Authorial Women: The Gender of Character Construction in Hiromi Kawakami’s “The Ten Loves of Nishino,” Translated from Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

This month, in memory of our contributor Professor Jed Deppman who founded the Oberlin College Translation Symposium, instituted a literary translation minor, and taught courses in literary translation and comparative literature, we are featuring three reviews by Oberlin College Comparative Literature graduates and students, taught and trained by Professor Deppman and other Oberlin College faculty. Professor Deppman passed away on June 22, 2019. 

This is the third review, by Oberlin College student and translator James Bilhartz. 

By James Bilhartz

TenLovesNishinoWritten in 2003, adapted as a film in 2014, and now translated into English by Allison Markin Powell, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Nishino is a text that escapes reduction. In interconnected narratives, ten women detail their experiences with memory, desire, love, and the enigmatic Yukihiko Nishino. With a subtle brilliance, Kawakami explores unexpected connections between these experiences, routinely making abrupt shifts in tone and theme, producing a simultaneously pleasant and jarring work. Her readers must be wary of taking the text for granted, especially its descriptions of the titular Nishino, as Kawakami plays with the unreliability of a single voice. Indeed, the text makes it clear that in order to understand Nishino, readers must first understand each of his loves’ narratives, which ultimately construct his character. Character construction is central to the work, and Kawakami and Powell particularly engage it through a gender-conscious lens, one that disturbs patriarchal literary tradition and highlights women as both authors and focalizers.

Despite decades of advances made by global feminist movements, many contemporary works of Japanese and American fiction continue to utilize long-standing misogynist tropes. Kawakami and Powell, however, reject these tropes, clearly challenging the gendered history of character construction. This is not to say The Ten Loves of Nishino takes the form of a polemic. Rather, the ten narratives, freed from linearity and structure, levy a decentralized critique of the patriarchal tradition, specifically subverting masculine authorship, univocal construction, and women’s servitude.

Historically, legitimate authorship has been considered the exclusive possession of men (Gilbert and Gubar), but The Ten Loves of Nishino‒a novel written by a woman, consisting entirely of women’s narratives‒successfully undermines this history.[1] Kawakami ensures no speaker’s validity is questioned, giving all ten women, young and old, complete authority over their narratives. This freedom is expressed diversely: for example, Eriko spends most of her narrative contemplating personal matters while Manami focuses on her relations with Nishino. While every narrative engages Nishino to some degree, he is never in control of the text or of his own construction. Compared to the narrators, Nishino speaks relatively few times, and when he does his words are always focalized through the women, who often insert opinionated glosses that comment on his appearance or personality. Kawakami directly prohibits Nishino from engaging the reader, granting authorial power to women alone.

In addition to transgressing the tradition of male authorship, Kawakami also avoids univocal construction, something often associated with male authors who write one-dimensional female characters. In this context, univocal construction refers to when a narrator unilaterally controls character presentation. By itself, univocity is not inherently gendered, but male authors often describe their female characters with predominantly sexualized terms, preventing deeper character development. Major authors such as Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Murakami Haruki sometimes employ univocal construction; their female characters are described solely by male narrators who project their sexual fantasies, overshadowing all other aspects of the women. Kawakami chooses to invert this method by taking a complex, polyphonic approach to describing the multi-dimensional Nishino.

Not only are the ten voices distinct, but their distinctions are amplified through their oftentimes conflicting portraits of Nishino. For example, while Manami derides Nishino as “insensitive” and “lacking delicacy” (50), Sasaki sees him as a “clean-cut” and “courteous” man (124). This ambiguity is further emphasized in Powell’s translation of the title. In the original Japanese, the work is titled “ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険,” literally meaning “Nishino Yukihiko’s Love and Adventure.” By translating the title into The Ten Loves of Nishino, Powell calls attention to the work’s multiple voices and revokes Nishino’s titular possession of the work, transferring it to the ten “loves,” the true focus of the narrative. Acting in harmony, Kawakami and Powell destabilize univocal character construction by embracing a fundamentally equivocal, polyphonic narrative.

Kawakami further challenges the patriarchal literary tradition by granting her speakers autonomy from men. Though the speakers are introduced as Nishino’s loves, they do not exist to please Nishino. Some characters, like Ai, go to extreme lengths to fulfill Nishino’s desires, but most of the women prioritize their own needs over his. In fact, some openly reject his charms, not so much as kissing him. In one passage, with a pleading cadence, Nishino questions if Manami can be his idealized lover:

“Manami, you’ll never age?”

