An Apprenticeship in Writing

The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P

Written by Rieko Matsuura

Translated by Michael Emmerich

Published by Kondansha International

[Note: Following Japanese custom, and the translator,  family names will come before first names in this review.  I will be referring to characters, however, by their first names only.]

Several months ago, I heard Matsuura Rieko speak at the University of Washington about her first book to be translated into English, called The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P.  Since it became a cult classic in Japan, and won the highest award for female Japanese writers when it came out (the Joryū Bungaku Shō, or Women’s Literature Prize), I expected prose on the highest level.

Unfortunately,  Matsuura-san’s book, as translated, too often reads like an apprentice work.

The book begins and ends from the author’s point of view (called “M.” in the prologue, though one doesn’t need to get to the end to realize what “M.” stands for).  We first find out that a woman named Yoko has hanged herself.  Her body was found by her best friend, a woman named Kazumi, who seems incapable of deep emotions, and is not very sensitive or perceptive.  Yoko had started a business called LOVESHIP, in which women are trained to love small things in men, which then grows into the illusion that they love the entire man.  In this way, Yoko sold love, as opposed to sex.

A month after Yoko’s suicide, Kazumi comes to M.’s house and tells her of a strange dream she had two nights before, where the big toe on her right foot turned into a penis, which she jerked off to in the dream.  After she tells M. this, M. removes the sock from Kazumi’s right foot, and discovers that the dream was no dream.  Chapter One begins, and we switch to Kazumi’s perspective.

Here is how Kazumi describes her toe-penis:

Every time I took my sock off, I couldn’t stop staring at it: the reddish tones, strikingly different from my other toes, and the smooth skin, missing the whorls at the tip of the toe.  But the most extreme change was in the shape of the toenail.  It now bulged out like a hemisphere, about a half inch across, and gleamed like a pearl up near the head.  From where M. sat, on the other side of the table, she could see its underside, which was shaped like a heart, the kind on playing cards, but upside down.

(p. 17)

The rest of the book details Kazumi’s relationships with the people around her, and how they react to her “Big Toe P.”  Some of these relationships are with friends; most are with lovers.  Her boyfriend at the time that her big toe turns into a penis is Masao.  He feels penises are dirty, and wants nothing to do with Kazumi’s.  In fact, while they are packing up boxes for him to move into another apartment, he comes at her toe with a box cutter.  Kazumi escapes, and ends up being rescued by Masao’s next-door-neighbor, a blind pianist named Shunji.  Shunji has been used for sex by many people, both men and women, and considers it something that friends do (he refers to it as “getting friendly”).  He reminds me a bit of Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, in that he is an innocent.  Both he and Kazumi are used by his cousin, Chieko–Shunji financially and sexually, Kazumi sexually (she wakes up one morning to find Chieko straddling her toe-penis).

Chieko then starts going out with Haruhiko, an old friend of Masao’s.  Haruhiko is a womanizer and has a very cavalier attitude about sex, women, and relationships.  Haruhiko is the one that tells Kazumi about the Flower Show, which is an underground group of men and women with sexual deformities who perform across the country.  In the group, she meets Shigeki and Aiko, Yohei, Yukie, Masami, Tamotsu and Eiko, and Shin (couples are grouped together).  Shigeki has a deformity on his penis that makes it look like a branch is sticking out of it, Aiko is allergic to bodily fluids (they cause her to break out in a rash), Yukie has teeth in her vagina, Masami is a transsexual with a vagina but no clitoris, Yohei’s eyes pop out of his head when he climaxes during sex, and Tamotsu’s deformity is Shin, whose head is inside Tamotsu’s stomach, but whose penis sticks out farther (and higher up) than Tamotsu’s does.  Anything done to Shin’s penis, Tamotsu cannot feel, though oftentimes, Shin has trouble maintaining an erection.  Eiko, on the other hand, is normal.  She is only part of the Flower Show because she is Tamotsu’s girlfriend.

