Earlier this year, I read Breasts and Eggs, a feminist novel by the author Mieko Kawakami. It took me a couple of tries to get into it, but on the second time I was drawn in by the descriptions of Japanese cities and the cultural tradition of bathhouses.
The book begins with Natsu, an aspiring writer, visiting her sister Makiko, in the city of Tokyo. Makiko is struggling with body issues and is tossing and turning over whether to get plastic surgery, in the form of breast augmentation. In the bathhouse, Makiko describes, in detail, everything she thinks is wrong with her body. Her sister Natsu watches her undress, questioning what it means to be beautiful.
There are many reflective moments like this in the book, moments that point out the fractured nature of the time we are living in, with a growing gap between men and women and an imperative on women to be perfect at all times – and yet, at the same time, a growing confusion on what it means to be perfect.
Over the last couple of weeks, I read a few of Kawakami’s stories, trying to understand exactly what she thinks is tearing us apart. I re-read parts of Breasts and Eggs, and the shorter novellas, Ms Ice Sandwich and Heaven. In each case, I was taken in by the way Kawakami represents the downtrodden in society, the poor and the bullied, the beautiful and the mundane. It struck me that she could see something that I am missing, and so I sought to understand her perspective. This is the world according to Mieko Kawakami.
Kawakami has this beautiful way of setting up a scene. She starts by drawing you in with a few choice details: the textures and the people that dot the backstreets of a Japanese city, lurking and disappearing like shadows in the night. When she writes about that bathhouse, I can almost picture the ten-minute walk to get there, with Natsu and Makiko, strolling side by side:
The streets were empty. Along the way we only saw one lady lugging groceries and a couple of old folks who were moving as slowly as turtles. The bathhouse was surrounded by homes and the entrance was down an alley.
If there is a core question in Kawakami’s work, it is what the downtrodden should do to feel okay with themselves. Most of her stories feature people who are ignored or mistreated by society, with many have psychological problems stemming from their mistreatment. The protagonists cling onto one or two people, as lifelines that keep them afloat in the storm.
The antagonists are just as much people as they are forces. The forces are those of objectification, indifference, and bullying. Someone is always beating the protagonists down, and the question is whether they break under the pressure.
In Breasts and Eggs, it’s societal objectification. Watching her sister change in the bathhouse, Natsu talks about beauty:
As a kid, whenever I saw the naked women in the magazines that the kids in the neighborhood got their hands on… I thought that someday all those parts of me would fill out too, and I would have a body just like them. Except that never happened.
Beauty for her isn’t just an aesthetic ideal, but a kind of moral imperative. To become beautiful is to have a good life. It is the only way to have a good life:
Beauty meant that you were good. And being good meant being happy. Happiness can be defined all kinds of ways, but human beings, consciously or unconsciously, are always pulling for their own version of happiness.
In this view, happiness does not come from the inside. It is merely a reflection of the external world. Makiko might make herself happy through surgery, but she is only making herself happy in association with how other people see her and treat her, and judge her, for her looks. It is the kind of happiness that is fated to not last very long. And yet this kind of ideological happiness, is surprisingly seductive. As Natsu comments in the book:
People like pretty things. When you’re pretty, everybody wants to look at you, they want to touch you. I wanted that for myself. Prettiness means value. But some people never experience that personally.
This imperative towards happiness is reflected in Mieko Kawakami’s other books. In those, she turns away from women to talk about the lives of children. In modern society, she suggests, with parents so often busy and distracted, children are left neglected and vulnerable to bullying and indifference, opposite forces with similar consequences.
In Ms Ice Sandwich, a busy mother has no time for her son’s first crush on the ice cream seller.
In Heaven, parents remain absent while a child suffers through schoolyard bullying almost entirely alone. Heaven begins with the child finding sanctuary in someone their own age, with a note:
One day toward the end of April, between classes, I unzipped my pencil case and found a folded triangle of paper between the pencils. I unfolded it to see what was inside.
“We should be friends.”
That’s all it said.
If there is cruelty in the world, Kawakami seems to say, then there are also those who can act as solace and sanctuary, to help heal our wounds. Whether it be friends or lovers or strangers who are somehow closer than we expect, there are those who can help us push back against the forces raining hard against us.
In Breasts and Eggs, Natsu helps Makiko appreciate her body, in a way that she cannot do on her own. Some positive words of encouragement seem to go a long way, in a world of abject indifference and judgment. In such a world, positive words are bound to make an impact on someone else’s life.
In Heaven, the note-giving girl saves the bullied student’s mind by understanding him, through her own suffering at the hand of the same bullies. Having both suffered, they can come together to be whole again, providing a safety that they never knew they could find:
The others made me carry their backpacks, or kicked me like it was nothing, or whacked me on the head with their recorders, or made me run around for them. But the notes kept showing up, and the messages grew longer.
Kawakami’s message here is simple: there are negatives in the world, but there are also those who can make things right again. There is so much suffering and torment but there is also kindness and beauty, real beauty – the kind that is not on the surface of people, but in their words and actions, in their thoughts and deeds, when they have every choice to make and they still make the kind choice, the compassionate choice and the least judgmental choice, that includes other people into their world.
There is a common phrase about our better angels, as if they exist as external forces upon us, but the better angels are inside of us. We choose how we act, and we therefore choose the consequences of our actions.
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