The other day I stopped by the Kinokuniya bookstore in Beaverton, Oregon, and stood before the bookshelf of hardcover Japanese fiction as I tried to figure out what to read next. I ended up choosing “The Woman in the Purple Skirt” (むらさきのスカートの女) by “Natsuko Imamura” for two reasons: it had won the prestigious Akutagawa prize this year (2019), and it was relatively short. The title was only mildly interesting, and to be frank I really didn’t like the cover, partially because it had nothing about a purple dress. I do appreciate that nowhere on the cover contains any details about the story itself, creating a sense of mystery.
Given that the Akutagawa prize is one of the most esteemed literary prizes in Japan, my expectations were pretty high for this book. I’ve read a few past Akutagawa prize winners and they’ve all been pretty good, for example Convenience Store Girl (now available in English) and Spark (which went on to become a Netflix series). I feel that both of these novels try to express something deeper than surface action or drama. Looking at things from another angle, I’ve heard that one characteristic of literature is that it focuses more on characters than story, and both of these novels can indeed be seen as character studies.
In some respects, “The Woman in the Purple Skirt” also seems like a character study, though it’s about a pair of characters: the one referred to in the title and the narrator. These characters have an odd, if mostly one-sided, relationship: the narrator closely “observes” the woman with the purple skirt, to the point of making a journal about her daily life activities.
Words like “stalker” or “obsession” come to mind about the narrator, but the relationship between these two people, and how it evolves, is more complex than you might initially expect. Initially the narrator says she simply wants “to be her friend”, but by the end there are some interesting changes. Even if the narrator is a “stalker”, she is definitely not a garden variety one.
A majority of the book involves the intersection of these characters’ private and public lives, and the other relationships the woman in the purple skirt has. Except for a few dramatic action scenes, the bulk of the story is comprised of relatively normal everyday moments: gossiping on the job, spending time at the park, etc.
On the surface, the events themselves are not particularly interesting. But I feel it is the subtle things that add another level of depth to this book. One example is how the woman in the purple skirt seems to have the uncanny ability to navigate crowds without bumping into anyone. At one point the narrator even compares the woman with the purple skirt to a certain religious figure. Also, the narrator’s seeming invisibility and omniscience makes it almost seem that she herself has supernatural powers, and at times it seems the book feels as if it is intentionally highlighting that (like when one character says to her, “Oh, I didn’t see you there.”). Some important scene(s) where the narrator suddenly appears seems almost comical, yet terribly profound at the same time.
For a variety of reasons I feel this book is well suitable for those studying Japanese. First, the prose is relatively easy to read and stays away from uncommon expressions and kanji that can derail your reading experience. Second, the fact that a majority of the scenes involve typical daily life activities means there is a lot of potential for learning Japanese words and phrases that can be used in real life. A good portion of this book (say 50-60%) is dialogue driven which is generally easier to get through, although sometimes you run into the occasional long paragraph involving some description or the narrator’s thoughts. Finally, at under 200 pages the book is on the short side, so you’re more likely to make it to the end. (Note, in terms of difficulty I found the first 20-30 pages to be harder than most of the rest of the book, so once you get past those expect things to get easier)
As a whole, while this book was interesting I’m still not sure if I understand all the reasons why it won the Akugatawa prize––though I do get the sense that much of it is because the narrator is (oddly) easy to associate with. But with its accessible story, surreal overtones, and potential elements of satire/social critique, I think it’s definitely worth a read. If we define literature as “that which keeps us thinking long after the last page”, then “The Woman in the Purple Skirt” is surely a piece of fine literature. In fact, as a result of thinking about this novel for this review, I feel that I somehow appreciate the book even more––if that makes any sense.
By the way, Natsuko Imamura has written several other works that either one literary prizes or were nominated for the Akutagawa prize, so it seems she is definitely doing something right.