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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dragon Palace

Kawakami Hiromi

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To purchase Dragon Palace

Title: Dragon Palace
Author: Kawakami Hiromi
Genre: Stories
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 167 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Dragon Palace - US
Dragon Palace - UK
Dragon Palace - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: 龍宮
  • Translated by Ted Goossen

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Our Assessment:

B+ : dark; creatively twisted and imagined

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 17/9/2023 Thu-Huong Ha
The Straits Times . 23/9/2023 Walter Sim

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dragon Palace is a juicy and delightfully raunchy read. (...) (A)s the stories progress, the narrators -- and by extension, readers -- become accustomed to Kawakami Vision, in which any character could be anyone or anything else (.....) Freed from the conventions of human physiology, the characters inhabit a world in which sexuality and attractiveness are liberated." - Thu-Huong Ha, The Japan Times

  • "The stories in Dragon Palace are bound by a common thread, with such prevailing themes as loneliness and the desire for attention and love, as well as gender disparities manifesting in stark misogyny, fuelled by women who crave male attention. (...) All of Kawakami’s stories in Dragon Palace are so absurdist that they might seem nonsensical and discomfiting on first reading. Yet they are also deceptively clever social commentaries that might well resonate when you least expect." - Walter Sim, The Straits Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dragon Palace collects eight stories. They are of nearly uniform length -- a bit under twenty pages each --, each is narrated in the first person, and each has, to varying degrees, a fantastical and surreal feel. The narrators describe what they take for normality, yet many of the elements are highly unusual: many characters inhabit a form that is not fixed, shifting in size or between animal and human state, or existing as animals among humans; many of the characters are exceptionally long-lived. Interactions with others and the world at large often begin fairly normally -- in 'Hokusai' the narrator meets a stranger and heads to a bar with him; in 'Mole' the narrator describes his daily routine going to the office ("I stamp my time card and flip through the pile of faxes on my desk as I wait for one of the office ladies to bring me tea"); in 'Fox's Den' the narrator is a caregiver working for old people -- but often veer into disturbingly altered scenarios.
       In the opening story, 'Hokusai', the stranger the narrator goes drinking and eating with reveals that he was an octopus; at times the narrator sees him as: "an undulating, shape-shifting blob", and the stranger eventually concludes: "It's high time I returned to the octopus world". If that story ends with some ambiguity -- "He did not head toward the ocean, nor veer toward the land. He simply vanished into the night" -- the concluding tale, 'Sea Horse', narrated by a creature who also came from the ocean and has long lived among humans, handed down from husband to husband, is able to transition back, returning to the ocean, and to her original form.
       As the narrator of 'Sea Horse' at one point notes: "I am not human", and this is a basic issue faced by many of the characters -- even those that are, technically, human. In one way or another they seem only to inhabit a human or semi-human world, interacting but struggling to find truly lasting bonds and connection; almost all the characters are, in one way or another, isolated.
       In 'Mole', the narrator is, on the one hand, much like an everyday office worker -- but then there's also the sideline which keeps him busy, suggested already in the story's opening scene as he goes over his morning routine and mentions: "The humans I picked up, they're all in the next room", and how he checks to weed out those who have died overnight, who he throws in a pit ..... He is, in fact a mole -- but one with a regular office job as well. He doesn't fit in there -- "Humans loathe me", he admits -- but they put up with him. And, on his own time, he collects the hopeless that he finds all around -- a task made easier as he can, for example: "let each dangle there for a few moments while they shrink to half my size and then even smaller, so that, finally, they can fit in my palm". He admits: "Humans always perplex me"; here, even more than in most of the rest of the collection, humans are indeed also a sorry lot.
       In 'The Roar' the narrator describes the whole arc of his life, lived in the company, one after the other, of his seven older sisters; he even marries one of them. Each lives in a separate world -- except the twins -- and the narrator moves in different ways from one to the other; in one case, a huge bird lifts him up and deposits him on an island, where he joins his third sister, Mitsue (whose habit it was to: "disgorge all sorts of things when something upset her" -- vomiting up a stream of small coins, for example). The character is almost typical for many in the collection with his situation:

I didn't know my own name. I didn't know why I had been born into this world. I had no idea what would become of me.
       Identity is rarely fixed among the characters in the collection; so also then the narrator of 'The Roar' notes as he approaches death: "I remained nameless until the end".
       The world of 'The Kitchen God' seems one more closely tied to the real one -- except for that creature of the title ("The kitchen god is small, has three faces, and lives in the dark corners of my kitchen") -- but the narrator is also a damaged soul. She looks for a hold -- "If I could just keep focusing on external object like those, I thought, then bad things couldn't sneak into my mind" -- but she struggles with it.
       There's a bleakness to many of the stories here, but the fantastical invention around it also makes for a sense of wonder. Kawakami's stories are certainly captivating, helped by the fact that there's no sense of her straining for effect: as unreal as much is here, she presents it as if it were entirely natural. There is also a real depth to the characters and their situations, even as they also remain unknowable, without easy explanations.
       The dark depictions make for a vivid, disturbing collection. Odd, but mostly in a good (if dark) way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 September 2023

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Dragon Palace: Reviews: Other books by Kawakami Hiromi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美) was born in 1958.

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© 2023-2024 the complete review

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