Woman Running in the Mountains 
by Yūko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt.
NYRB, 261 pp., £14.99, February, 978 1 68137 597 7
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In​ an old Japanese folktale, set in a mountain region where a dim light can be seen late at night, a young man comes across a woman in the woods. She runs through the trees ‘as though she were running through the air’, and calls out to him twice. The mountains appear from afar as if ‘draped with purple clouds’. The story is retold in The Legends of Tono, and it’s pointed at too in the title of Yūko Tsushima’s Woman Running in the Mountains. Something of this strange image of freedom, longing and illusion runs through all Tsushima’s fiction, with its enigmatic blend of realism and dream.

Tsushima, who was born in Tokyo in 1947 and died in 2016, published more than 35 novels as well as essays and short stories. Her first three novels, Child of Fortune (1978), Territory of Light (1979) and Woman Running in the Mountains (1980), and The Shooting Gallery and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction from the 1970s and 1980s, were translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt, with whom she had a close working relationship. (Just one of her later novels has been translated, by Dennis Washburn: Laughing Wolf, a tale of two itinerant children travelling through postwar Japan, published in 2000.) In her early work, Tsushima often wrote about the world of young single mothers – a world she knew. The pages are full of the demands of children and society, property and jobs, domestic work and pregnancy, as well as sex, drunkenness and desire. Her prose is clear and plain, with an air of innocence. It’s punctuated by moments of intense beauty – images both sublime and disconcerting, revealing undercurrents of rebellion.

Tsushima’s first three novels form a sort of triptych. Each features a single mother struggling to raise a child in unforgiving circumstances, and responding with different degrees of intransigence and hope. In Woman Running in the Mountains, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, the protagonist is Takiko Odaka, who is 21 when the novel opens. Her father, unemployed and alcoholic, has been beating her since she was a teenager; she tries to fight back but has ‘never won yet’. She doesn’t have any particular plans for her future: she knows only that she needs to leave home, and, when she becomes pregnant from a casual affair with Maeda, a government worker, having a child seems to offer a route out. She pictures herself ‘holding a baby lightly to her breast and running at top speed … It was not that she was running away. She just wanted to be tough and free to move.’

When she goes into labour, Takiko sets out for the hospital alone, without her parents knowing. She wants to be private and independent, but finding autonomy for herself and her son, Akira, is a struggle. She left her modest office job when it became obvious she was pregnant, mostly because of pressure from the company and her colleagues. This kind of quiet coercion is a continual pressure in Tsushima’s work: when Kōko in Child of Fortune, already mother to a wilful 11-year-old, believes she is pregnant again (but later turns out not to be), her parents suggest she get an abortion – less out of concern for her wellbeing than from fear she’ll be ostracised.

With some savings but no income, Takiko can’t leave home until she finds a job. After Akira is born, she takes a significant step: she draws up a new family register, an official document legally required in Japan, with herself as the head of the household, her name ‘where her father’s had always been’. When after many rejections she finally gets part-time work, her wages as a waitress barely cover the cost of food, baby formula and childcare. Her boss agrees to let her leave early to pick Akira up from the nursery, but she’s only given a brief window for the commute and gets there late most evenings. Her colleagues, meanwhile, resent this arrangement, and after a pointed suggestion from the owner she’s again forced to quit.

Tsushima invests the grind of housework, care work and paid labour with a sense of physical and financial precariousness. When Takiko serves drinks and food to her father’s friends, one of them puts his arm around her and pats her thigh. Her mother cuts back her own work hours (she has been told she’s at risk of a heart attack) and Takiko has to make up for the loss of income, contributing money towards her brother’s education before she can move out. Each of these small blows to her hopes is recounted calmly. Yet Takiko perseveres, with what could be described as either optimism or wilful denial. She maintains that things will work out somehow, ‘as if it was someone else’s problem’. Her decision to have a baby wasn’t wholly conscious, and she hadn’t particularly wanted to sleep with Maeda in the first place: ‘Though she couldn’t really have said why, Takiko responded to a man’s desire with sympathy. She could think of it only as pitiful, and thus not for her to violate. Maeda’s desire seemed somehow not to belong to Maeda himself.’ Takiko is surely the kind of person Tsushima had in mind when she described her preference for ‘not-thinking’ characters, who see themselves less as subjects and more ‘as an object, like a plant’. Later in the novel, after she has finally found a secure, rewarding job at a garden nursery, Takiko thinks of the potted plants in her care: ‘Green things whose very simplicity and lack of emotion struck her as harsh. Day by day, Takiko felt herself taking on the simplicity of their greenness.’

