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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P

by
Matsuura Rieko


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P



Title: The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P
Author: Matsuura Rieko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 447 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P - US
The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P - UK
The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P - Canada
Pénis d'orteil - France
  • Japanese title: 親指Pの修業時代
  • Translated by Michael Emmerich

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Our Assessment:

B : curious relationship-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 25/10/2009 Steve Finbow


  From the Reviews:
  • "If The Apprenticeship is an allegory, it is an understated one. Its meta-fictional qualities (within the book, the narrator M. acquires the rights to the story from Kazumi) are playful and well observed. (...) The Apprenticeship has elements of satire in its questioning and exploration of the mutability and elision of gender roles in the postmodern world. That it does not preach and moralize are pluses for the reader; that it grounds an absurd situation in the everyday is an added bonus." - Steve Finbow, The Japan Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P isn't your everyday story: protagonist Mano Kazumi wakes up one day to find that the big toe on her right foot has turned into a (not-quite-bona-fide) penis: it gets properly erect (close to seven inches, at that), and offers the right sensations, but it doesn't ejaculate. Indeed, it's almost an ideal penis: "an organ devoted purely to pleasure", without the mess or consequences that plain old male genitalia bring with them.
       Well, as she tells her boyfriend philosophically:

"It's better than having one sprout on my forehead, isn't it ?"
       Still, it does throw her for a bit of a loop.
       And even as she gets used to having it, she does ask herself -- as, no doubt, so many have before ... -- :
     Where, I wondered, was my toe-penis taking me ?
       Still in her early twenties, Kazumi had just taken a year off from college and gone to work for a woman named Yoko in a business called 'Loveship'. An interesting -- and successful -- concept, Yoko explained that it offered:
love that isn't a hassle and doesn't hurt, love that's carefree and fun, love that doesn't become a burden. No one's looking for the real thing, actual love that can be painful and get in the way of other things -- not at all. They just want the tasty bits. I've created an enterprise that meets those needs.
       But Yoko stays away from the love-making and -matching -- and Yoko commits suicide. And Kazumi can't help but think that it's Yoko that has something to do with her new-found appendage, that it's a curse from the afterlife:
I have this feeling that Yoko has sent me a riddle, a riddle that isn't devastating, that doesn't mean much at all, simply to confuse me, and right now she's heaping curses upon me in the next world for being such an idiot, such a dunce.
       Looking for explanations doesn't get Kazumi very far (yes, thankfully this is not one of those Japanese novels that relies on the supernatural and paranormal, only on the unnatural and abnormal ...), and she doesn't really bother all that much. Instead, she tries to go on with life -- and see where her toe-penis will take her .....
       There's an incredible amount of sex in The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P, but it's not really a very erotic novel. Sex is a big part of things (and day-to-day life, especially among those Kazumi gets involved with), but this is a novel about relationships, with sex only figuring into the equation (as, admittedly, a difficult-to-get-a-handle-on aspect). And, as one character tells Kazumi:
I can't believe how you talk so dryly about these things. Sex could get pretty tiresome that way.
       Indeed, it could -- and does: The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is only in a very limited way a sexy novel.
       Kazumi's journey of self-discovery is an odd one. She does quickly dump the man she had been planning to marry: he doesn't take well to the toe-penis, and his reaction -- he reaches for the box-cutter -- is enough to make her take off. She doesn't go far, however, and winds up in the arms of Shunji, a blind pianist who is even younger than she is.
       Shunji isn't affectless, but he takes things differently than most -- including sex and friendship. As one character suggests:
     "This guy is completely, one-hundred-percent pure. He's like an angel . Or an idiot -- you could say that too."
       Shunji is not only physically blind but also blindly naïve, and very, very easy-going. His feelings are hard to hurt, no matter how badly he is treated, but similarly he has no sense of how his actions affect those who care about him -- notably Kazumi. Physically, too, his interest in sex, and how he is aroused, is different than that of most people, and both he and Kazumi barely seem to notice when they spend longer periods of time in a "sexless state". (At the end of the novel, Shunji undergoes a transformation that is almost as radical as Kazumi's; it's an odd sort of happy end willed onto the story -- perhaps a reminder of the almost fairy-tale nature of the original premise of the book; certainly, it is another jolt impressing again that this is not a story grounded in reality.)
       Kazumi (and Shunji, as pianist) wind up joining a traveling sex-troupe, the 'Flower Show', described as a "live-action sterile sex show" (yes, they don't have a PR manager who might have suggested a catchier description ...). This small, exclusive troupe, which caters to private groups, forms a sort of underground theatre; like Kazumi, the members are (genital) freaks of one sort or another.
       Kazumi's adventures on the road, in front of audiences, and as part of these acts (which eventually also includes some real theatre as well) allows Matsuura to explore all sorts of sexual issues. What's particularly noteworthy is how removed from pleasure sex is for the troupe-members, most of the time. Part of Kazumi's journey of self-discovery is getting used to the idea of her new pleasure-organ -- but it rarely functions as that, causing her more distress than actual pleasure, despite the fact that it is a pure pleasure organ, with no other purpose. A homosexual affair -- begun when Shunji is out of the picture, having been poached by one of his former lovers -- broadens her horizons a bit, but there's a lot for her to work her way through.
       The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is about relationships, with the sexual aspect only part of it. Just as there is little plain, good old-fashioned sex here, there are few 'normal' relationships, beginning with that of Shunji and his cousin (who winds up hooking up with a friend of Kazumi's former boyfriend in a continuum of criss-crossing affairs ...) and certainly including all of Kazumi's own. The toe-penis complicates matters, but not nearly as much as one might expect.
       Matsuura presents most of this quite well; the tone of the work, in particular, works well. It is, however, uneven, beginning with the actual writer/narrator of the book -- an acquaintance of Kazumi's, present at beginning and end but otherwise pretty much out of the picture (and narrative) -- and including some of the rather loose narrative threads (including the Yoko-element). Kazumi tends to drift through life, letting herself get carried along (as does Shunji, though in a rather different and less concerned manner), which doesn't make for the most powerful of narrative flows, especially in a book that's over four hundred pages long.
       A curious, and often fascinating story, but also one that is a bit too loosely focussed -- and that perhaps too scrupulously tries to deaden all that is sensational in it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 May 2010

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Links:

The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Matsuura Rieko (松浦 理英子) was born in 1958.

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© 2010 the complete review

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