BOOB JOBS + TAMAGOYAKI: KAWAKAMI'S LESSON ON MOTHERHOOD AND SEXUALITY

BOOB JOBS + TAMAGOYAKI: KAWAKAMI'S LESSON ON MOTHERHOOD AND SEXUALITY

BOOB JOBS + TAMAGOYAKI: KAWAKAMI'S LESSON ON MOTHERHOOD AND SEXUALITY

ELAINE LOK

Collage art by Elaine Lok

Film photography by @i_hate_howard

From breasts and menstrual pads to poverty and broken families, Mieko Kawakami’s novel, Breasts and Eggs, is not afraid to dive headfirst into the realities of the female experience. By digging into the roots of femininity, Kawakami lets her characters live and breathe beyond the confines of Japanese society, illustrating the particular story of working-class women. Unlike the mystical women of the familiar works of Haruki Murakami, Kawakami places us at the centre of protagonist Natsuko’s distaste for the shell of femininity and her sister Makiko’s feminine rage. We experience the discomfort manifesting within these women’s lives, the discomfort Makiko has with her own breasts, the utter disgust Midoriko feels and her rejection of her changing body during puberty. This is Kawakami’s intimate lesson of feminine liberty: the indulgence of their desires. 

For most readers, Murakami is their first introduction into the realm of contemporary Japanese literature. Heavily influenced by Western literature, Murakami’s work captures surrealistic aspects of the human experience with intuition and whimsicality. However, after my fifth Murakami novel, I noticed a pattern. Within his world, the heterosexual protagonist often encounters enigmatic women with a concomitant air of sensuality. These women, such as Creta Kano in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle offer their bodies “for the sake of a man’s self-realization,” as Kawakami highlights in an interview with Murakami. As suggested by Kawakami, these women predominantly play the role of the sexual partner for the male protagonist, such as the aforementioned Creta Kano who is described as “a prostitute of the flesh. A prostitute of the mind.” Arguably, these women cannot exist in Murakami’s world without serving as a function for the growth of the male protagonist or to fulfil their sexual desires.

When absorbing the essence of [the women in Murakami's novels], I often find it difficult to truly materialize their existence from my imagination or from my experiences.

When absorbing the essence of these women, I often find it difficult to truly materialize their existence from my imagination or from my experiences. There is rarely a common denominator between these female characters and myself. In Murakami’s world, women often sacrifice their sanity and bodies to fulfill the sexual desires of the male protagonist, most notably seen in Midori’s hyper-sexualized interactions with Toru in Norwegian Wood. However, Murakami also argues that his characters are not manifested for the purposes of a realistic portrayal of our world, but a purely imagined aspect of it, allowing them to exist in the realm of magic realism. But beyond Murakami’s realm of these ultra-sexualized and often emotionally vulnerable women lies a neglected portrayal of the crudeness of female experiences, one that doesn't portray women as passive sexual figures but as individuals who also crave their own versions of liberty through autonomous desire. Though Murakami’s works such as Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood have become some of my most beloved pieces of literature, I craved self-realization from the perspective of a female protagonist who didn’t exclusively serve as an object of desire.

Breasts and Eggs serves this by dissecting the female experience in a brutish yet sensitive manner; it offered everything I wanted and more. The noises, smells, and conversations in Kawakami’s interpretation of modern-day Tokyo are loud and grimy, with women forming the core. Kawakami challenges our perception of this city, putting us in sensory-overload and immediately transporting us into ordinary locations such as the “local institution,” the neighbourhood bathhouse: “Mothers called their kids back as they ran across the tiled floor. It was a room of bodies, coming and going, soaking wet and rosy from the heat.” 

Kawakami continues to bombard our senses by placing us at the centre of feminine rage and discomfort. The uncomfortable accuracy of her description of the connection between a woman’s body and their external reality captures the evolving nature of the female anatomy. For Makiko, her constant anxiety over her changing breasts reveal the daily evaluation women complete in order to assess their conventional attractiveness.

“They weren’t always like this,” she assured me. “Not until I had a kid. Maybe they haven’t changed much. I don’t know [...] I mean, what the hell are these? A couple of Oreos? Not even. More like black cherries.” The prose is simple yet addictive, allowing us to be completely absorbed into Kawakami’s world. The novel is divided into two parts, Book One and Book Two. Book One is the original novella of the same title published in Japan in 2008. This first section immediately illustrates the presence of poverty throughout the narrator Natsuko’s childhood and its effect on her perception of motherhood. Kawakami begins Breasts and Eggs by confronting the readers with a simple fact of poverty: “If you want to know how poor somebody was growing up, ask them how many windows they had […] The number of windows says it all […] If they had none, or maybe one or two, that’s all you need to know.” From this, we sense that the lingering air of poverty has shaped the experiences of the protagonist Natsuko and her perceptions of childhood, a personal aspect of the author’s own upbringing. The broken childhood home of Natsuko and her older sister Makiko inevitably creates a very different conception of femininity for both sisters.

