BASS 2016: Yuko Sakata, “On This Side” from The Iowa Review #45.1

Upon noticing him, the girl looked up with a hopefulness that made Toru feel apologetic. Suddenly he could smell his own body. He had come from making the rounds restocking vending machines and hadn’t bothered to shower at the office when he’d changed out of the uniform. With his eyes to the ground, he tried to squeeze past her.
“Toru-kun.” The girl stood up. Her voice sounded oddly thick.
For a moment they stood awkwardly together on the stairs. A mixture of soap and sweat wafted from her. Up close, Toru saw that her face was meticulously made up, her skin carefully primed and her expectant eyes accentuated with clean black lines. He was slow to recognize what was underneath. But then he felt his heart skip a beat.
“Masato?” he said.
“Hello.” As though in relief, she held out her hand, and Toru shook it automatically. Her fingers were bony but solid in his palm. “I go by Saki now.”
“Saki?”
More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy.

Sometimes I hear stories. Not in the literal sense, as in listening to them being read, nor in the synesthetic sense of “tasting colors”. It’s more of an association, or a metaphorical impression. Some stories have loud pounding rock beats; others are accompanied by bluesy jazz. This one is very quiet, in a very loud way; a quiet that is insistent on being heard. A wood flute, or maybe a lute. A whisper; a secret. One secret, once deeply buried now spoken aloud; another, once shared, now kept deeply buried. A very interesting reversal of secrets. What secrets held today will someday be shared, and what loud proclamations will one day be hidden in shame?

Toru and Masato weren’t friends in school, but became loosely acquainted through the usual bizarre mechanisms of teenage romantic schemes. But what Toru most remembers about Masato is his leap from a third-floor balcony, a leap that caused great bodily harm and, incredibly enough, a reprimand for recklessness, since there were witnesses who saw him jump voluntarily. Apparently no one wanted to ask why a “quiet, fragile-looking boy who seemed to prefer solitude” would do such a thing. Turns out Toru, who only saw the aftermath, might’ve had a good idea as to what happened. Later, when Saki speaks of revenge, involving giant scissors, upon the bullies in her life, Toru squirms uncomfortably. I’m thinking she settled for justice, no need for scissors.

I like the way the story is told. It could be a simple A to B to C story, but instead it’s layered with a number of elements that add texture while underlining the quiet of the central plot. For instance, one of Toru’s jobs is cleaning graves for the Japanese holiday known as Bon, a festival in which the souls of dead ancestors return (hence the cleaning of graves) to welcoming fires, and on the final night, are sent back again by floating candles along the river. Saki joins him:

Saki contemplated this for a second. “Do you think it’s really peaceful there?” she said. “On the other side?”
Toru glanced at her. She was tracing the clean edges of the gravestone with her long finger. The sun was already high, and everything in sight had a bright shallowness to it. A tiny thunderhead poised over the distant treetops, but no shade was in sight. Just then, there was something so delicate about Saki that for a second Toru had an urge to shield her from the harsh light. He shook the thought away.
“I personally don’t believe in the other side,” he said.

It’s quite a nice fit into the story, this idea of souls returning from the other side, and whether peace is to be found there for those who could never find it here. As I read it, Saki returns, and departs with her mission complete. Toru, on the other hand, still seems stuck in his messy life, messy apartment, messy affair. Toru’s Bon work as a substitute for loving relatives who should be tending graves but are too busy, completes the picture: he cleans up after people too busy to worry about their past, perhaps to some degree cleaning up his own past.

Sakata’s Contributor Note mentions her sense of Japan as “simultaneously my own and foreign”, another nice fit for this story. It’s also a phrase I’ve heard frequently in the World Literature mooc I’m currently taking; just this week, in fact, that phrase was used about both Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri in reference to the South Asian settings of their works. I hope that’s a good sign for Sakata; I like her voice, and I’d like to hear more of it.

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One response to “BASS 2016: Yuko Sakata, “On This Side” from The Iowa Review #45.1

  1. Pingback: BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now | A Just Recompense

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