[Titled Axis; 2020]
Tr. from the Japanese by Polly Barton
When I started graduate school, I also stopped shaving my legs. A lazy statement, I asserted, was still “a statement.” Not shaving is hardly a statement as is, but with fine blonde hair, it’s really nothing at all — a few dollars saved on shaving cream, at best.
For years now I’ve laughed off and narrativized my hairiness as laziness briefly masquerading itself as some sort of young and warped feminist praxis, likely aided and abetted by a series of boyfriends who either didn’t care or didn’t notice. But sometime this past February, after looking at the light wispy hairs, freshly matted down by yoga pants, on my winter dry-skin, I thought: Oh my god, EW! and promptly decided that yes, this summer I would rip out every last leg hair.
As I read “Smartening Up,” the second story in Matsuda Aoko’s collection, Where the Wild Ladies Are (Tilted Axis Press), I couldn’t stop thinking about my varied past reactions to leg hair. “Smartening Up,” as it were, opens with an unnamed narrator repeating “I am a beautiful woman” during a hair removal procedure. Each time, she adds a qualifier until her self-affirming mantra ends up
I am a beautiful, intelligent, sexy, caring woman with a fantastic dress sense and unique taste in furniture and accessories, and I’m a superb cook to boot, who sometimes rustles up delicious cakes and sweets in no time at all, and everybody loves me the moment they meet me, and my skin is so soft and smooth that people just want to reach out and touch it. (Italics in the original)
Her boyfriend has recently broken up with her, and she decides it’s because she has let her body hair get out of control. After a (literally) transformational experience at a public bathhouse wherein our heroine develops the power to summon dark, thick hair that covers every inch of her body (she compares herself to Samara from The Ring), she realizes that perhaps she’s been brainwashed by society, the media, by all of it! “Being hairless,” the narrator thinks, “d[oesn’t] get you anywhere.”
Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are is a collection of interconnected, slightly spooky feminist retellings of Japanese folktales. Feminism is a constant theme, although the larger arc of the collection is that of “the company” — a mysterious enterprise connected to the spirit realm and run by Mr. Tei, a Chinese man who grew up in Japan and routinely shocks other characters with his fluent Japanese. “The company” workers, most of them women, and many of them ghosts, appear in several stories with the intention of teaching the living a gentle lesson (often about finding peace in independence — a lesson that in these stories is not exclusive to women) or to tout a spirit realm product, such as incense that allows you to see or speak to a deceased loved one.
While stories like “A Fox’s Life” and “The Peony Lanterns” make explicit reference to the more sexist days of yore, it seems, in fact, that most of the women in Where the Wild Ladies Are are unexpectedly autonomous characters (though in “A Day Off” a young woman who protects other women from sexual harassment and assault with her giant pet frog reminds us that women still face daily obstacles) and professional success. These successes are not without the hurdles of womanhood that we expect to see in the workplace: the narrator of “Silently Burning” is an expert calligrapher at the Oschichi Temple whose artistic abilities are doubted by visitors, and Kikue of “The Missing One” is a small business owner dismissed by the men who run the manufacturing companies she orders from. But it isn’t the ghosts or the workplace harassment that provides the jump scares in Where the Wild Ladies Are: it’s the material reminder of conformity and meaningless, textureless commodity and the erasure of the local.
While these stories — in folktale fashion — seem at first to float just above temporal specificity, Matsuda tethers them to the contemporary moment. But this temporal clarity does not come from women’s ascendence in the workplace or their ability to live independently. Rather, Matsuda punctures the folktale serenity and brings us into the now through references to the cruelties of global capitalism and western cultural hegemony.
It quickly becomes clear that Mr. Tei’s company is not a “normal” company. It is not a faceless and emotionally empty asset of late capitalism. Rather, his company peddles tradition and connection, a temporary escape from modernity. But tradition, in Matsuda’s collection, is not to be conflated with nostalgia. The incense and lanterns that the ghost-sellers hawk do not take characters to the “good old days” where women were forced into traditional and oppressive gender roles. Instead, the tradition suggested by Where the Wild Ladies Are seems associated with ancestral connection and anti-globalization.
