Contemporary Japanese Writers

Minako Oba*

Minako Oba* 大庭みな子

Minako Ōba ( (1930–2007)  ) expresses ideas that are “nothing short of cosmic,” says literary critic Masashi Miura in a review in the Mainichi shimbun, September 23, 2007. In her works, people are just one life form among many, living, dying, and enjoying sex. Ethnic, national, and cultural differences, as well as personal agendas, therefore lose meaning. Ōba spent 11 years from age 29 to 40 in Alaska because of her husband's job, an experience that as many critics point out had great impact on her writings. In her “Author's Note” appended to Katachi mo naku (Amorphous) she mentions her "doubts about the world of Western logic" and a general sense of incompatibility with the West. Through the course of her writing career she gradually developed her own magical and at times folkloric worldview.

Urashimasō (Urashima Plant) is perhaps Ōba's greatest literary achievement. In the mid-1960s Yukie, then in middle school, went off by herself to live in the United States at her mother's instigation. Now 23, she returns to her homeland for the first time in 11 years and calls on her half-brother Morito, her elder by more than two decades. Morito has lived for over 30 years in Tokyo with Ryōko, with whom he has an autistic 30-year-old son named Rei. During the war, Morito stole Ryōko's affections while her soldier husband, Ryū, was away, but when Ryū came home he refused her a divorce. These four live together in the same house, along with a 25-year-old woman named Natsuo who looks after Rei. Natsuo's mother, Rei's original caregiver, had had an affair with a U.S. Occupation soldier and died giving birth to Natsuo, whom Morito adopted for Rei's sake. One major theme of the novel is the view through Yukie's eyes of the tangle of love and hate binding the members of this faux family.

Yukie is joined on her journey by her live-in partner, Marek, an American researcher more than ten years her senior. Together they set out on a sightseeing trip to Hiroshima. In August 1945 Ryōko had been living in Hiroshima with Ryū’s mother. She happened to be safely out of the city when the atomic bomb fell, but her mother-in-law was killed. After that, Ryōko slept with Morito in the ashes of Hiroshima and conceived Rei. She blames her son's disability on fallout from the bomb. Her descriptions of Hiroshima immediately after the bombing have compelling immediacy, as the author herself witnessed its devastating effects at 14 when she and others were sent in to provide emergency aid. Yukie next visits her other half-brother Yōichi, a year older than Morito, who lives in the town of Kanbara (Niigata Prefecture) on the Japan Sea, where their mother was born. Toward the end of the book, Yukie and Marek go back to Morito's house in Tokyo and find to their shock that in the intervening three weeks it has disappeared, changed to a parking lot. Was it all a fantasy?

The importance to Yukie of this journey back to the country of her birth is evident in the unfinished posthumous sequel Shichiriko (Lake Shichiri). The narrative begins as Yukie, now 40, returns to America after an interval of several years. She had a daughter with Marek, but broke up with him and stayed on in Japan, where she gave birth to another daughter fathered by a Japanese man whom she didn't marry. Yukie raised her two daughters herself, sending them to a small private school where Morito and Ryōko help out. Her own mother gave birth to her in her forties, having remarried after her first husband, with whom she had the two boys, was killed in a labor dispute. In Ōba's crafting of her female characters and exploration of their relationships and interactions, one can read a deepening of her ideas, as if she is seeking a rebirth of matriarchy.

The novel Kiri no tabi (Journey through the Mist) opens with an essay-style prologue, written in the first person, that touts the appeal of sex as a force spurring people to action. After that the story suddenly picks up. The first-person narrative voice, that of a female writer, makes it seem as if the author is writing her autobiography. While clarifying how she became a writer, the narrator also pens a portrait of her older cousin Fū, "the most scandalous woman in the entire family." Fū is an archetypal yamanba (literally, “mountain-dwelling old witch”; an often derogatory term for a feisty and difficult older woman), a type of character that Ōba frequently portrays. In Naku tori no (Birds’ Cry), a sequel in the third person, writer Yurie is in old age. The story revolves around her life with her husband, Shōzō, while weaving in the voices of a variety of others. Written in an increasingly magical style, this work might be interpreted as Yurie's attempt to turn herself into the old woman Fū.

 


* Urashimasō (Kodansha, 1977, 467 pages)
* Kiri no tabi (Kodansha, 1980, two volumes, 511 pages)
* Naku tori no (Kodansha, 1985, 312 pages, Noma Prize for Literature)
* Shichiriko (Kodansha, 2007, 227 pages)