ELLA KELLEHER WRITES (latest in her review series of new Japanese novels) — Loneliness, a newly standardized leitmotif in Japanese literature, is the driving force behind much of modern Japan’s social dilemmas and Natsuko Imamura’s unnerving novel.
Beyond that, the fear over taking risks and forging new relationships frames the narrative told by the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, who stalks and surveys the Woman in the Purple Skirt at nearly all hours of the day. Yellow Cardigan knows and records everything: Purple Skirt’s unsuccessful job hunting, her unglamorous hair care routine, her usual order from the bakery, and her illicit affair with a hotel director. More than a ghost, less than a guardian angel, and closer to a disenchanted fairy godmother, Yellow Cardigan watches from within the shadows – far enough away from view that she remains unnoticed, all while Purple Skirt’s life unravels in dramatic chaos.
Nominated three times for the Akutagawa Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Japan, Hiroshima-born Natsuko Imamura finally won the award in 2019 for The Woman in the Purple Skirt, which was brilliantly translated to English in 2021 by Lucy North. Dubbed by her fans and readership as the “second Sayaka Murata” (the Japanese author of Convenience Store Woman, 2018, and Earthlings, 2020), many attribute this moniker to Imamura’s sharp humor and satiric language. Much of the knowledge displayed in The Woman in the Purple Skirt which reveals the inner workings of the hotel staff hierarchy, and its constricted social sphere, comes from Imamura’s own personal experience as a hotel housekeeper. Imamura’s intimate experiences allow for a creative and realistic depiction of the harsh and brutal reality that working class people must face in Japan.
The story’s narrator, the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan, is childish, immature, and highly unreliable. She crosses the pages of the novel much like a nonentity who observes the more interesting life of her idol and neighbor, the Woman in the Purple Skirt. Yellow Cardigan’s tunnel-vision-esque devotion to Purple Skirt leads her to falsely believe that Purple Skirt is a well-known celebrity that other people also devote themselves to. In reality, Purple Skirt is just another faceless person in the crowd who only gets loving recognition from the neighborhood school children who appreciate when she plays with them. Despite this obvious truth, the narrator claims that no one knows about Yellow Cardigan and “That’s the difference between her and the Woman in the Purple Skirt.”
From the shadows, Yellow Cardigan subtly makes her presence subconsciously known as she begins to shape Purple Skirt’s life with anonymous gifts of shampoo and help-wanted ads. Yellow Cardigan’s little interruptions in Purple Skirt’s daily routine eventually leads to Purple Skirt finding a cleaning job at a five-star hotel where Yellow Cardigan also works. Never does the Woman in the Purple Skirt ever suspect that a stalker has altered the course of her life.
As the novel continues through the perspective of Yellow Cardigan, the reader becomes eerily aware of how much obsession dominates the emotional palette and life of the narrator. Unsurprisingly, due to Imamura’s complexity and talent as a writer, the novel leverages the light and almost comical nature of its narrator’s internal monologues to implicitly shed wisdom on the growing problem of stalking in modern Japanese culture.
You don’t have to be some Japanese glamor idol to be well-aware of the threat that stalking poses to both the sanity and safety of women in general. Even so, in 2020, Japanese idol Marie Egbuchulam reported to the local police that an unknown man bypassed her residence’s auto lock system and trespassed onto her property for the sole purpose of meeting her. In a shocking lack of understanding, the police suggested that Egbuchulam “[speak] face to face” with the stalker to sort things out like “adults.” Much of the resounding fear that Japanese women experience surrounds not just the stalking epidemic, but the dangerously insensitive police responses to these incidents. If the cops won’t bother to help protect an actual celebrity, why would they bother with other women facing the same issue?
Alongside the critique of Japan’s police response to the social crisis of stalking, Imamura’s novel also conveys the challenges faced by ordinary workers in Japan’s economy and work-life culture. Job insecurity and limited professional opportunities are the daily reality for much of Japan’s working class. Nameless blue-collar workers quietly shape the way others live similarly to how Yellow Cardigan silently manipulates the life of Purple Skirt. Imamura hints at these major socioeconomic problems within the country through the way Yellow Cardigan watches Purple Skirt tirelessly search for any job that would hire an unskilled laborer. Prior to landing the hotel housekeeping job, Yellow Cardigan notes that “If [Purple Skirt] passed the interview and got [a] job, this would mean that the soul-destroying daily grind would immediately begin.”
While trying to properly characterize Purple Skirt’s appearance to the reader, Yellow Cardigan reveals that the only real friends she ever had were in childhood. “The person [Purple Skirt] most reminds me of is Mei-chan, a friend I had in elementary school… Mei-chan? No… Could it be you? We lost touch after you returned to China, but … have you really come back all this way … to see me …?” Yellow Cardigan then chastises herself for having foolishly fantasized that her and Mei-chan were ever friends to begin with. It becomes clear to the reader that building relationships is a crucial life skill that the narrator has never learned, and the sink hole of anonymity is one that may swallow her entirely.
The very core of Imamura’s novel surrounds one key problem that many of Japan’s social issues can be traced back to: the epidemic of loneliness – a widespread unsatiated desire to initiate and maintain relationships. This deep-seated internal crisis is best explored through Yellow Cardigan’s penultimate goal of becoming friends with Purple Skirt. As she watches from the darkness, all Yellow Cardigan wants is for her idol to notice her, to look her in the eyes and recognize her, to know her name. It is a deceptively simple and painfully lonesome aspiration. In a moment of understated and transparent honesty, Yellow Cardigan says, “I think what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been wanting to become friends with the Woman in the Purple Skirt for a very long time.” In a tragic but beautiful way, the issues presented in Imamura’s novel come full circle – Japan’s toxic work-life culture leads to loneliness, which breeds desperation for human connection, resulting in a crisis of obsession and stalking.
In a final and decisive twist, one where Purple Skirt’s affair with the hotel staff director combusts into dramatic violence, Yellow Cardigan finally makes her presence fully known. With streams of tears and blood flowing over her body, Purple Skirt asks the name of this strange woman who came to help her. “So, it’s you? You’re the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan?” No longer is Yellow Cardigan just “Supervisor Gondo” from the hotel staff who Purple Skirt barely ever acknowledged and certainly did not expect to be her devotee. She is transformed in the eyes of Purple Skirt – she is now a real person.
As if to reinforce this idea, Yellow Cardigan reaches out and tweaks Purple Skirt’s nose. This is her small, childish way of proving her existence, a gentle act of touch that reinforces her actuality and metaphorically breaks the spell of solitude. In the resounding silence of Purple Skirt’s apartment stairwell, the reader cannot help but hear the echo of Yellow Cardigan’s words, “I’ve been here all along.”
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.