ELLA KELLEHER WRITES (latest in her review series of new Japanese novels) – People often dwell on the existential concept of death and what it means to die. But what does it mean to be born? To be alive? For the beautiful, talented, and wealthy, life would seem to be a cornucopia of joyous excitement and vibrant opportunities. Such people appear to be born for the beaming spotlight – apparently, life comes easy to them. Thus, it is only natural that they are more concerned with what happens when the fun ends. In the blurry peripheral are the societal rejects and pariahs who have it considerably less easy. In Japan, there is a popular saying: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” For those born to be different, simply existing can become a matter of merciless survival.
Heaven (2021) by Mieko Kawakami, the famed Japanese author of Breasts and Eggs (2020), delivers yet another philosophically challenging novel that deals with a painfully familiar and widespread issue, that of adolescent bullying. Freshly translated into English by the impeccable wordsmith-duo, Sam Bett and David Boyd, Kawakami’s unsettling yet powerful question permeates every line of the story: What is power, and who truly wields it?
The novel’s 14-year-old narrator, a boy only referred to as “Eyes” because of his lazy right eye, is forced to endure sadistic mental and physical torture by his classmates. On a nice day at the park, he notices sand-covered animal feces and imagines how his tormentors would most likely force him to eat it. This seemingly insignificant scene paints a harrowing picture: every waking moment for a victim of bullying is stained with the fear of what might come next. His thoughts begin to spiral out of his control, when will there be another brutal beating? Another entrapment inside a locker? The ceaseless agony abruptly pauses when out of nowhere Eyes finds a note inside his pencil case that says, “We should be friends.”
His past experiences would have Eyes believe that the note had to have been written by Ninomiya, the ringleader of the schoolyard gang, or one of his cronies. However, Eyes comes to find out that Kojima – a quiet girl nicknamed “Hazmat” for her unclean clothing and hair – was the note’s true author. Suddenly, the two outsiders form a close, unsteady, and secretive alliance. Kawakami cleverly features pages of notes passed between the narrator and Kojima, allowing the reader to delve deeper into their psychology.
Kojima, the most intriguing character in the story, delivers long monologues laced with terrifyingly poignant thoughts on the nature of humanity. During their in-person meetings, she posits various key ideas: “What differentiates us from objects? If there is no God, then why is there suffering? We’ll understand some things while we’re alive, and some after we die. What matters is that all the pain and sadness have meaning.”
In-between the crushing philosophy scattered throughout the novel, the reader must also bear witness to scenes of senseless violence so realistic that the pain almost becomes palpable. More than just cinematic, these moments are almost a meditation on what it means to be stepping into another’s shoes. The narrator’s detached and unspeakably traumatized internal universe is all we know as he is ruthlessly forced to endure having a deflated volleyball pulled over his head and kicked until his entire body oozes blood. The faceless bullies morph into something otherworldly, creatures who have violence etched into their very nature. Through the narrator’s and Kojima’s eyes, it seems as though brutality is something these bullies have always known – how to torture someone without leaving any incriminating marks. At first glance, such extreme villains seem like something out of a children’s fairytale. However, Kawakami’s writing reminds us that humanity at its cruelest is capable of far worse deeds.
One day, Eyes asks one of his bullies, a beautiful boy named Momose, why he is so cruel. Momose delivers his own nihilistic and Nietzsche-inspired monologue. “The weak can’t handle reality. They can’t deal with the pain or sadness, let alone the obvious fact that nothing in life actually has any meaning,” Momose says while darkly laughing. “[If] there’s a hell, we’re in it. And if there’s a heaven, we’re already there… [And] you know what? I think that’s fucking great.”
In stark opposition to Momose’s Nietzsche is Kojima’s Laozi, the great ancient Chinese thinker behind the Daoist idea of wuwei (無為) or inaction. Kojima believes in withstanding the torment forced upon her. To her, this is the brave and righteous thing to do. She states, “This is our will. We let them do this. It’s almost like we chose this. That’s all the more reason why they can’t leave us alone. They’re so scared, so terrified, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it.” Kojima reveals to Eyes that her unkempt appearance is her choice, her rebellion. She wears her philosophy like a plate of armor and revels in the ecstasy of her sacrifice. Both Momose’s and Kojima’s philosophies are built on solid logical grounds, making the reader believe in the convictions of both the good and the evil characters. It makes us stop and ask ourselves, do these moral divisions even exist at all?
Kawakami’s storytelling is unparalleled in Japan’s fictional canon where women characters are often painted as dull, uninteresting accessories to a story revolving around a central male protagonist. Eyes, who is not even given a real name, stands in the shadow of Kojima – a brilliant, intriguing girl whom he cannot begin to understand yet feels naturally magnetized to. The reader yearns to see the story through Kojima’s perspective but instead we only get a small glimpse of her world through the narrator’s gaze. In that way, Heaven feels unbalanced and artificially cut short. However, this is likely intentional – it’s Kawakami’s own way of implicitly commenting on the state of female characters in fiction, and how captivating and inspiring they can be. It is as if Kawakami is saying that Kojima should be the narrator and main character but is not due to her gender and the weight of what that means sits heavy on the reader.
The novel ends without much closure, a unique and daring approach for an author as complex and thorough as Kawakami. However, the story’s final message is clear and offers the most important takeaway for the reader: ultimately, we should always choose a world with depth, beauty, and life. In this way, Kawakami gives us an answer to which philosophy is the correct one. While the ending may not be classically positive and uplifting, we are led to believe that the narrator might just have a future filled with meaning and happiness. Heaven is not simply a supremely fascinating and compelling read. It is also a tale that has the power to transform your own personal philosophy altogether.
Recent LMU graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.