Tsutsui Yasutaka. What the Maid Saw. Trans. Adam Kabat. New York: Kodansha International. 1990 .
As I said a few posts ago, I think a lot of this blog’s content this summer is going to be reviews of Japanese SF books. My proposal committee wants to see more concrete readings of books, and I’m planning on getting more bang for my buck out of that work by using those readings in a conference proposal at the end of the summer. What all that means is that I need to read a bunch of SF novels so that I can get that work done! I’ve gone through a couple already, so let’s get started jotting down thoughts on them! The first is a book I’ve had checked out for… longer than I’d like to admit, given its slim profile (clocking in at 189 pages). Tsutsui Yasutaka is a name I’ve known for a long time, given the amount of crossover his work has with the film and anime industries (he wrote the novels upon which The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Paprika were based, among others), but whom I’d never actually read. Much like Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, his name has always hovered on the outskirts of my awareness of SF, but this was the first time I’d sat down to read one of his books. How does it stack up? Read on to find out.
I think it’s safe to say that “family” is not a happy word in Tsutsui’s vocabulary for this book. Originally titled 『家族八景』 Kazoku hakkei (Eight Views of the Family, riffing on a titling convention of ukiyo-e print series like “36 Views of Mount Fuji” by Hokusai), the book is a series of 8 related short stories that were originally serialized between 1970 and 1971 in Shosetsu Shincho magazine. They use the framing device of a telepathic maid named Hita Nanase to explore 8 different portraits of family life. None of these are particularly happy families, and through Nanase’s mind-reading abilities, the reader is given access to a host of neuroses, affairs, anxieties, and festering grudges. Combine these with Nanase’s own maturation (the stories span the years between when she is 18 and 20), and you have a book teeming with nervous energy that can’t find appropriate outlets.
A maid is a perfect choice, metaphorically speaking, for the protagonist of Tsutsui’s book. Charged as she is with keeping the household neat and tidy – that is, keeping up the appearance of civility and orderliness – Nanase is also witness to all the seamy nooks and crannies of each family’s life. Her position therefore works very well for Tsutsui’s purpose of social commentary regarding the brute physicality of human nature that can’t be swept under the rug of the high economic growth era in Japanese society. In these stories, being comfortably upper-middle class doesn’t spare individuals from their base instincts. Everyone is having affairs, and the spouses always know it; everyone is consumed by pride or jealousy or vanity, and it gives the lie to their performance of gentility. It seeps into their daily lives like the smell of a dead rat rotting under the floorboards.
Key here is Tsutsui’s underlying conviction that we all live and die alone, even if we find ourselves in the company of others. Relationships with others only serve as neurotic substitutes for self-confidence, propping up whatever warped view an individual has of him/herself and of the world around them. Even our psychic protagonist is ultimately only self-interested. Nanase uses her telepathic insights into others’ mental states to perform her own private social experiments, manipulating people with almost no trace of empathy so that she can see how human nature plays out. Self-preservation also figures large in her motivations. She is desperate not to let word of her psychic abilities slip out, lest she be turned into a spectacle for the media like a rare animal at the zoo. Her wish to protect her secret is so strong that on one occasion she deliberately breaks a client’s psyche (though in fairness this was also in self-defense because she sensed he was going to try to rape her), and on another she chooses not to reveal that an apparently dead woman has regained consciousness inside her own casket as it is being cremated. In short, Tsutsui’s view of people is that they are all ultimately self-centered, craven creatures that only perform the appearance of civilized refinement to further their own selfish agendas and keep them from coming to light.
Two more miscellaneous thoughts that I haven’t fully parsed out. First, on top of everything mentioned above, there is an extra layer of misogyny through which the world is viewed. While everyone in Tsutsui’s worldview is bad, women seem to be even worse. It’s unclear, though, whether this is simply an effect of the fact that, being a domestic maid, the people with whom Nanase is mostly likely to interact and come into conflict are the housewives and homemakers – that is, women. Is the appearance that women are more conniving than men in this book simply a tacit recognition that men are afforded greater social mobility and power, leaving the women fewer options by which to openly attempt to better their position? I’m not sure.
Finally, I was interested by the characterization of thought here. As a telepath, Nanase is described much like a TV antenna or radio receiver. She can generally turn her ability on and off, and while her sensitivity is usually targeted, her telepathy is still subjected to “background noise” from other personalities present, especially when those personalities are very strong. The translated phrase used for when she mutes her ability is “letting the latch down” (with “unlatch” serving to denote the opposite), but I’d be curious to know what the original wording was there, and what sorts of media associations it has. In addition, when Nanase accesses someone’s thoughts, these thoughts almost always take the form of spoken-style sentences, like another mode of dialogue. The media limitations of text go some of the way to explaining this choice – obviously short stories are usually carried out by means of words on a page, so linguistic signification isn’t strange in that sense – but I’m still intrigued by the persistence of rationality in Tsutsui’s depiction of thought. Despite his claim that we are all ruled by “uncivilized” instinctual drives toward power, fame, and especially sex, all of these drives are still comfortably contained within rational linguistic codes. This implies that the proper way for handling those instincts is through rationality, which perhaps hints that Nanase is on the right track, despite the apparent sociopathy in her behavior. I don’t want to commit to that reading 100%, as there are still moments of slippage where something more elemental seems ready to burst through, but it left me wondering exactly what Tsutsui’s perceptions of his own heroine were. If only I were psychic.