Where the Wild Ladies Are
(Soft Skull Press, 2020)
While Japanese literature is subsumed by ghost stories, Polly Barton’s translation of Aoko Matsuda’s short story collection, Where the Wild Ladies Are ushers in a new moment for how contemporary Japanese literature represents its ghosts stories. Barton’s translation is like butter, making it all the more magical a read. The book mines classical rakugo, kabuki, and Japanese folk tales. Matsuda seizes and subverts Japanese storytelling by employing female ghosts who simply refuse to behave and remain subservient to men and male desire. While this sounds overstated, it seems we cannot bark enough.
Matsuda introduces several stories, discrete but thematically connected. At the end of the book, each story’s original ghost story is summarized for reference. While sometimes female protagonists begin as self-deprecating, they do not succumb to victimhood. The story structures enable what seems like self-commentary, but because they are embedded in an implicit conversation with classical ghost stories, they do not feel self-conscious or “I’m being clever.” At times the prose resembles an absurdist riff on self-help “femininity,” taking a turn into a horror film undermining the same femininity, rendering the subject of the story a ghost altogether. The tales employ such sweet-talking sabotage of gender role expectations, let alone a “ghosting” of the ghost tales on which they are premised. Matsuda, teetering between these disparities, graciously brings contemporary pop culture and classical storytelling together.
The notion of what it means to be grounded in reality, and whether or not fantasy remains significant in strengthening reality, then, is certainly at stake. Matsuda poses representations of embodied persons versus representations of ghost persons in the context of a supposed contemporary realist/surrealist scenario. Yet the original ghost tales are spiritual fantasy tales. In this collection, the women dance fantastical, intimate, slippery even. They demand us not to expel them from corporeality, but to release them from historical or ghostly submission. These stories are shockingly blunt, comedic, urban, contemporary, beautifully written, and relatable.
Moving into the syntax of rakugo or kabuki, the stories exist as intimate dialogues and monologues, taken not just as literary text, but as performative scripts/monologues. In this capacity, the published text has a larger context. It exceeds the page. It offers internal dialogue and direct address. It implies stylized performance. A tall order, the writing and the translation live up to it.
In the performative or dialogic aspect of the language, is it possible to think about a contemporary Japanese ghost story as a metonym for the aftermath of Japanese nuclear annihilation and its hauntings? In reading Matsuda’s stylized collection, it holds an intimacy that rings of Marguerite Duras’s screenplay, Hiroshima mon amour, directed by Alain Resnais (1959). Perhaps a stretch. The film, like the book, is a series of intimate conversations about relationships. The issue of the loss of hair as it pertains to absence (feminine monstrosity) in both nuclear and ghost stories, and how the dead impact the structure of Japanese society and writing about its most existential circles coincide. Matsuda, crisply current, is aware of literary and historical precedent.