Hiromi Kawakami is one of the best-known Japanese writers available in English translation today. Her novels like Strange Weather in Tokyo are beloved by many English-language readers. But her most recently translated work, the short story collection Dragon Palace, is something very different.
English-language readers are most likely to have encountered Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo (also published as The Briefcase, both the same translation by Allison Markin Powell). It’s an understated novel about a grown woman’s romantic encounter with a man who was once her high school teacher. Many of her other titles would feel familiar to readers of Stranger Weather. The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino (also The Ten Loves of Nishino, also translated by Powell) is a series of ten linked short stories from the perspective of Nishino’s former romantic partners. Manazuru (lyrically translated by Michael Emmerich) is a piece of more literary fiction about a woman and mother whose husband disappeared years before.
Kawakami, though, is a writer of impressive range. For example, 2020’s People from My Neighborhood (translated by Ted Goossen) is a collection of linked magical realist microfiction that doesn’t have much in common with Strange Weather or Nishino. For example, one story begins with a government announcement that a “no-gravity event” will take place that afternoon.
But readers of Strange Weather in Tokyo might not even recognize the hand of the same author in her two short story collections. Part of the problem lies in the nature of the translation market. Kawakami’s earliest stories are shaped by a more fantastic mold. Her novels and short story collections have appeared almost concurrently in the last decade or so, which makes it hard for English-language readers to sense the evolution in her style. Her first collection of stories in English, Record of a Night Too Brief (translated by Lucy North) included her Akutagawa-winning story “A Snake Stepped On”, which won the award in 1996. The stories feature a girlfriend made of porcelain and snakes that are secretly a part of the family.
Dragon Palace (translated by Ted Goossen) is, like Record of a Night, a collection of her earliest work; Dragon Palace was published in Japan in 2002. The stories in both volumes are somewhere between magical realism and dream narratives—or perhaps nightmares. Most of the tales in Dragon Palace are distinctively sinister in tone.
Dragon Palace dwells on the power dynamics in relationships between men and women. Most often, it is men who act in problematic ways. A man possessed by a fox spirit sexually harasses his caregiver. Men pass along the same “wife” to one another, never allowing her to escape. A husband is entirely absent from a story. Sometimes, though, things are more ambiguous, as when a goddess both sexually uses and is used by her followers. A man takes from a series of “sisters” and has things taken from him in turn.
The contrast is starkest in the collection’s opening and closing stories, ”Hokusai” and “Sea Horse”, which echo each other. In “Hokusai”, an octopus has become a human being because he has discovered “how easy it [is] to satisfy a woman”—and also because he has developed a taste for sweet potatoes. The octopus-man isn’t the narrator, but he passes on his own sexist attitudes to a male narrator. After the two spend time ranking the women who pass them on the street, the narrator reflects
I felt strangely liberated. I stood there assigning numbers and adjectives to each woman that came by, one after another. In the process, they stopped being individuals with personalities and real lives.
In contrast, the sea creature in “Sea Horse” is female and she herself serves as the narrator.
The collection’s other central motif is the way magic may lurk behind the mundane for those who know where to look. Ancestors might have been goddesses. Perhaps all homes have kitchen gods but only some women are willing to admit it. Humans may have the traits of Shinto fox spirits. “Each and every home contains at least one member who has something inhuman about them,” one character remarks.
This magic in the everyday is a feature of what is perhaps the volume’s most moving story, “Mole”. Its protagonist, the titular mole, recalls the bear that stars in Kawakami’s celebrated story “Kamisama” or “God Bless You”, a narrative she revisited in the aftermath of the 3/11 Triple Disasters in 2011. (Readers can find both versions of “Kamisama” translated by Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata in March Was Made of Yarn, edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima.) Every day, the mole commutes to his day job in Tokyo. When he first started work, he was heavily bullied. Now, though, “it doesn’t seem to register with new employees how different I look… it appears they’re just not paying attention.” He’s just a mole who happens to have an office job. On his way home, he collects human beings who are “on their last legs,” who have “lost the energy to stay alive.”
If left alone, they hollow out. First, they themselves, then the place where they stand, then ultimately the entire area around them empties. All real substance is lost.
But this does not mean they are dead.
Apparently, dying requires actual strength.
When he finds them, he snatches them up into his claws, where they shrink to the size they can fit into the pockets of his cashmere coat. He takes them home so he and his wife can give them space to recover. The story is a beautiful commentary on humanity from a character who is far from human himself.
Although Dragon Palace shares little with Kawakami’s best-known stories in English, it is a worthwhile collection by one of Japan’s most important contemporary voices. It opens up her career for wider appreciation in the English-reading world. And the stories fit neatly in the context of more recently-published tales from Japan that take up feminism and gender like Hiromi Ito’s The Thorn Puller (translated by Jeffrey Angles), Sayaka Murata’s Life Ceremony, (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori), or even Ao Omae’s People Who Talk to Stuffed Animals Are Nice (translated by Emily Balistrieri).