At first, Kazumi is invited to watch the show, but not to participate, while Shunji is employed to play the piano.  Shigeki and Aiko perform together, Yukie by herself, Masami with Yohei, and Tamotsu (Shin) with Eiko.  On the last night of the tour, however, Shin always performs with Yukie, which puts Tamotsu in a foul mood afterwards.

When Shunji wanders off with an old “friend,” and Tamotsu treats Kazumi roughly after she refuses to use her toe-penis to placate Yukie, Kazumi and Eiko “elope.”  Eventually, though, Shunji returns, and Tamotsu tries to make up with Eiko.  The novel ends a year after it begins, with Kazumi returning to M.’s apartment, after the final Flower Show performance (when everything comes to a head), to wrap up the final strands of the story.

Matsuura’s point in detailing these relationships (and in detailing many different kinds of relationships) is to show how love is involved.  One of the best scenes to illustrates that point occur after  Shunji has told Kazumi about how his uncle had hugged him one day, and how special that had made him feel:

We began to touch each other, and it felt utterly natural.  It wasn’t the mild pleasure we knew, like being washed by warm water; there was electricity in it, a heat that emanated from the core of our bodies. Each time I touched Shunji, or was touched by him, the words “I love you” echoed in my head.  As our touching grew more vigorous my body suddenly began to feel hotter and more sensual.  A sense of urgency came over us.  We rubbed our bodies together; our genitals joined, as if there were some force drawing them together.  I experienced the most amazing orgasm ever.

(pp. 115-16)

This passage also shows one of Matsuura’s weaknesses; the extra word or sentence.  Take out, “A sense of urgency came over us,” and the passage is improved, without changing its meaning.  Another problem is the number of clichés I’ve found in this book, such as, “I was at a loss for words,” “half cloaked in shadow,” “happy as a clam.”  Whether spoken by characters in the novel or existing as part of the narrative, they exist in quantities too vast to be ignored, or enjoyed, particularly when the book’s momentum begins to sag right after Eiko’s elopement with Kazumi.  Here’s the worst example I found: “It had played such a significant role in my life, led me to places I could never have imagined before, and I didn’t want my honeymoon to end.” (p. 443)  That’s right, folks: three clichés in one sentence.

Since this is a translated work, however, one wonders where to assign the blame.  Was Emmerich lazy in his translation, or Matsuura lazy in her word choices?  Regardless, it gets in the way of the story, especially when the novelty begins to wear off.

Also, we get some sense of the relationship between members within the Flower Show through their interactions with each other, but more is revealed when the characters step out of character, as in this monologue, near the end of the book, by Masami, after he explains to Kazumi that he had a sex change operation because he wanted to love women as a woman, not as a man [SMALL SPOILER ALERT]:

‘But I constantly regret having chosen this way of life.  Do you realize I’ve never once had sex with any love in it?  Most people just want to sleep with me out of curiosity.  I’m sure you’re hurting right now because you’ve broken up with Eiko, but you two had sex because you loved each other, didn’t you?  And you were happy, right?  Don’t mourn those happy things as if you’ve lost them.  Enjoy the memories as something you gained.’

(p. 408)

In addition, we have much female anger directed at men (Aiko, Eiko, Kazumi), and male anger directed at men (Masami), or male parts (Tamotsu), but the way that Matsuura deals with the complexities of relationships is by having Kazumi try and dissect them intellectually.  It works okay with her male lovers, but it doesn’t work as well with Eiko.  Too many extra words.  Too much triteness.  Too much thinking.  It’s a relief when Shunji reappears because we miss his directness in relationships, as opposed to Kazumi’s confusion and fickleness.  Also, she repeats herself.  Yes, we understand that Eiko’s hand feels better on your toe-penis than her vagina does.  No need to mention it several times.

