So last time, I started talking about Yasuoka Yukiko, an author who appears repeatedly over the course of a year in Uchuujin and then vanishes as suddenly as she arrived. I ended up writing waaaaaaay more about Yasuoka’s “Io” than I intended, so here we are at part 2 of my look at her stories, this time taking up “Mama.” Yasuoka’s great love for Greek myth intertwined with knotty questions of parenthood continues unabated here, so let’s have a look at the childhood tragedy that is “Mama.”
“Mama” tells the story of Miwa and Romi, two elementary school children that become friends. Miwa is a prickly, contrarian little girl, and Romi is… well, he’s an alien. But an earnest, shy alien that just wants to find a friend. Romi invites Miwa over to his house to play one day, and despite her initial trepidation, Miwa slowly comes to enjoy spending time with this young boy whom she doesn’t understand very well. Romi’s alienness is something that only we, the readers, are really aware of. Miwa just thinks of him as a slightly eccentric, perhaps foreign boy who says weird things frequently. She is initially enticed by his huge collection of books, and then by the bracelet he wears, which turns out to be capable of opening a portal to whatever world they can imagine. The two enjoy a number of afternoons together exploring alien vistas and fantastic locales.
Besides their planet of origin, the main thing differentiating Miwa and Romi is their relationship to their respective families. Romi is obviously very close to his father and (especially) his mother, who only ever appears as a disembodied voice coming down from the second floor of Romi’s house. The atmosphere of Earth apparently doesn’t agree with her, but that doesn’t stop her from making strawberry shortcake for the children and telling Romi how much she loves him. This is a point of jealousy for young Miwa, whose mother divorced her father and left when Miwa was still very young. Miwa’s father works long hours to provide for his daughter, and Miwa is thus a lonely child, well used to putting on the rice for dinner when she gets home from school. Miwa’s father loves her very much and showers her with gifts whenever he can, but it’s clear that this can’t compare to the warmth shown by Romi’s mother to her son.
Both children are thus symbolic of a kind of loneliness: Miwa the loneliness of a child in a single-parent household, and Romi the loneliness of a child who finds himself in a foreign environment thanks to his father’s work. It’s quite poignant, then, to see the children overcome their loneliness in their own imperfect ways and grow closer to one-another. Each ignores the source of the other’s loneliness, in that particularly childlike way, as they explore unknown vistas together via Romi’s bracelet device. For the time that they play together, there is only them and their shared imaginative space.
We’re doused with some cold water in one scene, however, when Miwa’s father takes her out for a fun-filled day at the zoo. They conclude the day at a family restaurant, where they run into Miwa’s mother, who promptly ignores Miwa and rejoins her new husband and new daughter. Miwa’s disenchantment and heartbreak is painful to read precisely because she does not confront it. Instead, as can only be expected, she represses the pain and pretends it doesn’t exist. When she next sees Romi, however, we see the results of this pain. She dreams up a cavern network for the bracelet to take them to, and goes exploring with Romi. They come to a fork in the tunnel, and she suggests splitting up momentarily to investigate the two paths. Romi is attacked and devoured by the Minotaur, and Miwa flees the caverns, sealing the portal behind her and inheriting Romi’s bracelet. The story ends with Romi’s mother calling down that she’s left the shortcake and coffee on Romi’s desk for the two of them, and with a sobbing Miwa climbing the stairs to confront her.
There are so many aspects of this story that fascinate me: the presence of Greek myth, Yasuoka’s decision to adopt a narrative point of view through which the reader will understand more than the characters, Miwa’s feelings about Romi’s family vis a vis her own, the position of motherhood, of alienness, of childhood, of fantasy. Did Miwa intentionally lead Romi to his death, that she might exact revenge on him for having such a happy relationship with his mother when she couldn’t? Was she trying to take his place within the family unit, or was this simply her subconscious pain manifesting in unexpected ways?
Yasuoka does a fantastic job of showing the ways Miwa tries to work through her own sense of pain and loss at the lack of a mother in her life. While the young girl initially seems overly standoffish and mean to the well-meaning Romi, we can’t help but come to pity her as we realize more and more that her actions spring from a fear of rejection. Not understanding why her mother left in the first place, Miwa conjures fantasies of what her mother must be like, what sort of person she herself must be, and how those things affect her relationships with her friends. She professes a lack of a need for outside affection while nevertheless desperately seeking it out. It’s her childlike lack of self-awareness, her inability to name what she wants, that makes Romi’s death so tragic. Despite the fact that the Minotaur’s labyrinth was conjured by Miwa’s own imagination, we don’t get the sense that she planned to kill Romi in any kind of premeditated way. Rather, the monster appears to have been summoned up from Miwa’s own subconscious jealousy of Romi’s familial bliss. Like playing with a loaded handgun, the children seem to be victims of their own innocence.
