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  • Angels and Elephants:Historical Allegories in Ogawa Yōko’s 2006 Mīna no kōshin
  • Eve Zimmerman (bio)

At first I tried my hardest to find the string that linked me to the world. Wondering, “Is it this, is it that?” I kept looking for a string dangling in front of me. But then I discovered that the string was around my waist.

Ogawa Yōko

In Ogawa Yōko’s Mīna no kōshin (Mena’s procession, 2006), the adult narrator Tomoko regularly gazes at a token from her past: a photo taken in 1973 when Tomoko, aged 12, spent a year with her wealthy aunt, uncle, and cousin in a spacious mansion outside Ashiya.1 Glancing down at the photo, Tomoko moves along an odd cast of characters: Mena, her cousin, whose chestnut-colored eyes and brown-black hair testify to her part-German heritage; Mena’s mother, father, and her brother Ryūichi; and Rosa, her German Jewish grandmother. Next to Rosa stand the faithful housekeeper, Yoneda, and Kobayashi, the groundskeeper, who guards Pochiko, the family pet, a pigmy hippo who once lived in the wealthy family’s small zoo. Gazing at the photo, Tomoko utters the reassuring words to herself, “Every time I look at the photo, I whisper, ‘Everyone is here, it’s OK, no one is missing’” (Mīna no kōshin, 197).2 Tomoko’s use of the present tense serves as a hedge against reality: in her mind at least, Ashiya remains unchanged over time. At the beginning of the novel, Tomoko also seems unable to shake off the illusion of stasis: “In [End Page 68] my heart, my uncle’s house is still there; the family, both the dead and the aged, still live there as usual” (10).

Tomoko’s illusion of stasis positions her in the realm of melancholia, the psychic register of loss in which the subject steadfastly maintains an internal mental landscape of continuity with the past even though the past itself has vanished.3 No matter how Tomoko may indulge in a wishful return to the past, present facts dictate otherwise. Everything and everyone is now missing from Ashiya. Rosa and Yoneda are both dead, Mena lives in Germany, Mena’s family has scattered, and Pochiko, the hippo, has died. The family property, too, is unrecognizable, replaced by an apartment building and a company dormitory, with all traces of the family mansion, the small zoo, and the grounds swept from view. Tomoko’s stubborn denial of the present mitigates the atmosphere of playful realism in the novel, and aligns Mīna no kōshin with Ogawa’s earlier characterizations of the liminal period of girlhood. Repeatedly in Ogawa’s early work, the figure of an adolescent girl grapples with some nameless loss or trauma that lies at the core of her identity. As if to represent this unchanging internal landscape, Ogawa’s characters wander waif-like through the uncanny spaces of a hospital, a religious institution, or a museum, places where time slows down or even seems to wind back on itself.4

Critics and writers in Japan have long commented on Ogawa’s work in terms of loss and longing, and in doing so have emphasized not melancholia or the denial of loss but the work of mourning that Ogawa demands of her readers. Horie Toshiyuki, for example in a 2009 discussion (taidan) with Ogawa, comments that Ogawa “doesn’t build relationships in her fiction, she breaks them.”5 The poet Chino Bōshi, in a 2004 interview with Ogawa, situates loss or cessation at the fulcrum of Ogawa’s writing: “From the viewpoint of the narrative present, the act that was repeated has come to an end.”6 And the writer Akazome Akiko describes her experience of mourning for characters who have disappeared even as their existence remains vivid to her.7 Ogawa herself has repeatedly agreed with such characterizations of her work. She told Horie in the 2009 discussion that her writing does not make relationships but instead looks for a path through the broken wreckage of relationships.8 Ogawa has also worked with photographers and illustrators, as though she could thereby...


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pp. 68-96
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