REVIEW by Georgia Fearn

NWR Issue r36

Where The Wild Ladies Are

by Matsuda Aoko (Polly Barton, trans)

When I first began to read Where The Wild Ladies Are, a downright genius reinvention of traditional Japanese ghost stories by Matsuda Aoko, I was not sure quite what to expect. I was worried that there would be a cultural barrier and I would not relate, especially since I was not familiar with the stories on which they were based. And yet, I can say with complete confidence that this is one of the most interesting, astounding collection of stories that will undeniably connect with every woman in the modern world.

Many of the stories here link together through a company run by a mysterious figure named Mr Tei, a man who seems otherworldly in his mission to reconnect the deceased with the living. In the first story of the collection, ‘The Peony Lanterns’, Aoko reimagines the world of commerce in her brilliantly eerie portrayal of Tsuyuko and Yoneko, two calculating ghostly businesswomen who attempt to manipulate their femininity to make sales. ‘Team Sharashina’ is equally unnerving, being an illustration of a team working within a factory that seems so normal, and yet is clearly supernatural. The title story, ‘Where the Wild Ladies Are’, tells an incredibly melancholy tale of a young boy, Shigeru, beginning to work in Mr Tei’s factory. Mourning the death of his mother – who makes an appearance in the earlier ‘Smartening Up’ – Shigeru is disheartened and disillusioned with the world, only to begin hearing his mother from beyond the grave and discovering the factory is not all it seems. Aoko’s modernisation of the stories does not cheapen the scare. Despite the content matter being more relatable and believable to a reader due to its realism, Aoko still manages to create an unnerving tone and atmosphere around the stories [which is preserved in this translation].

‘My Superpower’ is a gleaming example of how Aoko takes traditional Japanese tales and transforms them into something completely relevant, especially to women today. Reflecting on the original ghost stories of Oiwa and Okon – two women who were disfigured and faced societal ostracism – Aoko reimagines the idea in a modern society, framing the story like a blog post, ‘Questions with Kumiko’. In this story, the contemporary female protagonists suffers with skin issues which distort her notion of her own beauty, much like the protagonist of ‘Smartening Up’. Aoko questions the way in we treat people based on appearances: ‘Why did they have to be treated as such monsters?’ The narrative is filled with such clever insights into society, making us readers question the way we judge people: ‘Those who see others as monsters don’t notice that those monsters are looking back at them in turn.’

My favourite story is ‘A Fox’s Life’. The narrative follows the journey of Kuzuha as she grows up and discovers the inequalities of the world, leading to the revelation that she is in fact a fox. However, it is the transition into this discovery that is of greatest interest, where Aoko provides insightful and perceptive commentary on leading life as an intelligent woman:

Male employees had to pretend to be capable of doing things they couldn’t do, while female employees had to pretend to be incapable of doing things they could actually do.

The story explores contemporary issues regarding gender, from the treatment and expectations of women in Asia, (‘She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, but as a demure Japanese woman, of course she didn’t’), to the overlooking of sexual harassment in the workplace (‘Sexual harassment was so rife that nobody batted an eyelid’). Aoko brilliantly digs deep into the experiences of women and never dismisses their stories. As Aoko ties her stories together by revealing that protagonist Kuzuha works in the factory of the mysterious Mr Tei, she makes an interesting observation about the way modern society has changed for the worse: ‘Society had become more equal, but in a bad way. Women hadn’t risen up – rather the men had slid down.’ It is as though is Aoko suggesting that men are women are almost equal, however neither truly have rights anymore. As the author beautifully puts it, they are equal in ‘despair’.

More contemporary issues are explored, the beautifully haunting ‘What Can She Do’ telling the story of a maternal ghost that helps a single mother who resorts to prostitution to support her child. The ghost watches over the child, as the mother does everything she can and is still shunned by society. ‘Enoki’ is equally powerful, retelling the story of an ancient Japanese tree that was said to give milk, while using an interesting twist to tell the story from the tree’s perspective. Instead of idealising the legend of the tree, Aoko sympathises with the women who had to use Enoki as they were not able to breastfeed: ‘The sadness those women felt – that was different. That was real.’ It makes you reflect on the suffering of women in so many ways, far away from stereotypes. ‘A Day Off’ illustrates the normalisation of women facing sexual assault, in a story of a woman who is protected from predatory men by her giant pet frog. The way in which the author highlights the nonchalance with which sexual assault is spoken about made this particular young writer shudder: ‘Sitting around in the student canteen, eating my cheese katsu and listening to my friends talking about being groped on the train.’

Among this assembly of feminist tales, Aoko changes tack in ‘The Jealous Type’, exploring the realm of domestic abuse at the hands of women. Unlike the other portraits of women who struggle, are undermined and abused in this collection, in ‘The Jealous Type’ the author paints a picture of a man so scared by his wife, who sees herself as powerful (‘Such scars are the honourable wounds of a warrior’), yet is revealed to be physically abusive. While the subtleties of emotional abuse are depicted as being ‘like a Jenga tower tumbling down’, the scenario is grounded in realism and wit by employing throwaway comments such as ‘well-stocked is well-armed, after all’. The calling out of the double standard between men and women being abusers in society is another painfully relevant layer of feminism that is often overlooked, though Aoko’s themes show transparently that equality between genders should apply, even where women face advantages. But what is truly phenomenal is the way in which the title uses irony to explore the reasons why women are overlooked as abusers. The stereotypes we attach to gender can both hide and make explicit how actions may be interpreted. With a recurring motif becoming increasingly apparent, ‘crazy jealous girlfriends’, ‘this was what romance, what love, was all about’, ‘perfectly conventional behaviour’, Aoko digs deep into understanding that the society in which we live perpetuates an idea of women generally being ‘crazy’ that somehow excuses women who actually are ‘crazy’. By believing that abusive behaviour is the societal norm for women, it becomes expected. In this way, the abuse of men around the world have their experience invalidated, and that topical issue sits well in a feminist collection, in that it does not favour convenience of theme over the reality of human experience. ‘The Jealous Type’ ties this whole collection together.

Georgia Fearn is a nineteen-year-old aspiring journalist from south Wales. Having secured a place in Cambridge University to read English this October, Georgia is passionate about reading and writing. One of her literary reviews gained first prize in the Dylan Thomas Book Review Awards in 2018. Georgia is also an avid writer, particularly of short stories, and was thrilled when her work was published in Young Writers’ Anthology.


previous review: Pravda Ha Ha
next review: Lost


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