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- The Legend of the Akakuchibas
- Japanese title: 赤朽葉家の伝説
- Translated by Jocelyne Allen
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B+ : satisfying modern-Japan saga
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "There’s a lingering sense throughout Red Girls of an author investigating new possibilities without knowing quite what to do with them. (...) Red Girls is a fine book, to be sure, but it still feels a few steps away from greatness." - James Hadfield, The Japan 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:
Red Girls is a three-part chronicle of modern Japan, each part centered on a member of one generation of the Akakuchiba-clan: Manyo, who marries into the family (covering 1953 to 1975), her daughter Kemari (1979-1998), and, covering "2000-future", Kemari's daughter Toko -- who in fact narrates the whole story.
When the novel begins, the Akakuchibas are still the dominant family and presence in Benimidori, in Tottori Prefecture, living in what is called 'red above' -- the stately family home with its adjacent business, the Akakuchiba Steelworks, which is the major local employer.
The Akakuchibas established themselves many generations earlier, and had made the transition from traditional tatara ironworks to modern Western iron production, complete with large blast furnace ("a dark skyscraper symbolizing the modern age"); they had thrived in the post-Second World War industrial expansion.
Toko -- remaining very much in the background even as narrator until much later in the novel -- initially focuses less on the Akakuchibas than on her grandmother, Manyo, who has her own unusual origins-story: she is what Toko decides to call an 'outlander', with the distinctive appearance -- "skin dark like tanned leather, solidly built" -- of these mysterious locals who live almost entirely unseen, "hidden deep within the mountains".
Historically, they did perform one important role for the villagers, however: summoned by the burning of some purple-smoke-producing grass when a villager died by suicide, they would come and deal with the body.
As a young child, Manyo was apparently inexplicably left behind by the outlanders on one of their forays into the village.
Adopted by a young couple, she grew up like a normal village child, helping to take care of the many children the couple then had and going to school for a while -- though never managing to learn how to read.
When she was ten years old, Manyo encountered the Akakuchiba-matriarch, Tatsu, who, in leaving, left her with the unlikeliest of advice or commands: "when you grow up, come marry my son".
A few years later she briefly encounters that son, Yoji, who blithely accepts that Manyo is his intended: it's what mom decreed, and: "There's not a man in the main family or any branch family who'd go up against Mama".
Manyo -- still far too young to worry about marriage in any case -- can't believe that she could marry into this grand family and doesn't really take it seriously -- but before she and the young man part she does have and share a vision of the future (she's occasionally prone to these things), predicting: "Your head flies off and you die".
Eventually, in 1963, when she is twenty, Manyo is summoned to marry Yoji and moves into 'red above'.
She recognizes: "I've married into a strange place", but she settles in easily enough.
Tatsu runs the household and family, her husband Yasuyuki runs the successful business, and Yoji reads his Western books.
The physical intimacy Yoji expects isn't something Manyo is familiar with -- or then particularly enthusiastic about -- but she goes along with it.
She does her duty, too, promptly getting pregnant -- indeed, she has several kids, beginning with Namida, the son destined to be the family heir, followed by Kemari, the narrator's mother, then Kaban, and finally Kudoko.
Yoji also has a mistress, Masago, who also has a daughter by him, Momoyo, a girl who is fully taken into the household after her mother's death, though never quite fully integrating into the family.
Manyo has these occasional visions -- of what lies ahead, and specifically how people die: giving birth to Namida, she sees the whole arc of his life, culminating also in his death at too early an age.
So, too, she knows in advance about Yasuyuki's death -- helpfully forewarning her husband, so that he can help steer the company to avoid economic troubles ahead (the oild crisis of 1973) when he does.
And, yes, spoiler, Yoji will eventually lose his head.
Among Manyo's earliest visions was that of a flying one-eyed man -- but when she arrives at 'red above' she meets him: he is Toyohisa Hozumi, a dedicated worker in the steel plant, and he still has both his eyes.
Her warning, to be careful, don't help of course: what's fated is fated, and her vision won't be denied -- even if takes a long while to figure out exactly what it was she saw.
She and Toyohisa remain friendly over the years, as he remains married to the job, never getting a family of his own (though a niece of his does become a close friend of Kemari's).
The first section focuses on Manyo and her unusual path, while the second the centers around Kemari.
A wild, unbridled girl, she becomes a motorcycle-riding gang leader.
Her sidekick is Chocco -- Choko Hozumi, Toyohisa's niece -- a stellar student with a bit of wild streak too but grand ambitions.
Among Kemari's quirks is that she is only attracted to truly ugly men -- "the kind of men women loathed" -- despite being incredibly attractive herself.
Among her other oddities is her apparent blindness to her half-sister Momoyo, as she remains literally unable to perceive this girl who lives in the same house (and, following in her mother's footsteps, is obsessed with stealing men: "Until the winter of her twenty-ninth year in 1998, she lived for the sole purpose of sleeping with Kemari's men").
