There is a growing interest in a behavioral phenomenon the Internet has dubbed “main character syndrome”. Whether motivated by narcissism or a healthy sense of self-worth, some people live as though they were the hero in a fictional story and interact with the world around them as though they were its center. The narrator of The Woman in the Purple Skirt is not one of these people. She barely sees herself as a character at all.
Natsuko Imamura’s narrator, who calls herself the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, is childish, naïve, and unreliable. But she is no Scout Finch, telling her brother’s story as one of its central figures; Yellow Cardigan is a nonentity who traverses the pages of the novel almost like a haunting specter.
The protagonist of Yellow Cardigan’s life is instead a neighbor whom Yellow Cardigan has dubbed the Woman in the Purple Skirt. (Lucy North’s iambic translation of the name, which Yellow Cardigan repeats like a mantra, lends itself nicely to the novel’s childish tone.) Her single-minded devotion leads her to believe everyone is aware of Purple Skirt as she is. No one knows about the Woman in the Cardigan, she claims in a self-effacing third person—“That’s the difference between her and the Woman in the Purple Skirt.”
Before she ever interacts with Purple Skirt, Yellow Cardigan knows all the intimate details of her life. She notes Purple Skirt’s daily routine. She knows what Purple Skirt orders from the bakery, her favorite bench at the park. She knows that Purple Skirt does not have a regular job, and, at the start of the novel, is unemployed. From the shadows, Yellow Cardigan subtly shapes Purple Skirt’s life with anonymous gifts of shampoo and help-wanted ads. Eventually, she even leads Purple Skirt to a job cleaning at the same hotel where she herself works. Purple Skirt never suspects that a stranger has altered the course of her life.
As the novel continues, Yellow Cardigan’s obsession becomes even more unnerving. How, the reader wonders, can she know, down to the minute, what Purple Skirt does when she’s alone in a guestroom? How can Yellow Cardigan describe conversations between Purple Skirt and a coworker, even when the narrator claims, “no one else was there”? Yellow Cardigan’s failure to reveal anything about her own life or describe anything about her own actions disorients the reader and adds to a growing sense of foreboding.
The Woman in the Purple Skirt is an apolitical novel, but evidence of the challenges facing Japan’s economy and culture are everywhere. Unreliable employment and limited professional opportunities are the lived reality of Japan’s have-nots. They invisibly shape the way people live no less than Yellow Cardigan invisibly interferes with Purple Skirt.
And at the heart of the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan’s obsession is an unsated desire to initiate a relationship—to form, not a sexual or romantic bond, but a connection to any other person. “I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been wanting to become friends with the Woman in the Purple Skirt for a very long time,” she says in her characteristically understated way.
More than just loneliness, this fear to approach others at all is a recurring theme in books translated from Japanese into English this year. The narrators of both Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven and Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror, for example, are teenagers who are afraid to make themselves vulnerable to other people. But unlike these teenagers, Yellow Cardigan is an adult. Building relationships is a skill she has never learned, and she has sunken into an anonymity from which she may never escape. She is, in effect, invisible.
In one of the novel’s most notable scenes, one of the few scenes in which the reader encounters Yellow Cardigan’s real name, her boss notices her for once as she stands near him in plain sight. “Oh! You scared me. How long have you been there, Gondo-san?” he says.
“I’ve been here all along”, she replies.
Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.