the first chance they get.
Soon, she turns to alcohol as a lubricant to ease her social anxiety. She also hopes a romance with a high school physics teacher might help her bear her loneliness.
For most of the book, Fuyuko is a remarkably passive presence. Except for the decisions to quit her job and to begin drinking, most events happen to her rather than on her own initiative. But the first-person narrative, written in her voice, is never passive. Rather, it jumps off the page in almost synesthetic vividness. (The work of translators Sam Bett and David Boyd is again impressive. The duo has been responsible for three of the four Kawakami novels available in English.) This is how she describes listening to the notes of a Chopin lullaby:
In my chair, I surrendered myself to a world of sound that could only be described as sparkling. It made my head sway, and my breath grew deeper as my legs climbed up that evanescent staircase, each step a sheet of light. They would shimmer to life the second my sole made contact, then fizzle into stardust when I lifted my foot, only to be reborn as yet another step, gently showing me the way.
Mieko Kawakami is quickly establishing herself as one of the most powerful voices of contemporary Japanese literature. She won Japan’s most coveted award for new writers, the Akutagawa Prize, in 2008. Haruki Murakami, probably today’s most prominent Japanese novelist, has praised a writer he has said is “always ceaselessly growing and evolving.” (The two shared a long interview in 2017, during which Kawakami challenged Murakami on his problematic portrayal of women.)
Kawakami has taken up friendship in several of her novels. Breasts and Eggs, an extension of her Akutagawa-winning novella of the same title, includes a notable scene of two friends and sisters visiting a public bathhouse together. Another recent novel, Heaven, is an exploration of the friendship between two outcast middle school students.
But a question about friendship—what does it really look like?—is at the heart of All the Lovers in the Night. And the action of the novel is the two characters’ search for the answer. It is clear that neither Fuyuko nor her editor really knows the answer. In the novel’s opening pages, Hijiri confides in Fuyuko how much she values having someone she can trust. But then she adds that “trust doesn’t come from liking someone, or loving them” and “has to come from how that person approaches their work”. Throughout the book, Hijiri wonders whether she’s capable of love, whether her emotions are her own or something she picked up while proofreading someone else’s work.
What both women do know is that neither is suitable for the “team” of conventionally-feminine women—with hair dyed “the same shade of brown”, worn in “the same style”, with identical makeup—that Fuyuko finds browsing the self-help books for women at a nearby bookstore. (The section is full of titles like Be an Amazon—What’s Wrong with Being Strong?, Thus Spoke the Queen of Hearts, and Makeup Magic: Increase Your Salary Seventeen-Fold.) Hijiri hates going out to bars with female coworkers who only want to talk about “inner peace, lasting happiness”. Especially when they look at her with pity when she tells them how stupid she thinks they sound. It is clear that Hijiri and Fuyuko feel rejected by these conventionally-feminine women; it is equally clear to the reader that Hijiri and Fuyuko are just as judgmental about them.
It’s only in the novel’s last twenty pages that Fuyuko and Hijiri begin to understand the potential for friendship between two imperfect women.
These are two women, professional proofreaders, trained to search for mistakes in other people’s writing. But they are just as capable of finding faults in other people, as well as in their own work and, in an understated way, their own lives as well. They seek perfection, knowing at the same time that it is impossible.
“You know how in our line of work,” [Hijiri] said, “no matter what you do, no matter how hard you look, some mistakes always make it through? I mean, even if multiple people go over the same galley multiple times, for days on end, to the point where they can’t read it anymore, no matter how much work everyone puts into it, no book is ever free of errors, right?”
It’s only in the novel’s last twenty pages that Fuyuko and Hijiri begin to understand the potential for friendship between two imperfect women. All the Lovers in the Night passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors as it reaffirms that relationships between women, no matter how raw and messy, can still be beautiful.