Sayaka Murata is a well-established Japanese author whose works have been making their way to the United States. On #BookTok, her narratives are touted as disturbing, unsettling, and downright weird. The unreliable narrator is my favorite subgenre, and I wound up reading all three of her English-translated works. What I found was bizarre yet thought-provoking.
Most articles do not have a traditional content guide, but I will be focusing on titles with potentially triggering material. Here is what to expect from Earthlings and Life Ceremony — infrequent language but not the f-bomb, sexual themes and discussions without explicit material, molestation of minors, talks about incest, heavy trauma including child abuse and neglect, cannibalism, breaking of taboos, bullying and peer pressure, and themes of death.
With that kind of trigger warning, one would think Murata’s works would fall solidly in the horror genre, but they do not. Most of the books defy explanation and, like the protagonists themselves, refuse to fit into a single label. As I give a short summary of each work — a novel, novella, and short story collection — keep in mind that blending genres is sometimes the most effective way to prove a point.
What Are These Stories About?
My personal favorite, Earthlings, is the longest book and follows a girl from her troubled childhood into adult life. Natsuki spends her days believing she is a magical girl and talking to a stuffed hedgehog named Pitou, who is supposedly from Planet Popinpobopia. When her cousin and boyfriend, Yuu, divulges he is an alien, she realizes this may be true for her. As Natsuki and Yuu grow up, she fades further into the belief they are both fundamentally different from “the Earthlings.” Throughout the book, readers must determine how much of Natsuki’s story is true and how much is a trauma-induced delusion.
Life Ceremony is a collection of short stories turning societal norms on their heads. Each story features a new protagonist dealing with a different situation. These protagonists range from a jealous window curtain to roommates confused for lesbians and everything in between. In these worlds, the bizarre, uncouth, and even taboo are seen as normal; and those who oppose them are the strange ones.
The final book in this list (but the first to be released in English), Convenience Store Woman, is a mild narrative compared to the others. It focuses on the daily life of thirty-six-year-old Keiko who wants nothing more than to continue her part-time job at a convenience store. When she meets another ostracized person, a man, they fake marriage to appease the people around them. Because this is Sayaka Murata, the arrangement does not evolve into a romantic comedy, but something more philosophical.
The Pressures of Society
Murata’s stories, whether horrific or wholesome, all tend to deal with ostracizing or feeling “other.” Natsuki, Yuu, and Natsuki’s husband all believe they are aliens because their desires do not match the surrounding culture. In Life Ceremony, platonic friends adopt children and are mistaken for romantic partners. Keiko at the convenience store loves her job and has no desire for any kind of relationship. All these characters are seen as crazy in their respective stories. Their families beg them to change, even at the cost of their happiness. Natsuki’s sister blackmails her to have children, Keiko’s friends disparage her for being single, and the female friends are judged as homosexuals (which is not as accepted in Japan as in the West).
As an outsider, I could lament Japan’s rigid social structure and expectations; but the truth is, every culture has pressure to conform. Well-meaning Christians sometimes press their expectations and opinions on other church members. At a church dinner, a person I had never officially met asked me when I was going to get pregnant…before they even asked me my name. When I explained my intention was never to get pregnant but to foster, they inundated me with horror stories to talk me out of my dream.
Peer pressure exists in every culture, and unfortunately, Christianity is not immune. Women in the church have felt pressured to find a husband, pump out babies, become stay-at-home moms, and so on and so forth. Likewise, men have had pressure exerted on them to bear the financial burden of the family and to “stay tough,” despite the fact Jesus wept. None of those things listed above (marriage, kids, toughness, etc.) are bad. However, these expectations can become so ingrained that we treat them like Biblical standards instead of personal choice. People forget Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:8 – “So I say to those who aren’t married and to widows—it’s better to stay unmarried, just as I am.” God has a need for all kinds of people and family structures in His kingdom, including singles and working mothers.
Many of Murata’s stories invert the idea of social pressure. In Earthlings, Natsuki’s husband goes out of his way to commit a taboo because he wants to prove he is not like everyone else. One of the stories in Life Ceremony centers around a society that makes furniture and accessories out of people’s remains. The protagonist is embarrassed by her strange husband who believes using such items is disgusting and wrong. Readers may balk at this premise, but it reminds us society, even the Christian subculture, is built by flawed people.
The Pressures of Sexuality
Another way Murata plays with normalcy is with her themes of sexuality. Nothing is ever explicit or detailed in her works, but the concept is prominent in nearly every narrative. The characters in Earthlings and Convenience Store Woman are all asexual. Some of them refuse sex on the premise of becoming more abnormal, but others have no natural sex drive. Thirty-six-year-old Keiko does not understand the pressure to get married and raise children; she has never yearned for anything of the sort. As someone who thought “sex drive” was an idea invented for television, I identified with Keiko and started to wonder why sexuality is such a huge deal, even in the church.
Evolutionists will say the sex drive spurs reproduction of the species. Christians will likely turn to Song of Solomon or Paul’s admonition to women about satisfying their husbands (more on this in a minute). The Church seems to fixate on sex almost as much as the world around us, but Christians do it differently. I grew up in the ’90s purity culture. I was told I was “chewed gum” if I had premarital sex. I was told exposing my shoulders would lead to being a distraction in class. I was told girls “asked for it” when they wore revealing clothes and were assaulted. When I got married, I was expected to know what to do without anyone teaching me.
Many Christians admonish women to fulfill their husband’s physical needs. They treat sex like food – as if a man cannot live without his wife’s body. People have even implied infidelity is acceptable if a man’s wife was not constantly available for his sexual wishes. They forget the totality of the verse they reference. “The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs” (1 Cor. 7:3). In later verses, Paul says this is because of temptation and self-control, but there is more at play here. Christian marriages are based on selflessness, and selflessness goes both ways. I have a lower libido than my husband. Because I love him, I satisfy his needs, even if I am not feeling the same. On the other hand, if I am tired or sick, he respects my request to wait. Sexual intimacy is an important part of marriage, but it is only one piece of the larger picture. When Christians imply sex is more important than a spouse’s bodily autonomy or feelings, that a man needs sex more than anything (perhaps even Christ), it has become an idol.
Break Out of the Norm
In Earthlings, Natsuki’s in-laws beg the couple to have children. Her mother-in-law insists it’s normal for a husband to have extramarital affairs as long as he has sired offspring. As awful as this is, it highlights the fact Murata’s worlds (which mirror the real one) are obsessed with being seen as normal. Whether the mother-in-law wants her husband to cheat or not, it’s normal behavior she tolerates, even celebrates.
As Christians, we are called to break out of the norm. Romans 8:12-13 says, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live.” The world is fallen and sinful, but Christians have the option of a better life. We do not have to act like aliens or commit taboos to be seen as “other” than the world. In fact, we should strive to be different in ways that matter, like showing Christ to people trapped by the toxic pressures of sex and society. Because, like Murata’s characters, we are not bound by normalcy, either.