Yasuoka’s writing isn’t flawless, however, and there are a few problematic elements within “Mama” that stick out. The first is rather minor, given the mid-60s moment of its writing, and that’s the lack of any horizon for women beyond motherhood. The most critical role a woman can fulfill in this story is being a mother to her children. Again, perhaps this isn’t a surprising feature of a story written in 1964, and as the decade progressed, the women’s lib movement would have some things to say about it. The other jarring moment in “Mama,” however gets more knotty as we try to work through it. I should preface this by saying that I quote some racist language below, so those that find that kind of language troubling should be warned to skip to the next paragraph. It comes in the moment when Miwa has summoned the cave into being and Romi expresses trepidation about venturing inside. Romi has identified the cave as the same cave that appears in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which the villain Injun Joe is supposedly hiding out, and says he’s scared to go inside. Miwa assures him that she created the cave without Injun Joe inside and that, “Injun Joe is just a darkie (kuronbou) anyway.” I haven’t read the Japanese translation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that would have been circulating when Yasuoka wrote “Mama” to confirm, but it seems likely to me that Miwa is getting this language from that source.
So we have a racist slur from an American novel being quoted by a young Japanese girl to assuage the fears of an alien boy. This seems really strange since Yasuoka’s story up until now has made very little of the difference between Miwa and Romi – a difference that is coded racially in the first lines of the story, when Romi’s big eyes and long, wavy hair make Miwa wonder whether he might be non-Japanese. In the beginning, in other words, Miwa and Romi’s friendship seems to be meant to be understood as a friendship that occurs across racial lines. Indeed, when Miwa first sees Romi’s library, she asks if he has “Kaze no Matasaburou,” to which he proudly replies that he even has Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru. Both of these are proto-SF fantasies by Miyazawa Kenji, and “Kaze no Matasaburou” specifically is about a transfer student who may be a wind spirit, not unlike the alien transfer student Romi. Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru, meanwhile, shares themes of parental absence and childhood isolation and friendship with “Mama” while also thinking about escapes to fantastical locales. Yasuoka clearly is thinking about taking difference in stride and allowing it to open us to new experiences, so why the sudden appearance of language used to exclude along lines of difference? It’s certainly possible that I’m simply imposing a contemporary understanding of racial slurs onto a historical moment where it wasn’t understood in the same way, but I think you could also make the argument that Miwa’s switch to a more racist idiom, however brief, is also a reflection of her resentful jealousy of Romi in that moment, feelings that turn her previously friendly relationship with him hostile.
More generally, I think this moment shows the formative relationship our lives have with stories. Much like in “Io,” part of Yasuoka’s point here is the blurring of fictional and nonfictional; whether through time travel or alien technology, stories become reality in Yasuoka’s texts, allegorizing the way our shared mythologies thread through and structure (at least in part) our actions. In “Mama,” books form the backdrop to Miwa and Romi’s friendship. Stories like “Kaze no Matasaburou” are how they learn to interact with one-another. The broader philosophy here echoes some of the contemporary theories of SF’s role as a genre, but with a twist. While some of the debates in Russia and Japan were positioning SF as a kind of engine driving future scientific inquiry, a model in which SF’s value is measured through its ability to create real-world scientific progress, Yasuoka is saying that SF is part of the cultural mythology by which society itself is narrated and individuals get socialized. When those stories are good, like “Kaze no Matasaburo,” they can contribute to a better society, a better individual. When they’re bad, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, they can make us insular and destructive. There’s perhaps something to be said about the division of national literatures there, but Yasuoka’s repeated use of Greek myth as a point of reference make me think it’s not a simple matter of “Japanese literature is best literature.”
Yasuoka’s work in these two stories is fascinating, and I’m hoping that “Fune” will continue that trend. I wish I could find out what she did after that, but unfortunately nobody seems to have that information. Either that, or information about the Yasuoka Yukiko that I want is getting drowned out in internet searches by the Yasuoka Yukiko who is an erhu prodigy. In any case, I’m looking forward to diving in to the other materials from her that I could find!