Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas by Kazuki Sakuraba
Strong women run a powerful family from the shadows in this supernaturally tinged saga of Japan from postwar times to today.
Kazuki Sakuraba’s early Gosick light novels were bestsellers and her adult fiction is acclaimed throughout Japan. Red Girls won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 2007 and Watashi no Otoko won the Naoki Prize for popular fiction in 2008.
Jocelyne Allen is a Japanese translator based in Toronto, Canada, after a decade in Japan. Her recent translations include Toh EnJoe’s “Silverpoint” in the collection Ruptured Fiction(s) of the Earthquake, Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths and Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Fallen Words.
Just after the end of the Second World War, a baby named Manyo is abandoned by mysterious outlanders at the edge of a village in Tottori Prefecture. Illiterate and clairvoyant, the girl is adopted by a kind-hearted couple and lives a quiet and diligent life with few friends, until everyone is shocked when she’s hand-picked as a bride for the powerful Akakuchibas, a family that runs the local steelworks factory, which is crucial to the town’s livelihood. She raises a strange brood of children who live—and often die, tragically—in a mansion in the “red above,” making decisions that trickle down to the common folk in the “black below.” Manyo’s only grandchild, Toko, eagerly absorbs the family stories, never questioning Manyo’s reliability until, on her deathbed, Toko’s grandmother confesses to being a murderer.
So begins the narrator’s journey in Kazuki Sakuraba’s Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas. By foregrounding Manyo’s confession, the book promises mystery and intrigue, but the who’d-she- do-it-to mystery takes a long backseat to a saga of women narrating their lives through half a century of tumultuous social change. Men play a necessary but minor role in the story, while the true captains of the Akakuchiba ship are its matriarchs. The book is divided into three parts: part I is Manyo’s story, part II is the story of Manyo’s oldest daughter, Kemari, and part III is about Toko, who delves through her family history in order to discover who her grandmother killed, and why.
Manyo’s story is the most fantastical. It’s peppered with her eerie premonitions, a series of painful births and deaths, and the constant, roly-poly figure of Tatsu, the cheerful mother-in-law who insists on giving Manyo’s children peculiar names: Namida (“tear”), Kemari (“hairball”), Kaban (“bag”) and Kodoku (“solitude”).
Kemari’s story is the most action-packed. A rebellious daughter with unparalleled strength, the adolescent Kemari becomes the legendary leader of a violent biker gang, until unforeseen circumstances cause her to give up the delinquent life and become a wildly popular manga artist, her profits supporting the family as times change and Akakuchiba Steelworks gradually becomes less viable.
Kemari’s star burns fiercely and winks out suddenly when Toko is only nine years old. As a young woman, Toko admits to having no superpowers or wild adventures of her own: “I was a regular girl. Which is perhaps exactly why I was drawn to the tales of the Akakuchiba women. They had a glittering past, a history; they were my roots. When I thought about them, I felt a certain worth in myself too.”
As a novel, Red Girls’ worth also lies in reading the familiar stages of Japanese history through a rural, multigenerational, female lens, especially since they’re so often viewed through the eyes of the urban salaryman. Sometimes the social commentary maps on a little too easily—Manyo represents Japan’s postwar transition, Kemari the student rebellions of the ’60s, Toko the precarious, post-bubble youth, insecure and underemployed— but even when the message feels a bit didactic it’s still a worthy mission, and translator Jocelyne Allen brings out the story’s idiosyncrasies with little clues, like elongated vowels, funky nicknames and contemporary slang. And perhaps the ordinary Toko (written with the characters for “eyes” and “child”) isn’t so ordinary once she can see history through a matriarchal lens, a vision created by a female author and amplified again in English by a woman translator.