Ghost stories never felt more human and satisfying.
The collection of short stories by Matsuda Aoko, translated by Polly Barton, is (true to its name) wildly fun to read. Each story is a contemporary retelling of a Japanese traditional ghost story, with a feminist twist.
I didn’t know two-thirds of the ghost stories before reading the book, so it was very helpful that the book lists the inspiration for each story and and I found myself googling more about them either before or reading the stories.
Most of the women in the Japanese traditional ghost stories met with a sad or cruel ending, with their ghost selves portrayed as vengeful and spiteful spirits. So it was downright satisfying to see them retold in a contemporary setting, where the ghosts are portrayed as real people with personalities, perhaps even freer than the living to live out their (after)lives, without the shackles and restraints placed on them by society. While Matsuda’s stories take inspiration from the traditional tales, she re-creates them, and the ghosts are given a new lease of life, and for some, a much more happier one.
The similarities between her stories and the women in the traditional tales is also a reflection of the roles of women in society, and how little (at times) it has changed even in the contemporary society, although the different endings offer some hope of changes.
Slight spoilers ahead.
Each story is really short, some spanning only a couple of pages, and it leaves the reader wanting more. I love the open endings, and it feels like without a proper ending, the ghosts live on, just like humans do. There’s an air of mystery in the individual stories, as the readers are left wondering what happens. The air of mystery shrouds the entire book, when it becomes apparent in the title story (Where the Wild Ladies are) in the middle of the book that the stories are actually linked. We are introduced to a mysterious company run by an equally mysterious character, Mr Tei. While there are some hints dropped here and there in the book, the readers are not quite privy to what exactly is the company doing, or who exactly is Mr Tei.
I was very pleasantly surprised by how the stories are linked, and it made me do a double-back to re-read the stories in front in order to try to form the larger picture. It’s a futile attempt though. The sense of mystery is consistent throughout the book, where at times, we are given very little information about the characters and their connection to the mysterious company. Just when the characters and stories grow on me, it’s time to bade them goodbye. It leaves me wanting for more, and I find myself thinking back about the curious stories and the people(ghosts).
I absolutely love the feminist twists in the stories and the stories draw attention to the roles / stereotypes of women, and the ghosts are inspirations to the modern women as they break free of the shackles of society and the living.
My personal favourite has to be A Fox’s Life where Kazuha has been told from young that she resembles a fox and while she is brilliant, she is uncomfortable outshining her male peers in school, given her observations that people turn a cold shoulder to women who stood out. She ends up in an administrative job where her talents at tea-making and spotting mistakes in her male colleagues’ work is complimented, given that they see no threat from a woman in her ‘rightful’ role. She wonders at the unjust of society, where men should be pitied for needing to pretend to be capable of doing things they couldn’t, and women had to pretend to be incapable of work that they could do.