Title: So We Look to the Sky (ふがいない僕は空を見た)
Author: Misumi Kubo
Translator: Polly Barton
Genre: 21st Century Japanese Literature, Literary Fiction
Source: Publisher in exchange for a review
Release Date: August 3, 2021 (USA); July 20, 2010 (Japan)
Format: Hardcover; 978-1-95162-771-3; $25.99
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Summary: In a series of connected short stories, Misumi Kubo explores the the silent and unseen hardships faced by individuals and how one’s life and future are shaped by such experiences. Each story is framed by a scandalous affair between a high school student and a housewife, posted on the internet for the public to see. The ramifications of this affair spread out across each story as Kubo weaves a profound and brutally honest story focused on themes of the female body, roles of women in society, the increasing burdens and social pressures placed on youth, and bullying.
Review: First, I must point out that, if you haven’t read this novel yet, it is very sexually explicit. If that isn’t your thing, then you may want to look elsewhere. With that said, even though this novel is explicit, it isn’t gratuitous, and each sexual encounter, each exploration of the body and human intimacy, serves as a crucial vehicle for a more serious discussion of the themes Kubo explores here.
One of the most prominent themes linking the stories in this collection is two-fold: that of the female body and women’s roles in society. In this framework, Kubo criticizes patriarchy’s view that women are not sexual beings and should not seek sexual gratification lest they be viewed as “dirty.” In this vein, Kubo outlines the importance of the female orgasm as integral to women’s well-being sexually as well as holistically–she outlines that female sexuality and sexual fulfillment is the foundation of women reaching full autonomy and agency in their lives. This concept is juxtaposed with traditional notions of general roles and norms as constructed through Machiko. She is Keiichiro’s mother and mother-in-law to Anzu, our adulterous “main character.” I call her the main character because her affair is the elephant in the room for each story in this collection. Hers is the body at the center of the “woman question” that Kubo interrogates. Machiko is positioned as the female body preferred by tradition: angelic, fertile, the perfect mother who sacrifices herself for her children and family, sexless, and who now devotes herself to her daughter-in-law’s fertility–or lack thereof. She’s everything Anzu is not. The more Machiko imposes herself on Anzu’s body, the more Anzu rebels and is repulsed by Machiko. We are to sympathize with Anzu, who is happy in who she is and how she lives her life. She chooses to be childfree and as the system–Machiko–further imposes itself, the more destructive its force becomes. This, Kubo illustrates, is not the way.
Diving further into the rest of the stories, we get a peek into the lives of several high-school students who are friends with our other “main character,” the quiet and cool Takumi, who becomes infamous for his affair with Anzu. We get a glimpse of what his affair does to the girl who maintains an unrequited crush on him; we see his friend, living in the projects and struggling to support himself and his grandmother while trying to consider his own life and goals. Then we see Takumi and the consequences of his relationship with Anzu.
The text shifts to Takumi’s friend, Ryota, who deals with economic disparities and class divides in his narrative. These struggles are juxtaposed with the seemingly posh lifestyle of his manager Taoka, with whom he works a late shift at a convenience store. Ryota is the victim of a neglectful mother who steals his money and has abandoned him with his senile grandmother, and who–it could be inferred–prostitutes herself to men for lodging while working a menial factory job. Meanwhile, Ryota and his gran struggle to even feed themselves. In the midst of this, he is bullied for his friend Takumi’s involvement with Anzu after their affair is published online. You learn that one of his co-workers, who tries to help him with schoolwork and grades, turns out to be a pedophile. Ryota’s story is an interesting contrast to Takumi’s, as in many ways, as Takumi’s predicament allows Ryota to turn victimizer in certain situations, while reflecting on what it means to be the bigger person.
In these stories, victimization runs as a rampant theme, showing that the choices we make, and the way we treat others, has profound and reverberating effects on the people around us–and we are responsible for the aftermath in those lives. Nothing is ever a truly victimless crime, and often, the harm we do others can last a lifetime. Also important in this text is the concept of social norms and how society makes no space for marginalized groups or individuals, and how that needs to change. Overall, the book asks pertinent questions about social change, social responsibility, and the morality of the way we treat others.
All of the above is wrapped up in a very engaging, quick-paced prose dressed in a brutally honest and forthright tone. The translation never faltered, and I feel it captured the original. I blazed through this book so fast, and it was an amazing ride. I highly recommend this book.