On the hunt for Japanese literature of a similar style to the works of Hiromi Kawakami, I found these delightful short stories (Kindle Singles) from the award-winning Mitsuyo Kakuta (English translation by Wayne P Lammers).
Good Luck Bag Synopsis :
From one of Japan’s most respected literary voices comes a darkly humorous story about fractured family bonds.
Kayoko has broken off all ties with her only sibling, her ne’er-do-well brother Yasuyumi, who ever since high school has been getting girls pregnant and stealing money from relatives. But at the moment, in the bustling streets of Osaka under a blazing sun, she and another woman—who claims to be Yasuyumi’s recently abandoned fiancée—are trying to find him. Kayoko blames her brother for causing the stress that brought about her mother’s death, and she wants to confront him. Fiancée Mieko, on the other hand, wants to hurry up and marry him and even have a baby, since surely having a family of his own will make him stop running away.
Will they find Yasuyumi, and if they do, what bonds, if any, will survive?
Moving the Birds Synopsis :
How do you take care of six pet birds when their owner lives a couple of hours away and you don’t drive? Why, of course, bundle them into small cake boxes and then into paper bags, and carry them on the train.
That’s what the young woman narrating the story decides to do when her bird-loving mother is going to be in the hospital for a while. To help her in the task, she enlists her husband Ken’ichi. Well, ex-husband. They divorced about a month ago. But there’s no one else she can ask.
Their shared journey becomes a darkly humorous exploration of family, endings, and what makes marriage so near-impossible, at least for the strong-willed and observant narrator, to pull off.
A characteristic of much Japanese literature that I find myself particularly drawn to is a sense of minimalism. Often what is not said is more telling than what is, and the moral or message being conveyed is more powerful because of the restraint displayed by the author (an absence of prose decadence). These two short stories by Mitsuyo Kakuta, Good Luck Bag and Moving the Birds, are fine examples of this.
Each features a small trial experienced by the narrator that serves as window into their history and an opportunity for them to work through broader long-standing issues. In Moving the Birds, the narrator’s trial of asking her ex-husband to help her transport her mother’s beloved pet birds is tinged with dark humour,
I guess this is the first time they’ve ever been on a train,” I said with forced cheer, trying to slough off the hassle of it all. “With all the noise and the jerking around, they have to be wondering what the hell is going on.” Ken’ichi flinched as if he was the one being put through an incomprehensible ordeal.
while in Good Luck Bag, the narrator reflects more sombrely (and later philosophically) on her departed mother’s approach to the trials she faced in her life.
She would drop her shoulders and sigh, “I got suckered.” Each time, my father would suggest maybe she shouldn’t buy Good Luck Bags anymore, but the next thing we knew we’d see her wearing the synthetic sweater or frilly blouse as if she was perfectly happy with it. Sometimes she’d even take to boasting what a steal the item had been. And the following January, she’d go merrily off to try her luck again.
Both are beautifully understated and wise metaphors on relationships and the nature of compromise and happiness.
Credit also to Lammers’ translations — the clarity of prose being such that one could easily be mistaken for assuming English was their original form.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
Genre: Short Story, Translations, Literature, Drama
About the Author, Mitsuyo Kakuta
About the Translator, Wayne P Lammers
Wayne P. Lammers is a Japanese-to-English translator working out of Portland, OR, focusing mainly on literary and cultural materials. Born in Ohio and raised in Japan, he has been bilingual since childhood.
Cover designs by Andrew Lee.