“I’m sure I will.”

“Manami, you won’t gain or lose weight?”

“No doubt I’ll get fat. Over the next ten years”

“Manami, you’ll always accept me as I am?”

“I’m not the Virgin Mary, am I?”

“Manami, will you always have sex with me?

“Depending on the time and the place.” (54)

As impossible as it is for Manami to fulfill Nishino’s exaggerated standards of beauty and sexuality, he presents them genuinely. In context, Manami’s rebuttal is quite playful, as she makes an effort to assuage Nishino’s concerns throughout the chapter “Good Night.” However, as Manami comes to realize Nishino is unwilling to compromise on his demands, she, like other narrators, transitions from playfulness to rejection. In addition to Nishino’s expectations of women being unattainable, they are also heteronormative; he seems to believe that women exist to please him, and yet at least one of his “loves” is more concerned with her relationship with a woman. In the chapter “Osaka Tower,” Nishino’s role is secondary to the painful, loving relationship between roommates Subaru and Tama. As such, Kawakami shows the independent nature of female interpersonal relationships, supporting her argument that women’s self-worth does not depend on Nishino or any man.

Kawakami’s destabilization of gendered literary construction is preserved in Powell’s English language translation, which she presents accessibly without weakening the text through over-domestication. Notably, Powell retains Japanese words when a specific concept cannot be sufficiently described with an English analog. This first appears in “Parfait” where a child handles, “gaily patterned Chiyogami craft paper” (11). Chiyogami is a traditional form of Japanese paper usually made from the kōzo bush, known for its vibrant, repetitive silkscreened patterns. Here, the descriptions “gaily patterned” and “craft paper” suffice to explain the general concept of Chiyogami, but they fail to capture the artistic tradition, implied texture, and distinctly Japanese nature of the paper. Only by including this loanword is Powell able to capture its associated cultural nuance. In “The Heart Races,” Powell uses loanwords to preserve the specificity of Japanese cuisine, a frequent silent victim of translation. Unfortunately, it is common to find Japanese dishes as ubiquitous as miso soup reduced to “bean paste soup” in many modern translations, but Powell takes a clear stand against the erasure of Japanese cuisine, retaining original dish names. A single dinner scene contains Japanese saké, sashimi, modigatsuo bonito, kohada gizzard shat, and iwarnori seaweed (68-9). Like with Chiyogami, Powell includes enough gloss to allow English readers to get the gist of these dishes, while preserving the Japanese word for an added dimension of specificity. For example, it is immediately clear that iwanori seaweed is a form of seaweed, but the inclusion of iwanori, meaning “rock seaweed,” signals it is softer and more aromatic than the more commonly consumed nori.

In the chapter “Marimo,” Powell goes beyond the inclusion of loanwords, incorporating a paragraph-long etymological discussion of the word “myorei,” 妙齢, discussing each characters’ unique connotations. Myorei, described as meaning “young ladies,” is the word the middle-aged Sasaki uses to refer to women of her generation. This is a slightly esoteric word, and it is used to play on the secondary meanings of its constituent characters. As the text notes, the character 妙 (myou) is a combination of the characters for “woman” and “little,” and it is usually used in reference to young women. However, it can also mean, “highly skilled, or unusual, or esoteric” (124). Myorei, then, is a word that juxtaposes youthfulness with wisdom and uniqueness, traits Sasaki sees embodied by both herself and her peers. In preserving not only this word but in unpacking its implications, Powell defies domestication and embraces the complexities of translating Japanese.

While The Ten Loves of Nishino addresses crucial issues of gender and character construction in a little under two hundred pages, it also explores numerous other themes and raises deep philosophical inquiries which demand equal recognition. However, it would be heretical to condense the text’s intense ruminations on issues as varied as temporality, incest, and the supernatural into such a short review. The text and its ten distinct voices beg for rereadings, multiple methods of analysis, and thoughtful contemplation. As a whole, the work is perhaps most succinctly described as sometimes disturbing, oftentimes delightful. Of course, the richness of the prose, at least in the English translation, is largely owed to Powell, who manages to make subtle alterations while being cautious to not erase Kawakami’s Japanese original.

Kawakami, Hiromi. The Ten Loves of NishinoTranslated by Allison Markin Powell. Europa Editions, 2019.

[1] Gilbert, Susan and Sandra Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 2000.

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