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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 244-245

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Book Review

The Woman with the Flying Head and Other Stories

The Woman with the Flying Head and Other Stories by Kurahashi Yumiko. Translated by Atsuko Sakaki. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. 158 pages, paper $18.95.

If you're seeking a typical Japanese drama, look elsewhere. As the title of this book suggests, the situations depicted in Kurahashi Yumiko's The Woman with the Flying Head and Other Stories are far from ordinary. The first story, "An Extraterrestrial," takes us into the lives of a brother and sister who keep an alien in their room as a pet and lover. In "The Trade," an exceptionally handsome man's face is stolen and he is stuck with the visage of an ogre until he can steal someone else's good looks. The equally surreal title story is about a man's rape of the body of his adopted daughter while her head is away visiting her beloved.

Early in Kurahashi's career, which began with the publication of her first story in 1960, she was attacked by critics for her outrageous subject matter and postmodern [End Page 244] techniques, such as giving her characters romanized letters as names instead of proper Japanese names. Atsuko Sakaki, who is to be commended for her elegant translations, points out in the introduction that those of Kurahashi's male peers who wrote in the same daring way she did were not subjected to the same degree of criticism. "One might infer that femaleness was conceived as incompatible with a philosophical tone," says Sakaki.

In the past, Japanese women writers achieved success through realistic, autobiographical fiction, carrying on the tradition of what is known in Japan as the "I" novel. Just as women poets of earlier centuries were restricted to composing verse in the Japanese vernacular--and their male contemporaries wrote in Chinese, which was considered more literary--women of recent generations have been limited in their writing while men have probed more adventurous forms.

In "The Long Passage of Dreams," the writer Mariko coming to terms with her father dying might be based on Kurahashi herself, but most of these stories have obviously sprung from the author's fertile imagination, influenced by her broad education. Kurahashi borrows widely from Eastern literature, both classical and popular. Cats, which sometimes transform themselves into beautiful women in Japanese folktales, appear in two stories as the lovers of men. Mika, the feline narrator of "We Are Lovers," may be modeled in part after the hero of Natsume Söseki's classic I Am a Cat.

Likewise, in "The Woman with the Flying Head," Kurahashi draws from an ancient Chinese ghost story in which the heads of a particular tribe leave their bodies and fly around in the middle of the night. The relationship between the father and the girl he adopted in wartime China is likened to the semi-incestuous liaison of Prince Genji and Lady Murasaki in The Tale of Genji. In "The Woman with the Flying Head" and other stories, Kurahashi frequently expands the envelope of good taste, but it's clear that she is not interested in political correctness. Here, the moral and social implications of incest are beside the point: she is more concerned with exploring the links among imagination, reality, and the mind-body connection. Dreams figure significantly in many of Kurahashi's stories, and the events that occur in the imagination are often as important as those that take place in the "real" world. Saiko, a woman in "Spring Night Dreams," finds herself tormented by blooming cherry trees because "she feels the blossoms will entice her, that the halo of their color will grow in her head and intoxicate her, until her body goes floating alongside her."

In Japan, Kurahashi is considered an intellectual writer. Judging by this collection, that reputation is well deserved. Sophisticated in form and coolly cerebral in tone, these tales often bypass the heart. Still, readers of Japanese literature should welcome this book. Although the stories were written over a period of...


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