On a recent trip to Japan (which I am in the process of reporting on here), I browsed through many bookstores. Because my reading speed in Japanese still hasn’t quite caught up to my English reading speed, rather than actually read a few pages of a book I generally focus on searching for covers and titles that catch my eye, and try to skim the book descriptions to see if I can get a feeling for what the book is about.
I still have a pile of books (both English and Japanese) that I haven’t read, so I always hesitate to buy Japanese novels, especially because of the time commitment required to finish one. However, there is something lonely about going bookstore after bookstore without purchasing a single book, so a few days into my trip I decided to buy a novel.
I chose Minato Kanae’s (湊かなえ) “Utopia” (ユートピア) novel, not just because the title and cover picture caught my attention, but because it was on a top-seller list (#2 if I remember correctly). I also hadn’t seen this book at the Kinokuniya Japanese bookstore back at home in Portland.
This novel is set in a port town with a population of about 7,000 people that is supported by the employees of a large food processing company. Nearby is a shopping center called “Hanasaki Utopia Shopping Center” (鼻崎ユートピア商店街) that, in its most prosperous period, boasted around ten thousand visitors in a single day. However, in recent times the area seems to be on a general decline. The part of this novel that involved trying to breathe life back into this town was enjoyable, but I wished there was more of it.
“Utopia” is a story about the inhabitants of this town, told from the point of view of three female protagonists. Much of the story involves around events in their three families, including the men and children in their lives, as well as interactions with the rest of the city. The plot is driven by several dramatic events (including crimes and tragedies) that alter the relationships between the people, not only during these events but after them. Unfortunately, some of these events were cheesy and overly-dramatic to the point I was reminded of a soap opera. (I’d give you a few examples, but that would spoil the plot).
The story is referred to as a mystery on the back cover, and though there several mysteries which are somewhat tied together in the later pages of the book, for the most part I felt the pace of this novel was extremely slow. Rather than the events themselves, it’s quite clear the focus of the book is really the characters feelings and interactions, especially the three women main characters. The commentary at the end of the book sums those up well with the phrase “女性を中心とした詳細な心理描写” (Detailed psychological descriptions centered around women).
In fact, while I generally don’t like to make gender-biased statements, as I read this book I frequently felt that it was truly written for women readers, and it would really take a woman (or a feminine man) to empathize completely with the characters and fully enjoy the story. For example, there were some parts about protecting and taking care of children, gossiping, and (to be honest, my least favorite) preserved flower arrangements, the latter which appears to be popular in Japan now.
Another reason I found it hard to really get into the story is the three protagonists really don’t feel that unique; rather they seem like everyday (Japanese) women you might find anywhere. There was another part in the commentary that said something in line with this. But, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing––in a sense, Kanae Minato has managed to make very “realistic” female characters, at least based on my own observations (keep in mind I’m a guy, so you can take this statement with a grain of salt). The male characters, if anything, seemed even more typecast, for example the distant husband that works a great deal of overtime and complains to his wife about how she overspends (again, such situations have some real-world precedents). But there are also surprises, and characters don’t always do what you might think.
Unfortunately, because I could never really get too emotionally involved in the story, I never got to a point where I was reading in “the zone”, meaning I could read at a relatively quick pace and focus more on the content than the individual words and sentences. For other Japanese books I usually get to that point sometime midway through.
But I am still, without a doubt, very glad to have read this book to the end. One of the reasons is that I learned a great deal about Japanese culture and society. It so happens that Kanae Minato is well known for her hit novel “Confession” (告白), and reading a novel by a famous author is always enlightening. Despite the fact I didn’t enjoy the story that much, it was a good exercise to think about why this book might be a best seller in Japan now. Coincidentally, this book had just come out only a week or so before I bought it, so the culture references and such are as modern as you can get.
This book was also a great choice for me to read while I was in Japan, since I was actually to connect several things on the page to real life. For example, in one part of the book there is a “Stamp Rally” (スタンプラリー) whereby you go to different stores and get a stamp at each if you purchase a certain product, and once you get all the stamps you can enter into a contest. A day or two after I read that part of the book I actually saw an advertisement for a Stamp Rally in the real world. There were a few other words which I was able to connect to real life and I found that process really fulfilling.
The Japanese itself wasn’t that difficult for me (though keep in mind I’ve read many Japanese novels). For example, I didn’t have to look up strange Kanji or expressions that often. However, there were some modern terms that took some getting used to (like the above スタンプラリー), but with a few Internet searches those become manageable.
Despite the fact the Japanese wasn’t difficult, I still had a hard time in several areas of this novel where I ended up having to re-read sentences once or twice to get a better understanding. I think this was partially because I was just not into the story and easily lost focus, but also I felt Kanae Minato’s grammar somehow assumed more context than many other books I had read. For example, in a few places it was a challenge for me to understand who was saying a certain line, or how a sentence fit into the bigger picture of what was going on. I found the dialogue itself to be very informative (from the point of view of someone learning Japanese), especially because it seemed to mostly casual phrases that I could imagine real people actually saying.
After finishing the book I learned it was part of the genre called “iyamisu” (イヤミス), which my dictionary describes as “読むと嫌な気分になるミステリー” (literally: “a mystery where you feel bad when you read it”). It turns out that Kanae Minato is even one of the people commonly associated with this genre. While I think describing “Utopia” this way is a major oversimplification––the story clearly has both high and low points––overall I could see there was a definite thread of dark feelings holding things together. In retrospect, one look at the cover should have told me that (not just the cloudy sky but the cracked font that was used for the title itself).
While I don’t expect to run right out and buy Kanae Minato’s other books, I still may try “Confession” one day. Now that I have a better understanding of her writing style, and what sort of story to expect, I’ll probably be able to read through it much faster and likely enjoy it more.
Right before posting this review I couldn’t help checking this book’s page on Amazon Japan to find it only got 3/5 stars (8 reviews). Although it just came out, so things may change in a few months. “Confession” has a whopping 800+ reviews, but surprisingly the average is around 3.5. However, if you look at the review curves there is is a big difference.
I promised myself that for my next Japanese novel, I’m going to pick something not just to learn, but to really enjoy the story. While in Japan, I happened to also pick up a modern SF dystopian novel, so I just need to find the time to read it.