Originally published in 2016, Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are was recently translated into English and published in Oct. 2020. The novel draws inspiration from classic kabuki-theater, rakugo storytelling, and select folklores endemic in Japanese arts and culture. The book includes 17 separate short stories, covering the backstories of shapeshifting spirits, the enoki “breast tree,” and the surprisingly benevolent Child-Rearing Ghost. While each chapter could stand alone by itself, they are linked to a rather curious character: Mr. Tei. The readers follow him, his mysterious company, and his efforts to recruit the dead—and living—for strange and noble purposes.
Amidst this frenzy of otherworldly activity, the constant rhythm of mundane life beats loudly as ever. Balancing the forces of visible and invisible, Matsuda spins a fantastical, feminist critique of Japanese society.
“A Fox’s Life”
“Society had become more equal, but in a bad way. Women hadn’t risen up—rather the men had slid down. The glass ceiling, which had previously been apparent only to women, was now visible to this young man, too.”
One of the stories follows Kuzuha, a shapeshifting fox. For all her life, Kuzuha has found living to be an easy endeavor. She preferred to stay out of the limelight and even when offered a college scholarship, she opted for an office job. Her reasoning? “I’m a girl after all, and that’s just fine.” Kuzuha gets married and decides to become a professional homemaker. It is later in her fifties that she discovers what she truly is.
Once she does, Kuzuha is quickly recruited by Mr. Tei and revels in her newfound abilities. Through Kuzuha’s experiences, Matsuda makes an astute observation. Why does society give up so easily on elders, especially older women? While fictitious, Kuzuha’s case reveals the untapped potential and knowledge that countless elders possess.
“What She Can Do”
“Honestly, who do they think they are, pretending to be so clever when they lack the skills to come in, look around, walk about? They should all just die—and then come back again. She can’t understand them at all.”
As of 2020, Japan was ranked 121 out of 153 countries for gender equality. Japan is a nation that remains largely influenced by patriarchal ideas. These views have infused themselves into the political and socioeconomic wellbeing of its citizens. Because of this, it can be especially hard for single mothers to eke out a living in a society that favors married households.
In one of the Where The Wild Ladies Are stories, Matsuda follows a newly divorced, single mother determined to raise her child on her own. While she faces backlash for her “selfish” decision, the mother sticks to her choice. When it becomes clear that a 9-5 job is no longer viable, she settles for a “night job”—much to her neighbors’ disgust. Her saving grace? A kindly Child Rearing Ghost, unsurprisingly, also employed by Mr. Tei. The ghost visits daily and does a careful job of tending the place—but not too noticeably—and also amusing the child with games and candy.
What single, working moms would give for an empathetic (but dead) caretaker!
“A Day Off”
“To be honest, there seems to be no end to these vile men incapable of controlling their sexual impulses. The demand for people in our line of work is incredibly high. Our company insists that we take two full days off a week, but even on such days I find myself thinking about all the poor women in trouble somewhere out there.”
Japanese public transportation has long been the crime scene of unwanted groping and sexual harassment. Victims’ complaints often go unheard or ridiculed. Despite efforts to criminalize and decrease these unwanted acts, the assault remains rampant. If we lived in Matsuda’s world, there would be one simple solution.
Gum is a toad. A rather large one at that. In partnership with her unnamed owner, Gum protects women from gropers, harassers, stalkers, and all kinds of abusers. Even difficult assailants wilt under Gum’s stare once she opens her wide mouth and reveals a “long tongue that could easily lasso a person or two.” Despite the narrator’s pleasure at scaring others, she admits that she’s grown weary of intimidating men. She concludes that if she had her way—if all harassers miraculously disappeared—she and Gum would spend their days hanging out together, smiling, and having a good time. And who wouldn’t prefer that?
What the wild ladies tell us
Despite its slightly chilling premise, Where the Wild Ladies Are is the perfect novel for feminists and allies alike. Matsuda’s re-imagined fairytales are infused with a new sense of empowerment and joy. Her underlying message rings true: stay wild.