In the first story, “The Peony Lanterns,” two ghost women who work for Mr. Tei as door-to-door saleswomen — Tsuyoko and Yoneko — enter the recently unemployed protagonist, Shinzaburō’s, home. There, the ladies deploy their womanly wiles to sell tōrō lanterns to Shinzaburō. Covered in peonies, Tsuyoko and Yonkeo insist that these lanterns are a hit “with the ladies,” and wouldn’t it be nice of Shinzaburō to get his wife a gift after causing her such hardship by losing his job? He protests to no avail, claiming that he is not the type to spend money he doesn’t have. Yet the true reason, confessed only to us readers, is that “For two or three years now, [Shinzaburō’s] wife had only eyes for Scandinavian homeware.” To bring in this traditional Japanese decor would clash with his wife’s understanding of “chic” cosmopolitanism-through-globalism.
This isn’t the only mention of Western design and products intruding into narrative spaces. Ikea, LeSportsac, Dean & Deluca, and other brands are peppered throughout the stories. Our hairy heroine from “Smartening Up” boasts about her Fabio Rusconi heels, her deli meats laid out on a Scandinavian table, and thinks her life would’ve been better were she born a blonde. The nameless wife in “The Jealous Type” smashes ramen bowls from the hundred-yen shop before she dares shatter the “dusky powder-blue stuff from Ikea.”
In one tale, “A New Recruit,” a young Mr. Tei goes to interview for his future job at “the company.” His interview takes place in the lobby of a Shōwa Modern hotel — a style of architecture that blends the East and the West, popular through much of the 20th century — which is about to be demolished and made into a nondescript skyscraper. The woman interviewing him explains that people of her generation came to the hotel when they wanted to “splash out a bit.” During her reminiscence, the young Mr. Tei feels momentarily jealous of her generation and their particular performances of wealth, causing him to look for a bakery with mame daifuku, a sweet from the early Edo period (1603-1868); perhaps to wallow in whatever form of tradition is accessible to him in that moment. The bakery he finds is one nearby and he guides himself to it through Google Maps. Keeping with the other tales in Where the Wild Ladies Are, Matsuda’s jarring mention of Google Maps in a story that reads as so reminiscent for the past, renders any sense of nostalgia that we as readers might be slipping into, along with our narrator, Mr. Tei, entirely untenable.
The politics of Where the Wild Ladies Are is most crystallized in the story “A Fox’s Life.” Kuzuha, the career-forfeiting housewife protagonist, experiences the most direct workplace misogyny in Where the Wild Ladies Are. As Kuzuha puts it, her career was spent watching male employees “pretend to be capable of doing things they couldn’t do, while female employees had to pretend to be incapable of doing things they could actually do.” But the sadness of Kuzuha’s forced choice between career and family, between showing competence or obscuring competence is not the point of the story. Rather, as Kuzuha discovers in returning to the workforce after her son leaves for college, the point is that “[s]ociety ha[s] become more equal, but in a bad way. Women ha[ven’t] risen up — rather [men] ha[ve] slid down.”
To repeat the words of my hairy companion from earlier, “Being hairless d[oesn’t] get you anywhere.” But being hairy doesn’t get you anywhere, either. With or without fuzzy legs, I’m still stuck pacing back and forth in my apartment, which is “Scandinavianly” furnished just like the girl next door’s apartment, and the girl across the hall’s apartment, and the girl downstair’s apartment. As Matsuda illustrates in Where the Wild Ladies Are, feminism is but an entry point. Rejecting Western beauty standards and practices is simply a way to ease into the collection’s more controversial statement: even with material independence, women continue to face forms of oppression, moving from a singular man’s control to The Man’s control.