Manyo is poor and illiterate, but sees visions of the future and glimpses of an immanent world alongside the everyday one. Kemari is born to wealth and privilege, but spends her days as the leader of an all-female motorbike gang. Toko is born to fading glory and a shifting future, and seeks answers to her own lack of centre in the lives of her mother and grandmother. Red Girls: the Legend of the Akakuchibas tells the story of these three women across three generations and the second half of the twentieth century, and in doing so lays out the complexities and tensions within Japan at that same period.
Manyo is born at the very end of the old world and abandoned by her birth family, who are probably—we are never told for sure—remnants of the old indigenous peoples (the Outlanders, in the book) of the Chugoku Mountains in the San'in region. Once, the villagers of Benimidori village lived alongside them, seldom if ever seeing them, but relying on them to dispose of the bodies of the village dead. Change, in the shape of an iron works, has begun in Benimidori, however, and the Outlanders are in retreat. One family, for some reason, leaves the baby Manyo behind, and she is taken in by a local working-class family. She is square and plain, and incapable of learning to read, but she comes to the attention of Akakuchiba Tatsu, wife of the magnate who owns the iron works, who perceives the child's extra gifts and decides that she shall marry Manyo to her son Yoji, the heir to the family firm.
Tatsu is convinced that Manyo will bring the family luck, but Manyo herself—to whom her gifts are an incomprehensible fact with which she must live—lacks her certainty. To Manyo, life is a series of experiences, some shared, some glimpsed only via her unaccountable gifts. She does not analyse, nor does she question: she simply lives. Her daughter Kemari seizes life with both hands, chasing after adventures and lovers, running wild with her biker gang; and yet, a little like her mother Manyo, she never quite connects with anyone. Toko, too, drifts, lacking either the gifts of her grandmother or the energy of her mother, a good child in a passive generation which expects little and obeys because it is expected. The tag-line on the front of the Haikasoru edition reads "A multigenerational saga of matriarchs, manga and murder," but Red Girls is both more and less than that implies. It is not a thriller, nor is it a family saga, although it borrows scenery from both. It is a curious, dreamy book, partaking in some ways of the mixed and uncertain nature of Manyo, who is the book's centre. Her reality is uncertain—she catches glimpses of what may be possible futures, and she asks no questions of this, accepting the world as she finds it. She is not passive, precisely: she simply is, and the fact of her being changes the lives of all those around her, in quite decisive ways.
This is a book susceptible to multiple readings. From another publisher, its mode might well be described as magic realism, and carry a tag-line mentioning Allende and (perhaps inevitably) Murakami. In her native Japan, Sakuraba is known as a writer of light novels and general popular fiction: Red Girls was short-listed in 2007 for the Naoki Prize, which is awarded for popular literature (more highly regarded in Japan than in the UK or the USA). It is, as I said above, a dreamy book, full of changes of pace and uncertain events. Yet it is not slow and it is not "difficult," in the sense that it does not play intellectual games of a kind designed to convince the reader of the writer's superiority. It is, in fact, highly entertaining and engaging and the reader wants to solve its various mysteries. It is simply that these mysteries are not necessarily what a reader might expect them to be, and the answers not always simple (though they are satisfying).
The book itself is structured in three parts and each part reflects both the social and literary changes in the Japan in which it is set. The first section, dealing directly with Manyo, is also an account of the clash between the modern industrial state and traditional rural Japan. It is part elegy, part biography: there are echoes of writers like Tanizaki and Kawabata. Manyo herself can be read as a very real piece of an older Japan that is both baffled by and slowly fading in the world of the 1950s and 1960s, and yet to which those around her remain very strongly connected. The second section, focusing on Kemari, is fast-paced, thriller-like, concerned with motorbike gangs and passion and violence.
Kemari herself becomes a mangaka, and her story holds echoes of numerous classic manga and anime of the 1980s. But it also confronts the problems of a breakdown of culture, the challenges of modernity, and the ways increased female empowerment both confronts and is trammelled by a wider society that is not yet fully ready to deal with it. Kemari is perhaps the most vivid of the three central characters: abrasive, sullen, uncomfortable; but it is she who takes on the task of maintaining the family fortunes as the steel industry takes a downturn, both confirming Tatsu's belief that Manyo and her children can save the family, and at the same time sacrificing the freedom, agency, and privacy that she has struggled to win.
The third section, focusing on Toko, makes a return, then, to the dreaminess of Manyo's life, but without the certainties that Manyo herself possessed. Manyo lived in a world where social hierarchies still held sway. Toko has no such security of place. She sets herself to solve the central mystery of Manyo's life—the meaning of her childhood vision of a flying man—but even that quest is a kind of security blanket: something to focus on in a world and a time in which there seems to be no place for her. She has education and some money, but no ambition, and the Japan of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first seems indifferent to her and her generation. This is the territory of Murakami, but filtered through female eyes, conflicted and cast adrift in a society that does not know what to do with young women.
In short, the blurb given by Haikasoru does not quite do this book justice. It does indeed contain matriarchs, manga, and murder, but it is more than that. There is an unexplained magic here, a rootedness in culture and belief that allows reality to be seen from several points of view and subjected to multiple, equal explanations. There are big mysteries and small ones, and in some ways, in the end, the murder mentioned on the cover is less important than the seemingly smaller matters. This is a treasure box of a book, full of surprises and beauties and unexpected gifts, and Haikasoru are to be congratulated on choosing to publish it in translation. More like this, please.