For Makiko, the size, shape, and colour of her breasts have become the centre of her universe, prompting her to travel from Osaka to Tokyo to receive breast implants: “Makiko gave me a first-class education on the state of breast augmentation surgery [when] she fell into onto one of her ‘breast implant trances.’” This overwhelming desire for the perfect breasts has created rifts between Makiko and her daughter Midoriko, who also experiences changes to her body due to puberty. The contrasting illustrations of unfamiliarity with one’s own body illustrates the complex relationship women have with their anatomy, encapsulating the foreignness that women feel when we look into the mirror.

 For Makiko, the urgency to remain desirable in the eyes of her clients has been isolating.  As she becomes increasingly consumed with the prospect of breast implants, her mind and body become increasingly disconnected. As Natsuko describes: “People like pretty things. When you’re pretty, everybody wants to look at you, they want to touch you. I wanted that for myself. Prettiness means value.” Much like Makiko, we are also under the trance of the everlasting search for prettiness. We place social value on our perceived prettiness of ourselves and others. The boldness of this sentiment echoes throughout Book One and forces the audience to question where their value on beauty lies. For many women, these thoughts narrated by Natsuko ring true to their own fears and anxiety, “my monolithic expectation of what a woman’s body was supposed to look like had no bearing on what actually happened to my body. The two things were wholly unrelated.”

Have we become detached from our own bodies through the weight of matching our personal expectations of our attractiveness with external opinions?

As I continued reading, I started to observe my own relationship with my body. Have we become detached from our own bodies through the weight of matching our personal expectations of our attractiveness with external opinions? This rejection of one’s own body has never been illustrated so vividly by any other author that I’ve encountered. The lack of control over our physical self and its inevitable changes also shapes our emotions towards our anatomy. When I look in the mirror, I ask myself who this body belongs to? Where did these lines come from? Will they ever disappear?  

This longing for control was the centre of the angst present in the journal entries written by Midoriko. Each of these thoughts felt as though Kawakami was extracting my own memories from the depths of my subconsciousness. The feelings of hatred and confusion that conjured the mind of Midoriko were also a reality for me throughout my adolescence. It validates the internal battles fought by women on a daily-basis.

These complicated emotions of self-loathing intertwined with external validation for our external self flood Midoriko’s deeply personal journal entries. “Now I’m going to write about breasts. I never used to have them, but they’re going in […] whether I like it or not […] Why can’t I stay like I am? Am I that weird? I hate it. I hate it to death.” Kawakami doesn’t romanticize the female experience, she is unafraid to shine light onto the chaotic moments of drunkenness, periods, and uncomfortable moments in public bathhouses. Instead of using female sexuality as the predominant attribute of the characters, Kawakami questions the validity of this sexuality and the role of breasts and eggs in this equation. She also asks us whether the male gaze and heteronormative interpretations of females have stunted our love for our own bodies. In doing so, Kawakami has attracted the attention of author and politician Shintaro Ishihara, who described Breasts and Eggs as “unpleasant and intolerable.” Maybe the discussions of sperm inseminations and slimy karaoke bars were all too much for the former governor of Tokyo. Or maybe what bothered him was the driving plot of Book Two, in which Natsuko confronts her asexuality with her desire to become a mother through artificial insemination.

No matter how uncomfortable the world of these women can be, this excessiveness in oversharing is necessary to illustrate that women can be just as brutish, depressed, and confused as they are sensual, maternal, and sensitive. These characters are alive and can be found just by walking down the street; their identities are not exclusively defined by the perceived attractiveness of their physical self. Kawakami doesn’t want us to just empathize with these women but to deconstruct our previous misconceptions of the modern woman.  

Ultimately, the beauty of Breasts and Eggs lies in its ability to destigmatize the seemingly grimy aspects of modern women through exposure to the vast spectrum of the female consciousness. Kawakami injects us with incredibly intimate yet comedic daily conversations between women on topics that range from tamagoyaki recipes, the ideal nipple colour, the conduct of stalking ex-boyfriends on Facebook, and whether a partner is necessary for the path of motherhood. There is a sense of trust established between Kawakami and me, a kind that creates confidence that Kawakami will continue revealing the dirt and grime present in the universal experiences of women, no matter how “unpleasant and intolerable.”