Title/Author: Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata
Publisher: Grove Press
In a nutshell (Publisher):
With Life Ceremony, the incomparable Sayaka Murata is back with her first collection of short stories ever to be translated into English. In Japan, Murata is particularly admired for her short stories, which are sometimes sweet, sometimes shocking, and always imbued with an otherworldly imagination and uncanniness.
In these twelve stories, Murata mixes an unusual cocktail of humor and horror to portray both the loners and outcasts as well as turning the norms and traditions of society on their head to better question them. Whether the stories take place in modern-day Japan, the future, or an alternate reality is left to the reader’s interpretation, as the characters often seem strange in their normality in a frighteningly abnormal world. In “A First-Rate Material,” Nana and Naoki are happily engaged, but Naoki can’t stand the conventional use of deceased people’s bodies for clothing, accessories, and furniture, and a disagreement around this threatens to derail their perfect wedding day. “Lovers on the Breeze” is told from the perspective of a curtain in a child’s bedroom that jealously watches the young girl Naoko as she has her first kiss with a boy from her class and does its best to stop her. “Eating the City” explores the strange norms around food and foraging, while “Hatchling” closes the collection with an extraordinary depiction of the fractured personality of someone who tries too hard to fit in.
In these strange and wonderful stories of family and friendship, sex and intimacy, belonging and individuality, Murata asks above all what it means to be a human in our world and offers answers that surprise and linger.
I thought Earthlings was a shocker, but this…this collection of twelve stories takes shock and gross to a whole new level!
A First-Rate Material: Set in the near future, we have human remains such as bones, skin, turned into clothing, pieces of furniture, accessories. Not everyone was into using such items. A man’s distaste for it was tested when his future wife was asked by his mother to put on a veil made from his father’s skin. Needless to say, he was mortified, although his wife was all for it.
A Magnificent Spread: The definition of ‘proper food’ differed between two sisters in this story – one ate “medicinal herbs that grow in the magical realm” like dandelion flowers and fish mint, while the other ate food made into cubes in powder like artificial rice in powder with antioxidants in powder form. When a sister’s in-laws came to their home for dinner, they realized how much all of their taste in food differ.
A Summer Night’s Kiss: A story about two lifelong friends who has been friends since high school and were as different as night and day, one promiscuous the other conservative.
Two’s Family: This story continues from ‘A Summer Night’s Kiss. The two friends, unmarried, now live together and were raising three daughters together. Their unconventional family raised some eyebrows in the society they lived in.
The Time of a Large Star: A dreamy story about a girl revolves around a little girl who moves to a country where even when it gets dark, night didn’t exist, and nobody slept.
Poochie: Poochie was a pet, a human pet, to a schoolgirl who ‘adopted’ him when she found him wandering, looking lost. She fed him bread rolls and milk. He never left
Life Ceremony: Set somewhere in the future, Life Ceremony is a type of wake where guests would eat the deceased’s body, then seek an insemination partner among the other guests after the ceremony, an act apparently to prevent human population from dwindling.
Body Magic: A teenager was curious about sex; about how kissing is done, what it felt like to be kissed, why some could talk about it and do it without reservations, and if having sex would make her more ‘grown up’. But she was also turned off by how gross it sounded, until she experienced it herself in her own way.
Lover on the Breeze: A bizarre story told from the point of view of Puff, a curtain in a young girl’s bedroom. They both formed a sort of ‘relationship’; the girl would constantly talk to Puff and bundle it up in her arms at night, or whenever she was sad.
Puzzle: The protagonist was obsessed with other people’s body parts and bodily fluids.
Eating the City: A woman lived off of plants and weeds in the city she now resided, recreating the recipes to suit her tastebuds because she wanted to relive the childhood experience she had living in the countryside.
Hatchling: A soon-to-be married woman couldn’t decide who she was, and always changing herself to adapt to those around her, continuing her life with five characters she had created.
Most of the stories in this collection questioned what’s ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ behavior? If it’s normal to turn animals into clothes and decorations, then is it normal to do the same to humans? In ‘A First Rate Material’, where human remains were reused and recycled; in ‘Life Ceremony’ the deceased’s bodies were consumed and guests would seek insemination partners after the ceremony; while a married couple in ‘A Magnificent Spread’ ate food which came in cubes and powder, and a woman in ‘Eating the City’ ate only plants and flowers which she’d pick from in the city she lived in. Their culture, practices and choice of food constantly raised eyebrows among those around them.
What’s considered a ‘normal upbringing’? In ‘Two’s Family’, two very good female friends who were artificially inseminated with sperm and raised three daughters together. A teacher concerned with their family arrangement, told them, “Children are easily confused by such complicated home environment,” although their daughter caused no trouble at school. Some said their mothers were lesbians, when they were just two really good friends who kept their promise that if they don’t get married by a certain age, they’ll live together. But nobody understood nor could accept that simple explanation.
In ‘Hatchling’, a woman created 5 different characters in response to the environment she was in. “I just respond, that’s all. Whoever the person I’m with thinks I am, everything else follows accordingly. I’m not the one who decides who I am…” Her best friend, who knew of her characters, asked her which one would she be at her wedding when the guests will be the people she knew at different points of her life. She asked her best friend, what would she do were she in her shoes, “What do normal people do?”, “What period of your life would you take your ‘me’ to your wedding?”
‘Puzzle’ was so gross it made me want to throw up. The woman in the story was obsessed with other people’s body parts and functions. She breathed in people’s sweat, fascinated by human feces and the smell of vomit. She loved them so much, she never found a reason to dislike anyone even those who others found especially irritating, simply because she saw each person as an internal organ. Sanae, her colleague, was a stomach, Sanae’s ex-boyfriend a heart. She said if people saw each other the same way she did, and learned to be more accepting of each other’s differences, like puzzle pieces fitting to form a whole picture, the world would be a better place to live in.
Overall, this collection was a little hard to swallow, but swallowed it I did LOL From a writer’s point of view, I appreciated how differently the author approached common themes like comformity, friendship and love. Although the stories weren’t really memorable, it was the uneasiness of it all that stayed with me. It made me think, can we really define ‘normal’? Can one’s culture or belief or practices be seen as ‘better’ or ‘more normal’ than the other? They taught me one thing: to each their own. Respecting and accepting each other’s differences would make this world a better place.
Now that I’ve read three of her translated books, Convenience Store Woman is still my favourite, followed by Earthlings. If you’re new to Muraka, but love a quirky, heartfelt story, go for CSW.