Japanese novel review: “勝手にしゃべる女” (katte ni shaberu onna) by 赤川次郎 (Jiro Akagawa)

By | July 16, 2019

Recently I was given a physical copy of Jiro Akawaga’s “Katte ni Shaberu Onna”, a compilation of “short-short” stories. It came with a high recommendation, so I couldn’t help but read the book. By the way, the title “Katte ni Shaberu Onna” is taken from one of the story titles; while it is a bit tricky to translate I’ll make an attempt: “The Woman Who Speaks out of Turn.”

There doesn’t seem to be any single definition for the Japanese genre of “short-short” stories  (ショートショート), but it has been compared to flash fiction. In any case, the stories in this compilation are, for the most part, each only 7-10 pages long. 

With stories this short, there is very little time for detailed character development, and the payoff is mostly at the (often surprise) ending. Overall, I feel that Akagawa did an excellent job with crafting surprising or creative endings, although in a few cases the ending was unusual, if not downright weird. 

Besides the endings themselves, the stories are generally easy to read, with short sentences and a minimum of advanced vocabulary or kanji. It is clear that Akagawa has a great writing ability and I think authors can learn from his simplicity and overall style.

While I did enjoy the stories (one I *really* loved), given my predilection for longer works I actually got more out of this book in terms of Japanese language and culture. While the style is relatively easy, there were still some words I wasn’t familiar with (often related to everyday life), especially since the book was published in 1986. Not having lived in Japan I don’t feel comfortable identifying eras, but I definitely felt something decidedly “non-modern” in both the language and the themes of this book. Given the fact I was old enough to be alive in 1986, had I lived in Japan as a child I would have surely learned many of these phrases, so it feels somehow satisfying to learn them from a book.

Culturally, a majority of the stories are strongly tied to elements of Japanese culture, in particular work, family, or traditions. While surely these things have evolved over the last few decades, I felt I learned some valuable history in the process of reading these stories. 

Another nice thing about these short stories is that if you are unfamiliar with the language and cultural elements, you probably won’t “get” the ending in terms of its irony or unexpectedness. I myself found a few stories whose endings I didn’t completely understand, a few which I figured out after some thought and one or two that still elude me. There’s a certain satisfaction when you are able to comprehend a story enough to enjoy the ending, and with over 20 stories in this compilation you’ll get a lot of opportunities. 

Each story in the second half of the book includes a short introduction from the author about the inspiration of that story. I found some of these enlightening, but others were not as interesting. Perhaps preexisting fans of Akagawa would enjoy these more.

Despite the fact interpreting the stories can be challenging, I think the overall level of difficulty makes these worth reading for most Japanese students, especially those with at least a year or two of study. If I was teaching an advanced Japanese literature class I would consider assigning several stories, if not the entire book, to my students. 

You can pick up this book on Amazon Japan. This is the version I read (used), and this one is a newer version. You can also buy an E-book version on BookLive here.

By the way, I heard that Akagawa is actually more known for this longer works, so maybe sometime I’ll check one of those out as well.

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