“The Night of Baba Yaga” by Akira Otani

Akira Otani Akira Otani

On the evening streets of Tokyo, in the heart of the Shinjuku district, a white sedan “reeking of blood and cigarettes” hosts Shindo, the battered and bruised protagonist of The Night of Baba Yaga. These elements—inconspicuous cars, bloody seats, violent people—make up the bulk of Akira Otani’s novel. Beyond the gore lies a queer love story, forming the emotional heart of the book, and the only joy to be found in pages of blood and guts.

Shindo is an orphaned young adult who finds herself working odd jobs while trying (and failing) to suppress the boiling rage inside her, leading to violent encounters and outbursts that leave a string of dead bodies around Tokyo. One such event dictates the course of her life. On her way to dinner, a group of drunk and unruly men brush past her, and one of them slaps her ass. Her rage is unleashed: ribs crack, shoulders pop out of their sockets, and bottles break on skulls. Eventually, more men arrive, and she finds herself in a car, heading to a house made of white stone hidden in the relatively tranquil Setagaya neighbourhood.

It turns out that the thugs who kidnapped her are yakuza, and the house belongs to the big boss, Genzo Naiki. All this information is gleaned through outrageously camp dialogue: “In case I wasn’t clear, buddy, we’re gangsters. Yakuza. We’re not afraid of dying.” These sorts of lines are the markers of Jason Statham movies in the early aughts, or what side-quest NPCs say in video games. Though the dialogue makes the first few pages awkward, the novel eventually settles into a bloody, gangster-infested lesbian love story.

 

The Night of Baba Yaga, Akira Otani, Sam Bett (ed) (Soho, July 2024)
The Night of Baba Yaga, Akira Otani, Sam Bett (trans) (Soho, July 2024)

The love in question is between Shindo and “Princess”, aka Shoko, Naiki’s “doll-like” daughter. Shoko is uncommonly frail and exceptionally beautiful, with fingernails resembling “pink seashells tumbled smooth by waves.” Naiki reveals that Shindo’s only job is to protect and escort Shoko across town as she attends university and a host of other “character-building” classes, including tea ceremony, horseback riding and archery. The reasons why Shindo has been selected include her unbridled rage and the fact that she is a woman and thus couldn’t possibly be interested in “defiling” Shoko’s “pure body”. The last man on the job couldn’t keep his “grubby hands” off Shoko. Now, all that remains of him is his hand, which is presented to Shindo in a beautiful lacquered box. This is violence with style.

Every day, Shindo and Shoko set off to Tokyo, at a pace dictated by the latter’s punishing schedule, growing closer in the isolation of a locked car. As Shoko and Shindo fall in love, the latter’s angst subsides. When her internal turmoil quiets, Shindo is finally able to face her abusive past and loosen her grip on the need for violence. It’s a soft love story, one where loving another allows love and exploration of oneself. There are no fireworks of passion, nor are there heated arguments, there is simply companionship—something both Shoko and Shindo never had.

 

The B plot in the story involves Naiki’s wife, Yoshiko, who ran away with one of his hen  chmen ten years before the events of the novel. Though most of the story is from Shindo’s point of view, snippets from Yoshiko are sparse, without revealing enough information to understand what happened to her or where she is now. The eventual connection between these two storylines is unexpected and deeply satisfying.

Another highlight of the novel is the ease with which Otani deploys stereotypes only to dissolve them, particularly in the butch/femme dynamic between Shoko and Shindo. Shoko is introduced as the pale-pink, naive “princess”, but, as the story develops, she assumes the role of Shindo’s protector and fighter. Shindo, who has never been cared for before, suddenly finds herself in a position where violence is not a necessity. This is new for her, and with the safety and comfort of Shoko by her side, she can explore other facets of her personality. Their mutual understanding of one another’s hardships and complete acceptance of flaws gives both of them the freedom to explore their identities and sexualities. By the end, Shoko physically resembles a man but still considers herself a woman. This shift is never a bombshell moment, or a saccharine blossoming; it’s just a gradual realisation that is always met with Shindo’s acceptance.

For a novel that dissects each fight scene into gory detail, the ending however feels rushed. Several events push Shindo and Shoko to run from the yakuza, but how they manage to escape—and stay hidden for decades—is mostly a mystery. In the face of obsessive Naiki and the manpower of the yakuza, it’s hard to justify the serenity of the time jumps that show Shoko and Shindo ageing in peace.

The Night of Baba Yaga is at its best when it slows down enough to feel the breaking of bones and the growing of love, yet it loses this control toward the finale. It nevertheless effectively interrogates the lines between passion and violence, and gush and gore, to tell a compelling story of two queer characters who are often invisible in English translations of Japanese literature, in this case from Sam Bett, for whom this is not the first Japanese novel that strays from societal norms. The Night of Baba Yaga is a novel to be widely—and voraciously—read, even if it’s at the beach.


Mahika Dhar is a writer, essayist, and book reviewer based in New Delhi. She is the creator of bookcrumbs and her short stories have appeared in Seaglass Literary, Through Lines and Minimag among others.