Morality and Its Discontents

Life Ceremony, Sayaka Murata, trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori

Granta, 266pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781783787388

reviewed by Tim Murphy

In January 2023, the Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, made a speech suggesting that the very existence of Japanese society was being threatened by its steadily falling birth rate. While Kishida said that support for child-rearing was now his government’s single most important policy, it is not surprising that Japanese artists have responded to the demographic situation in sometimes provocative ways. Chie Hayakawa’s futuristic 2022 film, Plan 75, for example, concerns a government program that encourages the elderly in Japan to terminate their own lives for the greater socio-economic good. Another perspective is offered in the titular (and longest) story in Sayaka Murata’s first short story collection to appear in English, Life Ceremony.

‘Life Ceremony’ imagines a Japanese future in which deceased people are typically cooked and eaten by their friends and acquaintances. The government subsidises these ceremonies because ‘the idea of birthing life from death’ involves ceremony guests possibly pairing off with an ‘insemination partner’ — whereas sex between lovers continues to be ‘considered dirty’ and therefore ‘normal to do . . . out of sight’, insemination after a life ceremony ‘was generally considered sacred and could be carried out anywhere.’ Given the priority of population growth, all pregnancies are welcomed by the state, but male insemination partners are often unknown, and many mothers prefer to let their children be raised in government centers, ‘set up to take care of children so that women could carry on working while also producing children whenever they wanted to’.

The protagonist in ‘Life Ceremony’, Maho Iketani, has never paired off with an insemination partner, and it is only at the life ceremony of her friend, Yamamoto, that she first cooks and eats human flesh. Afterwards, buoyed by the experience and considering life ceremonies in a new light, Maho decides on a seaside picnic with the Tupperware boxes containing leftovers of Yamamoto cashew stir-fry and some rice balls filled with Yamamoto braised meat. At the beach, Maho meets a gay man with whom she shares her food and discusses the ‘current custom’ of eating dead humans. Inspired by the life ceremony that has taken place and the food they have eaten together, but unable to have sex with Maho, the man presents her with some semen in a small bottle after a visit to the toilet. While the beach fills up with couples ‘engaged in insemination’, Maho walks into shallow water and inseminates herself.

There are 13 stories in Life Ceremony, the first 12 of which were published in Tokyo in 2019 as Seimeishiki, while the additional story, ‘A Clean Marriage’, appeared in Granta magazine in 2014. Murata’s first novel, Jyunyū (Breastfeeding), was published in Japan in 2003, but she is known to English-language readers primarily through two of her more recent novels, Convenience Store Woman (2016) and Earthlings (2020). In Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translations, Murata’s prose is predominantly detached and functional, a style that complements the taboo-challenging content. Life is repeatedly described as an ‘illusion’ by Murata, and her narrative approach is often grounded in a conceit or extended metaphor like that found in ‘Life Ceremony’. In philosophical terms her work addresses the relativism of morality and common sense. ‘Everyone always says that things like common sense or instinct or morals are carved in stone,’ says Yamamoto in ‘Life Ceremony’, but ‘that’s not true — actually, they’re always changing’.

Social norms regarding sex, reproduction, and marriage are the subject matter of ‘A Clean Marriage’, in which a happily married couple decides to start a family using expensive technology called ‘the Clean Breeder’. The machine is required because, while the couple have sex lives outside their marriage, the thought of having sex with each other provokes feelings of ‘shared revulsion’. Their response aligns with the ideology determining that sex for pleasure and sex for pregnancy, as a doctor remarks, ‘are two completely different concerns, and it’s absurd to lump them together.’ The Clean Breeder places most of the physical burden on the narrator’s husband during the insemination process: ‘It really was just as if he had given birth,’ the narrator says, ‘and I had accepted his progeny’.
‘A First-Rate Material’ challenges some of the norms and taboos around death. It is set in a world where human beings are recycled after death and body parts such as hair, bones, and nails are used in fashion accessories and furnishings — there are skull dishes, for example, and dried stomach lampshades. The main characters are Nana, and her fiancé, Naoki, who is unusual in disliking all recycling of human materials and favouring instead cremation after death. Nana describes the recycling of human materials as ‘a precious and noble aspect of the workings of our advanced life-form — not wasting the bodies of people when they die.’ While many will be repulsed by this notion, it is part of Murata’s aesthetic approach to present it as not only reasonable but also in line with the widely accepted idea of recycling for sustainability. In the story, Naoki resists human recycling until his mother and sister present Nana with a wedding veil made of Naoki’s deceased father’s skin. While Nana notices the ‘skin-tinged glow’ and ‘intricate pattern’ of the veil, and how it makes her feel she is ‘standing in the most sacred church in the world’, the garment also helps to heal Naoki’s estrangement from his father. He says the veil ‘looks lovely’ on Nana because human skin ‘really does suit people.’

The conventions around socialisation and coupledom feature in ‘Hatchling’, a first-person narrative about a woman with five distinct personalities, each of which she employs in different social and personal contexts. A sixth personality emerges when the woman explains the situation in full to her fiancée so that they can survive as ‘the smallest possible community, a couple’. The final paragraph switches to third-person narration: ‘Repressing a scream, Ha-chan closed her eyes in Ma’s arms. The ray of light coming through the curtains was extinguished by a black cloud covering the sky outside.’

‘Poochie’ is a story about two teenage girls who keep a compliant ‘salaryman’ as a pet on the mountain near their school after one of the girls, Yuki, found him ‘wandering around, lost’ in Otemachi, a business district in Tokyo. Poochie, as Yuki named the middle-aged man, says little; his only exclamation is, ‘Finishitbytwo!’, which the narrator, Mizuho, says is ‘probably an order he used to issue before he became our pet’. When someone comes from Otemachi to take him back, Poochie escapes and returns to his captors on the mountain.

While most of the 13 stories here are well-executed, the more fantastical or magic realist of them do not carry the same force as the more stimulating social pieces. ‘The Time of the Large Star’, for example, imagines a country that maintains a preference for the night over the day because ‘nobody needs to sleep’, but the story never seems to get off the ground. More successful perhaps is ‘Lover on the Breeze’, narrated by ‘Puff’, the curtain in a schoolgirl’s bedroom who develops, and acts upon, an attraction to the girl’s boyfriend.

There is wit and humour in Life Ceremony, but not the warmth that may come with sensitive character development. Murata eschews the latter in favour of advancing her ideas, reminding this reviewer of the late Milan Kundera’s remark that a character exists for him ‘to explore a certain theme, a certain idea.’ Murata offers no judgments or answers to the questions she raises, but the strongest feature of the collection is precisely that it is unsettling and thought-provoking. Things are unlikely to unfold in Japan according to the wishes of its current prime minister, but perhaps some of the morality in Murata’s futuristic visions will one day be normalised.

Tim Murphy is an Irish writer living in Spain. His first poetry collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022).