While Chocco gets serious about her studies as university-preparation time approaches -- she has her future all mapped out, and her ambitions remain the highest -- Kemari tends towards drift.
She does outgrow her gang enthusiasm, handing over the reins, but doesn't have any grand personal ambitions.
Only in tragedy does she find inspiration: drawing manga, she is discovered and becomes an overnight sensation.
She gets married -- family obligation -- and has a daughter -- the narrator, Toko -- but devotes herself entirely and solely to her work for twelve years, chronicling her gang-life in a wildly popular manga.
The intense schedule is enough to make her editors fall by the wayside at regular intervals, but she keeps it up for over a decade, holed up in the house (she even has a double to make her public appearances for her) and dedicated entirely to her work.
When the story is finally done, so is she.
Only in the final section does Toko come to the fore, living with the leftovers of the family, her father now running the family company (whose name he changed from 'Akakuchiba Steelworks' to 'Red Dead Leaf, Inc.' -- "basically the characters of our last name [赤 朽 葉] translated into English") in a house: "which had fallen back into silence and sadness".
It's a motley crew left over when Toko hits adolescence: grandmother Manyo, Toko's stay-at-home (from earliest childhood on) uncle Kodoku, a childhood friend of Manyo's, Midori Kurobishi, Kemari's first manga editor, Tamotsu Soho, hiding out there, and Toko's father (who spends almost all his time at work, however).
Toko is adrift
She has an on-again, off-again boyfriend who was a star baseball player in high school -- his life peaking with that small triumph -- and has no professional or other ambitions: "I live in the modern age and I have no passion", she admits.
Only a death-bed confession of her grand-mother's eventually captures her imagination, and she becomes determined to figure out what Manyo meant, leading her to look into the odd deaths that have plagued the house over the decades.
It's a limited mystery, but its resolution neatly ties a part of the story together.
There's a good deal of quirkiness to the Akakuchibas and those in their orbit, and while her own life is rather uneventful, Toko's accounts of her grandmother's and then her mother's lives are engagingly lively and fanciful.
Sakuraba employs a large cast of characters, but utilizes them well: only a few figures really come to the fore, while the secondary figures are well-utilized in their supporting roles.
The continuity is perhaps excessive at times -- the repeated background appearance of the family that took Manyo in makes sense, and at a stretch having old friend and occasional nemesis Midori move into the house does too; having Kemari's manga-editor resurface seems a bit much -- but on the whole works, much in the way Toko herself remains a small presence throughout but only in the background until it is truly her turn, in the final third of the book.
Without going into too much detail, Sakuraba does evocatively present the steady decline of the powerful family.
Bits may seem exaggerated -- specifically Kemari's excesses, both in her wild youth and then in her obsessive manga-drawing -- but on the whole the picture feels convincing.
Even Manyo's visionary abilities, a touch of the supernatural, fortunately aren't harped on too much; if not entirely realistic, the novel is still a very rich family portrait.
Where Red Girls stands out is in how it chronicles and reflects the times.
This is a novel of postwar Japan, and while the focus is on the family, Sakuraba very nicely describes the ripple effects, inward and outward, of events over these decades on family, the family business, the town, and the whole nation.
Already at the beginning Toko reveals what is to come:
What I, living in the present day, know is simply a black, dried husk of a city, where the fires stopped as the times changed, a dead place covered in red rust, transformed into an enormous ruin.
The blast furnace -- early on, kept running twenty-four hours a day, a vibrant center of an important industry -- by the end, more than half a century later, is just an empty shell that's then ordered demolished because it's an earthquake hazard.
But this isn't so much a story of sad decline as of inevitable change -- which the family, business, and locals adapt to as best they can.
The changes in Japan and Japanese society and business are all reflected here, the different phases of modernization, educational advances, demographic shifts, various social and others trends.
There's maybe a bit much of gang culture and then the manga-business, but overall Sakuraba weaves the changes in very well: few novels manage as well as Red Girls to provide a quick but fairly deep sense of the evolution of post-war Japan and Japanese society, at all its levels.
So also the transition Toko describes is fully convincing, of how:
The bright red mansion, former ruler over Benimidori, the town's distant heavens, had over the years absorbed the air of modernity without anyone noticing it and now appeared to be a perfectly normal house in the mountains.
This is a lively family saga, focused on four generations of its women (the men are distinctly secondary, their roles not so much supporting, or only occasionally and incidentally so, but rather separate) and their very different lives and characters.
Beyond that, it offers an insightful picture of Japan and its tremendous changes over the past six or so decades.
Not everything works -- the mystery Toko tries to solve in the last part is a bit of an awkward forced fit, and some of the episodes and writing are a bit too simple -- but overall this is an impressive novel that lives up to most of its ambitions and shows great range -- and is, throughout, a good read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 21 March 2019
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Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Japanese author Sakuraba Kazuki (桜庭一樹) was born in 1971.
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© 2019-2021 the complete review
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