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Touring the Land of the Dead
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B+ : strong if very different stories, both with compelling protagonists
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Touring the Land of the Dead consists of two novellas, the title piece and 'Ninety-Nine Kisses'.
Only her mother and brother immersed themselves in memories of a happy past, dreaming, and talking endlesly about their dreams. All Natsuko could do was block her ears.But in 'Touring the Land of the Dead' she chooses to take a step into that past, booking a cheap two-day excursion for her and Taichi to the luxury resort hotel where her parents had taken her and her brother when she was small.
Natsuko did not suffer some great trauma, but she grew up in an environment that was and became increasingly alien to her. Her family had been wealthy, her mother pampered by an indulgent father and then working briefly as a glamorous flight attendant before she married, but the family's fortunes and fortune quickly declined, compounded by Natsuko's father's medical issues. Both mother and brother felt entitled to a lavish lifestyle, but could not sustain it, with the brother eventually racking up such large debts that the mother had to sell her city apartment to pay them off and had no choice but to move to the suburbs with him. Typically, she then tried everything she could to wrangle herself a disability pension -- though: "It should have been much easier for her just to find a job, but her mother didn't see things that way". The brother, similarly, moans over all the opportunities that are denied him because there's no more ready cash, imagining what he could make of himself "If only we had more money" -- when in fact all he'd do is splurge it on fancy dining and other indulgences.
The hotel mirrors the decline of the family. While her grandfather had brought her mother to such establishments in chauffeur-driven hired cars, Natsuko and Taichi arrive in an otherwise empty shuttlebus. The hotel itself is a shell of its former glory, "reduced to a cheap, five-thousand-yen-per-night health retreat". Natsuko is hardly disappointed or surprised: the experience with her family has made her all too conscious of how easily such decline can take hold, leaving little more than a façade of former better days.
Natsuko seems never to have had ambition, perhaps seeing through the emptiness of her mother's and brother's, but it goes beyond that, to an almost complete sense of resignation: long ago: "She had already given up on everything" -- and so: "Hers was simply a weary body, trying to preserve itself".
Conscious or not, Natsuko's marriage to Taichi had clearly been an attempt at escape:
She couldn't pin down exactly why, but she found herself wanting to marry him. She could only imagine her mother's resentment were she to wed a man so far removed from her mother's ideals. Some evil influence practically tempted her to do it.Her mother and brother indeed do not approve; the way they treat Taichi when they first meet him -- and afterwards -- is shockingly rude. If befuddled, Taichi, however, was not upset by it. Natsuko realized that her family would try to take full advantage of Taichi -- but his incapacitation neatly coïncided with the collapse of the family's fortune and nothing could be asked of him. Natsuko and Taichi live in relatively humble circumstances, but at least Natsuko doesn't have to worry about her mother and brother making financial or other material demands of them.
Taichi -- already white-haired, though only thirty-six years old -- is now childlike in many ways, yet still quite independent. He is impulsive, but also very easy-going, not wondering or questioning when Natsuko takes him on this unusual excursion, off to the hotel, for example; like a child, he very much takes things simply as they come. As Natsuko notes, despite his being quite demanding, people are very indulgent towards Taichi:
The same people who wouldn't spare Natsuko a second glance would, for some reason, shower Taichi with all manner of kindness. It happened all the time.Natsuko's encounter with the past, staying in this hotel that had been so very different when she had been there as a child, and the whole trip, with its many detours to take in this or that other thing -- the beach, a museum, a foot bath -- finally slowly allow Natsuko to truly begin to rid herself of the burden that is her family. Taichi -- and what he has become -- plays a central role in this. (Meanwhile, although Taichi often needs assistance and (physical) support, he never really makes himself a burden.) If his illness is, in some ways, a tragedy, it ironically also facilitates the break with her family; the fact that it renders him useless to them -- they can't take advantage of him in any way -- is the necessary first step making possible Natsuko's own break, while this trip then, and what it reveals to Natsuko, is the final one.
Devastating though his illness would seem to be, Taichi does not seem to suffer. His illness and fate do not depress him; indeed, they barely seem to weigh on him at all. He merely continues however he can; in this way, he is an almost ideal partner for the otherwise so resigned Natsuko.
It makes for an interesting character- and family study. Natsuko's mother and brother are horrible people, completely caught up only in themselves -- a crushing world Natsuko needs to escape. The man she married would seemed to have offered only a limited escape -- Natsuko already imagined how her mother and brother would then drag them both under -- but, with his illness, turns out to be a vehicle which allows her to extricate herself from her past -- even if it takes this trip into the past for her to really understand her new opportunity. It's an unusual piece of work, but surprisingly convincing and effective.
'Ninety-Nine Kisses' is a livelier story, narrated by a younger protagonist -- Nanako, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. She is the youngest of four sisters -- the others are: Meiko, Moeko, and Yōko -- who are all extremely close, still living together with their mother. (The novella has echoes of Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, not least in those names (芽衣子, 萌子,葉子, and 菜菜子 in the original Japanese) which all end in 子 (-ko) -- as do the names of the four Makioka sisters.) They are a tight-bound family unit: "We were all one body to begin with", Nanako says -- and she feels so much part of this quartet that she can't imagine existing without the other parts:
When my sisters die, I'll probably end up disappearing. Not dying -- disappearing. There would be no pain. It wouldn't bother me at all to just turn invisible and fade away.Although the sisters are adult -- the oldest is thirty-two -- they live happily as an entirely female family unit:
After Dad left, Mom and us four sisters -- we had all been doing so well as a family of women. Isn't that the future that we were all looking forward to ? Didn't we promise each other that we would all go to the same neighborhood old people's home ?Discord comes with the arrival of a man in the neighborhood, would-be film director S, whom the three sisters fall in love with. While openly talking about sex -- including with their mother, over their favorite drink, Denki Bran, where the girls have no compunction about asking: "Hey, Mom, what was it like having sex with Dad before you broke up with him ?" -- the fact that the girls remain unattached clearly weighs on them -- not least on Nanako, who is only starting to come into her sexual own. Much of Nanako's description is sexually and physically charged -- if almost entirely centered around her sisters. The physical still very much includes them, for her; she not only believes: "We were all one body to begin with" but still feels that physical connection.
The man in the mix very much affects the family harmony. At first S is a figure who is only occasionally glimpsed or crosses their paths, but Nanako sees her sisters falling for him; eventually one of them starts dating him -- causing greater sibling tensions. In a sense, it all turns out to be a false alarm, but even as Nanako sees all the sisters return to the fold she can't then fully embrace even the moment she had always dreamed of, and this situation: "A feast -- my three sisters and me". She realizes that, as with her sisters, her own maturation is inescapable: "Soon, I would become a woman [...] filled with contradiction and stubbornness". Still, even as she realizes a drift apart is, ultimately, inevitable, she takes comfort in her similarities to her sisters, a knowledge that their shared bonds will always, in one form or another, remain.
The story is told from Nanako's perspective, which strongly colors the action. She is emotional, eager, and confused, all of which bubbles nicely into her account. If the picture of the family thus also remains somewhat limited, it's nevertheless a compelling voice and vision, and 'Ninety-Nine Kisses' is a very lively and quite charming family-tale
- M.A.Orthofer, 18 March 2021
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Japanese author Kashimada Maki (鹿島田真希) was born in 1976.
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