After getting a recommendation for the Japanese fiction novel 天使の卵 (“Angel’s Egg” or “Angel Egg”) by 村山由佳 (Yuka Murayama), I decided to give it a shot. The book turned out to be a very rewarding read, so in this post I’ll review it.
This book is about the experiences of the 19-year old male narrator, focusing on his interactions with two women, Natsuko and Haruhi. Yes, It’s a love story. But because I am generally very careful about spoilers, I’m not going to give much more information about the plot here. I’ll just say that it’s relatively simple, contains one or more contrived twists, and frankly wasn’t that impressive on its own.
However, as you probably know if you have been in any romantic relationship, what’s important is not what events occur but rather how you experience them; in other words, it’s the feelings and internal dialogue that matter.
This is where Angel’s Egg excels––the descriptions of the thoughts and mental state of the protagonist are very realistic, and told from the heart. Murayama uses a variety of literary techniques to really make you feel what the main character is experiencing, like when time appears to stand still in a key emotional moment, or speed up when the protagonist acts instinctively, so that the reader realizes what is happening before the character himself does.
My only complaint about the emotional description in this book is that the protagonist’s thoughts and personality feel a little feminine to me. But given this was the author’s first novel I consider it a minor flaw, or should I say it isn’t really a flaw at all because everyone is different. While I don’t support gender stereotypes, I just couldn’t help feeling this way about the main character at several points throughout the book. Perhaps it’s better to say that the realistic psychological descriptions are what make him feel a little feminine, because even men have a soft side that is often not expressed in typical biased depictions.
天使の卵 has its share of emotional ups and downs, as most memorable stories do. But just a word of caution for sensitive readers: the “downs” can be quite heavy, so make sure you are able to handle those types of twists. I think it’s safe to say this story is squarely in the お涙頂戴 (onamida choudai) category, roughly translated as “tear-jerker”.
I also really enjoyed the literary style of this book. While the first 30-50 pages were somewhat difficult going because of expressions and words I hadn’t read before (or at least not recently), once I grew accustomed to things I was able to appreciate the effort Murayama put into her writing. It’s no surprise that she studied literature in college, and I would even recommend her books for those looking to polish up their own writing style in Japanese.
Like many of the books I review on this blog, the writing style of this book is difficult enough that I would recommend you have studied Japanese for at least two to three years before making an attempt. But, on the other hand, for those with the right language background I think this book provides a great deal of information about Japan’s lifestyle and culture, to the extent that I almost felt like I was living in Japan while reading through this book. I don’t think it was necessarily the author’s intention to make the book feel this way, but for me I found a lot of interesting words I hadn’t come across in other books or anime, like the word 石膏像 (which means “plaster figure”).
One of the most memorable references was the word サーティワン (saatiwan). What I thought was a word from some Indian language turned out to be a loanword from English, “31”, that was actually a reference to Baskin Robin’s and their number of ice cream flavors. This is the kind of thing that you would likely know if you lived in Japan.
While I haven’t seen it, I’ve heard there was a live-action remaking of this story. Given the dramatic twists and turns, it seems like a really suitable story for that purpose. This, plus the fact there were two follow-up novels (天使の梯子 and 天使の柩), shows that this novel was clearly a huge commercial hit. In fact, Yuka Murayama has gone on to write many other books, including 星々の舟 which won the prestigious Naoki prize in 2003. I actually had read another of her books over 10 years ago (翼 cry for the moon). I don’t remember too many details but I know I enjoyed it.
In summary, Angel’s Egg leverages excellent psychological description and skillful writing style to overcome any potential plot weaknesses, making this by far one of the best literary romance novels I’ve read in Japanese (or even in English). I strongly recommend it to anyone with advanced knowledge of Japanese who loves teary love stories.
“One of the most memorable references was the word サーティワン (saatiwan). What I thought was a word from some Indian language turned out to be a loanword from English, “31”, that was actually a reference to Baskin Robin’s and their number of ice cream flavors. This is the kind of thing that you would likely know if you lived in Japan.”
BASKIN ROBBINS 31!!! I LOVE THAT BRAND!
I didn’t know about it before I lived in Japan. After the special seasonal classes at my 英会話 my boss would always take me, my coteacher, and her family (husband+three girls) to Baskin Robbins as a treat. It was totally awesome. We’d have spent the day setting up a barbecue in the park then doing activities with the students, had a barbecue (often with the parents too), then put everything away again, and finally, exhausted, go to Baskin Robbins and eat ice cream.
The brand has extremely happy memories for me.
One summer one of my adult students (Yoko, a grandmother) gave me 5,000 yen of vouchers for Baskin Robbins. I was very happy and I liked that it made me feel like she still viewed me as a kid rather than as a boring adult who didn’t eat ice cream. But…it made me realise something later…that Baskin Robbins wasn’t just considered a kids’ place, that it was liked by all Japanese people, young and old. To Yoko it wasn’t strange or childish to give a 27-year-old a ~$50 ice cream gift card. Looking back, she probably knew from others that I really liked the ice cream and often bought it for my host family (= my boss and her family) and sometimes even for my students, so she knew that her generous gift would spread far. Maybe she even thought it was ridiculous that on a teacher’s salary I was buying expensive ice cream for others so that’s why she gave me the vouchers. I’ll never know for sure.
Now I use the logo of Baskin Robbins as a conversation starter with my (Japanese) students in the UK and sometimes it takes them a moment to recognise it (I use a very small version on a sheet with many logos). Recently with a student who didn’t recognise it I said “there’s a number hidden in the logo…what number?” and he immediately shouted サーティワン!
I know that in Japan everyone calls it サーティワン but I always found it hard to break my instinct to read the words on the shop and logo so I pretty much refer to it as “Baskin Robbins” (as in this comment), even though it’s not natural for native Japanese to call it that.
In general I’ve found it a great ice breaker with Japanese people, whether I’m teaching them English or not. “What does the 31 mean?”, “What happens if they invent a new flavour?!”, “What is your favourite flavour?”, “Have you ever been taken there by someone else?” etc. etc. all lead to fun enthusiastic conversations. Even my grumpiest student recently lit up when we started talking about Baskin Robbins. Sorry…I mean SAAAATEEEEWAAAAN lol XD
(And yes, I do usually explain to them that the number “31” isn’t really pronounced サーティワン in English but I reassure them they should still definitely call Baskin Robbins サーティワン because I know that’s what Japanese people say hahaha.)
Jim, thanks for the long comment, I appreciate the share of good memories (:
To me ice cream stores like that are no big deal any more, but when I was a kid I guess it was different (maybe even in high school with Cold Stone Creamery)
It’s interesting how the same company can have very different products, pricing, and marketing in another country. The high quality of Denny’s in Japan is still a big shocker for me (: