Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut novel, Convenience Store Woman, caused a sensation when it appeared in a 2018 translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The story of an offbeat, thirty-something sales clerk at a “Smile Mart” helped spur a boom in English-language translations of Japanese literature, especially literature by women.
British readers could purchase the book with a blue, yellow, or pink cover with the title in contrasting bold, white writing. In the middle was a fish-shaped soy sauce container with a bright red cap. The American edition was even cuter—on a pink napkin set against a soft blue background sat a little white plate. On the plate? An onigiri rice ball in the shape of a smiling girl next to a flower of pink ginger.
But Convenience Store Woman, perhaps because of the cutesy way it was marketed, was also widely misunderstood. One critic described the novel as “brilliant, witty, and sweet in ways that recall Amélie and Shopgirl”. It had comic moments, certainly. At its heart, though, was a thorough-going critique of capitalism, sexism, and cultural norms that don’t always make sense. Murata was apparently baffled that so many English-speaking readers found the novel funny.
Her follow-up, Earthlings, startled many English-speaking readers. This time, an adorable stuffed hedgehog adorned the cover. But the novel included graphic accounts of pedophilia, sexual assault, and even cannibalism.
Life Ceremony, Murata’s first volume of short stories to appear in English, is likely to startle anglophone readers as well. Most of the stories in Life Ceremony are deeply unsettling and more along the lines of Earthlings than Convenience Store Woman. At least this time, the cover art gives readers some idea what to expect—the orange Granta Books edition, available in UK markets, features an eyeball wrapped like a hard candy, and the Grove Press edition, available in the US and Canada, pictures a bowl of hot pot topped with an anatomically-correct human heart.
Readers who have only encountered Murata through Convenience Store Woman will likely feel most at home in “A Magnificent Spread”. It is the funniest story in the collection and almost certainly the least disturbing. The narrator and her husband subsist on a diet of trendy pre-made health foods. Her idiosyncratic little sister has always claimed to be from the magical city of Dundilas, so she eats what she claims are that city’s traditional dishes. The protagonist’s future brother-in-law comes from a region with its own unique cuisine. He conspires to get everyone together for a dinner he amiably describes as “hell on earth”. “Here’s to all our uniquely disgusting food!” he happily toasts.
The edition published by Granta Books also includes the short story “A Clean Marriage.” (Although the story doesn’t appear in the Grove Press edition, North American readers can access the story for free on Granta’s website.) In some ways, “A Clean Marriage” is maybe the most typical of all Murata’s work to appear in English. It takes up motifs that appear in her work again and again: sexless relationships, asexual reproduction, unconventional families, and a general willingness to defy society’s expectations.
In “A Clean Marriage”, the narrator and her husband decide to start a family using a piece of technology called “the Clean Breeder”. After all, the doctor in charge of the clinic reassures them
The traditional way of thinking that a couple would have sex to conceive a child is outdated. It is not at all in tune with the times. Sex for pleasure and sex for pregnancy are two completely different concerns, and it’s absurd to lump them together. It’s out of sync with how people live their lives these days.
In the end, the Clean Breeder involves a kind of farcical and even obscene role reversal that puts all the discomfort and indignity of childbirth on the narrator’s husband—at least in the moment of conception. The man is the partner uncomfortably strapped down. He is the one facing the nurses’ condescending encouragement: “One last little push, Mr. Takahashi!”
What all of Murata’s stories have in common is a discomfiting sense that the rules that govern how people behave don’t make as much sense as people would like to think they do. Murata is at her best when she calls the reader’s attention to those rules. She poses ambiguous moral problems—and then refuses to answer them.
In “A First-Rate Material,” the narrator copes with her fiance’s unfashionable dislike of objects made from human remains—hair sweaters, fingernail tie pins, and dried stomach lampshades. He won’t even buy her a wedding ring made from human teeth! Here, as in all of her translations of Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori captures the wry detachment of Murata’s writing in a conversation between the narrator and her fiance:
“What could be more normal than making people into clothes or furniture after they die?…”
“It’s sacreligious! I can’t believe you’re so unfazed by using items hacked from dead bodies.”
“Is using other animals any better? This is a precious and noble aspect of the workings of our advanced life-form—not wasting the bodies of people when they die.”
The morality in “A First Rate Material” is disquieting. After all, the questions the narrator asks are, in some ways, reasonable ones. The morality makes a certain kind of sense, even if it is exactly the opposite of what the reader’s own contemporary culture dictates. Is the world Murata has created a gross reductio ad absurdum of consumer capitalism? Or is it simply an eco-friendly exercise in creative conservationism?
And that’s the spirit of most of the stories in Life Ceremony. The collection contains story upon story forcing the reader to evaluate the cultural norms she can never really escape.