Many of Tsushima’s characters long for something of this quality, but they tend to be driven more by immediate feelings – of hunger, desire, boredom or rage. Pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, are sometimes difficult to distinguish. In Territory of Light, the narrator, a newly separated mother, moves with her two-year-old daughter into an unusual apartment on the top floor of an office building. Over the course of their year there, she seems drawn at times to the light, at times to the dark. The apartment has windows on all sides and is flooded with a merciless brightness. She thinks of a recurring childhood dream, in which she encounters a man who looks like her dead father sitting on the floor of an empty room. Her child self is sometimes able to approach him, leaning her weight on him so that he topples over. On other nights she senses ‘warmth and softness’ coming from him, but when he begins to turn his head towards her, she starts and wakes in terror. It is, she acknowledges, a terrible nightmare. ‘But even as it petrified me, it was so intensely pleasurable that I couldn’t help feeling guilty … I couldn’t tell the fear and the joy apart.’

Men are often absent in Tsushima’s work, and when they’re around they tend to stay on the margins. Maeda has another family, and by the time Takiko realises she’s pregnant, he’s left Tokyo and moved to Tohoku, hundreds of miles away. Kōko’s ex-husband in Child of Fortune didn’t earn any money while they were married: he was studying for the state law exams, failing three times. In Territory of Light, the narrator’s husband doesn’t pay child support, or his debts to his wife, or attend their divorce mediation meetings. While people forgive these husbands and fathers for their self-absorption and neglect, the women are berated for failing to be feminine, dutiful and sexless. Takiko works briefly as a cosmetics saleswoman, and is taught the proper way to apply her own make-up. But she does such a bad job that a colleague tells her she’ll ‘put the customers off’. Kōko’s daughter, Kayako, complains that her mother is ‘dirty’ and looks ‘just like a man’. When Kōko gains weight, people worry that she might have some sort of ‘malignant disease’. Yet despite these reprovals, Tsushima’s narrators refuse to bend. When Kayako cried at night, Kōko never bothered to get out of bed to check on her. Takiko’s first thought after giving birth is relief that her own body has made it through – ‘whether what she’d given birth to was alive or dead … need not concern her right now.’

Tsushima’s women instinctively understand the unfairness of motherhood, yet society has no room for them, so they’re often driven to dissociative, dreamlike states. This sometimes slips into domestic horror. In Woman Running in the Mountains, Akira needs an operation for a hernia – another medical cost that Takiko must cover. When she examines him she feels something ‘like a squid’s tentacle’, which, when pressed, becomes a ‘slippery thing … sucked up inside his body’. The narrator of Territory of Light is told that her daughter has snuck into the infants’ room at her daycare centre and tried to cut off a baby’s earlobe with scissors. Later, waiting on a station platform, she’s told that there has been a suicide on the line. ‘I reached the front of the crowd after the stretcher had been removed. Fresh red blood was pooling between the tracks … A single yellow sandal, a woman’s, high-heeled, was lying about fifteen feet away.’

But Tsushima’s images aren’t always dark. Takiko remembers an old childhood dream:

Over a frozen sea as endless as the prairie … people were speeding this way and that on dog sleds … Although they seemed to be chasing something, they never stopped the sleds or started any other action. It was a quiet dream in which no voices or sounds could be heard. The thick sheet of frozen sea was a world of white tinged with blue.

