In Touring the Land of the Dead, author Maki Kashimada writes about one woman’s trauma with razor-perfect concision and an austere beauty.
Natsuko is deeply scared by a life of catering to other people. She spent her childhood humoring her mother, a widow who has fallen on hard times. Now she is married to a man who was diagnosed with a degenerative seizure disorder soon after their wedding. After a lifetime of caretaking, Natsuko is exhausted. When the couple travels to a once-prosperous, now-dilapidated spa resort, she wonders whether her life is worth the trouble.
Natsuko’s family’s fate is tied up with the fate of the seedy hotel. Natsuko recalls visiting with her long-dead father. Within that memory is another, second-hand memory of her mother’s own childhood visit, captured forever on the 8 mm film Natsuko has been shown over and over again. Natsuko’s wealthy grandfather, dressed in a tuxedo like “some silver-screen star”, is more real to Natsuko’s mother than her own husband and children.
Trapped in a past that won’t ever return, Natsuko’s mother made Natsuko’s childhood a miserable one that Natsuko can only refer to as “that life”—“not poverty, not loneliness, not sickness, but that life”. Even now, her mother and parasitical brother try to rely on Natsuko for emotional and material support.
There is certainly no shortage of novels about hotels with complicated histories, but Touring the Land of the Dead is fairly unique in its execution. Natsuko doesn’t mourn for the past or become trapped in the past; her visit to the hotel helps her to escape from her family’s toxicity and move forward with her own life.
But Natsuko’s idea of family has been severely damaged. As it declined into poverty, “that creature that was her family began to wither.” She is frightened to look for a healthier family dynamic in a meaningful, reciprocal relationship with her husband:
If she tried to speak to him about [her family] now, he might just understand. You hear about it a lot, don’t you? About people who are able to go through their whole lives without ever complaining about anything. But you know, I don’t know why, but I just can’t hold it in anymore… But if she said that, [her husband] might absorb all her suffering. He might accept it all, every last drop of it. He might finally understand. It might leave him weeping, his nose running like a child’s. So she said nothing. She didn’t want to see such a sight—such a pure, thankful sight. Someone like herself, who had passed through that life, didn’t deserve that kind of sympathy.
Through Natsuko’s story, Kashimada takes up some of the most complex issues in contemporary Japanese society: the future of the family in an aging country and what some people perceive as a post-bubble cultural ennui. If Natsuko’s mother represents those who long for the return of Japan’s economic hegemony, Natsuko herself stands in for a younger generation looking for a way forward in an era of economic stagnation. It is a difficult task that requires rethinking some basic assumptions about family, work, and self.
Touring the Land of the Dead is published in English alongside another short story about family, Ninety-Nine Kisses. The novella is an “updated” retelling of Tanizaki Junichiro’s The Makoka Sisters, one of the most important novels in modern Japanese. As Kashimada does in Touring the Land of the Dead, Tanizaki addresses a period of cultural and economic decline, this time in the aftermath of World War II, through the lives of three sisters.
In Ninety-Nine Kisses, first-person narrator Nanako describes her matriarchal family of four sisters and the interruption caused by a new love interest. While much lighter in tone than Touring the Land of the Dead, Ninety-Nine Kisses takes up questions of gender and internalized misogyny. Less understated is the narrator’s incestuous attraction to her older sisters.
In comparison to the muted, third-person narrator of Touring the Land of the Dead, Nanako’s voice is eccentric and character driven. The two markedly different narrative voices show off the talent that helped Kashimada win Japan’s most coveted literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, for Touring the Land of the Dead. Haydn Trowell’s unobtrusive translation leaves room for Kashimada’s prose as she reflects on family, memory, and identity.