[SPOILER ALERT]

And then there’s the plot point that made me want to throw the book across the room.  Are you ready for this?  At the end of the novel, Kazumi plows into Shunji after taking a punch from Utagawa, the playwright who wrote The Flower Show’s members into the play that ends up being their final performance.  The force of the impact allows Shunji to see again.  I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.  And then one of the characters feels the need to explain how this is possible.  Yeah, because  there’s no reason for it.  If it’s a metaphor for Shunji’s character finally “seeing” what love is, its placement makes no sense.  It would make more sense if Kazumi’s toe-penis vanished at this point, but no, she still has it by the end of the novel.  The happiness that follows the other characters I can believe, but not Shunji seeing again.  I almost expected to hear Disney music and birds chirping after reading that scene.

[SPOILER ALERT OVER]

When I finished this book, the two main questions I had were 1.) How has Kazumi grown as a character, and 2.) What is Matsuura saying about relationships and sex that hasn’t been said before?  For the first question, if Kazumi’s toe-penis forced her into an apprenticeship of love, sex, and relationships, then she learned the value of love, regardless of sex.  Or, as she puts it: “I myself might never experience perfect sex.  That would be true whether my toe-penis stayed with me or vanished.  But I had been fortunate to have love.” (p. 444)

For the second question, I considered when and where this novel was first published.  Published in 1993 in Tokyo, it must have shocked many people in its detailed handling of sex, sexuality, and sexual acts–and yet, Matsuura had a reason for being as detailed as she was.  One idea she wanted to destroy was the idea that sex is only for men, characterized by such slime balls as Utagawa (if you haven’t read the SPOILER ALERT section, he’s the playwright who wrote some of the members of the Flower Show into his plays).  Or that love is not important when it comes to sex (which Haruhiko, Chieko, and–to an extent–Shunji believe).  Kazumi’s toe-penis responds to gentleness and love; it does not respond to sexual desire apart from love.  It can climax, but it cannot ejaculate.  It exists solely to create pleasure, and to give it.  And yet, Kazumi is happy having sex with people when there’s love involved.  Intercourse, by itself, is not important.  Her relationship with Eiko is wonderful not due to the sex, but due to the love.

At one point while she’s with Eiko, Kazumi thinks back to all her past relationships, and her current one.  She feels she felt affection for Masao, but not love.  With Shunji, sex had been “an extension of more ordinary sorts of physical contact.” (p. 315)  Her relationship with Eiko, though, is the first relationship she’s been in where she had “wanted to get naked with someone and then actually gotten naked with that someone.” (p. 315)  And then she muses on how different people of the same sex can be.  “Eiko didn’t seem any more similar to me as as a human being than Masao or Shunji.” (p. 315)

The one relationship that remains a mystery, however, is the one that starts the novel.  By the end of the book, we still don’t know how Kazumi feels about Yoko, or what sort of insight she’s gleaned out of their relationship, except that maybe Yoko wanted to be Kazumi’s lover, and Kazumi was too insensitive to notice.

In conclusion, if one can look past the clichés and lack of editing that mars large stretches of this book, the plot is interesting enough, the characters fascinating enough, the creativity and imagination of Matsuura wacky enough, for this to be a decent read at the beach.  Based on the strength of this English translation, however, Matsuura does not join the ranks of great female Japanese writers that stretch back to Lady Murasaki and The Tale of Genji.  The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P starts off with an interesting premise and admirable intentions, but it ends without leaving the reader with the satisfaction of having grown from the experience.

Note to Readers: If you want a well-written story by a contemporary female Japanese writer, I would recommend Inside and Other Short Fiction–Japanese Women by Japanese Women, instead–a collection of good to great short stories, each one by a different Japanese women, most appearing (like Matsuura) for the first time in English.

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2 thoughts on “An Apprenticeship in Writing

  1. Glad to read your thoughts on this book, I agree maybe it was a little too long and maybe needed shortening.Whilst reading Big Toe P my thoughts kept returning and making comparisons,(wrongly on my part), to Eugenides novel Middlesex, but i did enjoy this novel.I’m looking forward to reading Michael Emmerich’s translation of Banana Yoshimoto’s novel The Lake.

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