Then there is an image Takiko draws from vague impressions of her mother’s rural childhood. She sees herself as a girl looking down from the mountains:

At a certain spot among the pale blue mountains the snow lasted all summer … The patch was shaped like a white horse … From a slight rise deep in the mountain country, Takiko gazed at the white, beautiful horse galloping across the blue peak. Vineyards ascended a long way up the slope below her, the white backs of the leaves rippling into view. From where she stood, the fields were a wild, foaming sea of green.

The men in the first dream, cutting a ‘single sharp line’ across a plain, hint at an alternative version of fatherhood and masculinity. When Takiko shows Akira snow for the first time, she thinks to herself that perhaps one of those men on the ice, not Maeda, is his father. She finds a version of this masculinity in the real world when she starts working at the plant nursery and meets Kambayashi, a rugged, married, older colleague. He has a son with Down’s syndrome, for whom he cares with fierce devotion. When Kambayashi speaks of his Ainu ancestors, who hunted in the country’s icy north, he speculates that his son might have found a place there.

Woman Running in the Mountains is in some ways the most optimistic of Tsushima’s first three novels. In the nursery’s greenhouses in the hills, Takiko discovers a kind of arcadia – vivid, swirling, green – that is ‘not connected to the earth’s surface’. Tsushima intimates that her life here – with its manual labour, and the rough ease of her colleagues – amounts to a truer, freer existence. Her relationship with Kambayashi is also a rare instance of romance in Tsushima’s work. Although their attraction is mutual, he pulls away from the possibility of an affair – the first time Takiko has ever known a man to do so.

Towards the end of the book, at the hospital where Akira finally has his hernia operation, Takiko draws a picture of the girl on the mountainside, together with a woman running. She draws herself surrounded by grapes and quartz and sky, looking down at the people below, knowing that ‘there’s no place for her away from these slopes, no other place where she is herself.’ She runs, faster and faster, something in her body echoing ‘like the howl of an animal among the mountains’ and sweeping ‘down to the vineyards as a gust of wind’. Here are Tsushima’s signature moods: solitude, yearning, the impossibility of being in the world. Each woman has within her an inner self that she won’t let go of and the dream of freedom, if rarely the reality of it.

Tsushima carried these preoccupations beyond her early novels. When invited to teach Japanese literature at the University of Paris in 1991, she chose to focus on Ainu literature: poetry and the yukar oral tradition. In her essay ‘The Possibility of Imagination on These Islands’, she explained that, having been subjugated and driven out of their lands, the Indigenous population, known as the emishi, sometimes traded with local farmers, bringing bear skins and bear gall down from the mountains. Compared to the villagers’ feudal world, the life of an outcast may have had some appeal: ‘To a woman who had to give birth to an illegitimate child, for example, the world of the emishi was the only possible place of refuge.’ This longing, Tsushima writes, ‘gave rise to many folk tales that are still told today’.

Tsushima’s fiction is often associated with the ‘I-novel’, a naturalistic, confessional form that emerged in the early 20th century, drawing on Japan’s diaristic traditions as well as Western realism. In recent years, since the reissue of Territory of Light in 2018, her work has been seen as prefiguring contemporary autofiction. Yet as Lauren Groff writes in her introduction to the new edition of Woman Running in the Mountains, it’s a mistake to insist on too biographical a reading of Tsushima’s work. (Her later novels depart more obviously from her personal experience: their settings include medieval Nara and Taiwan under Japanese rule.) It’s not that there aren’t echoes of her life. Tsushima was a single mother herself, and she was raised by one. Her father, the well-known novelist Osamu Dazai, killed himself when she was a year old. (She wrote under her mother’s surname and an assumed first name: the characters that form ‘Yūko’, she once said, ‘suggest movement towards the outside’.) An older brother, who lived with Down’s syndrome, died when she was a teenager. Yet drawing connections between her life and and fiction should be an expansive project, a means of appreciating, not reducing, her achievement. For Tsushima, the transcendent and folkloric aren’t separate from the realities of life, but a condition of it.

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