Japanese Novel Review: 愛はなんだ What is Love by Mitsuyo Kakuta(角田 光代)


So I randomly saw the movie based off of Mitsuyo Kakuta(角田 光代)’s What is Love (愛はなんだ) and fell in love with the atmosphere of the movie.  I have never took an interest in directors before and usually know nothing about them, but for the first time I can say that I am a fan of director and his name is Imaizumi Rikiya(今泉力哉)!

I started watching other movies he has created and found them equally as enjoyable. 

I didn’t even realize that What is Love was based off a book until I saw Inhae’s review on it over on her blog, Inside that Japanese Book. I looked more into the author Mitsuyo Kakuta(角田 光代) and she seemed really interesting and has written some award winning stuff so I decided to buy the novel at Kinokuniya’s USA online store for $8.99.

Story review:

Romantic Horror seems to be the best way to describe this type of story.

This is the story of Teruko Yamada and her process of slowly destroying her life over her obsession with Mamoru Tanaka.  Since the day she met him at a friends party, she started to lose touch with everything else.  Anything unrelated to Mamoru was put in the ‘I don’t care pile’ and left to rot away.  Her work performance started to suffer.  The coworkers that she used to get along with grew distant as she stopped answering phone calls and started coming into work late.  But that was okay with Teruko!  She and Mamoru were doing great from her point of view.  They weren’t official, but they were hanging out, having fun, and she knew things were going somewhere.  He even suggested that she quit her job so that means he was thinking about marriage, right?  She started to live the house wife life and take care of all of Mamoru’s needs. Until he started to feel overwhelmed with Teruko and started to pull away. 

Teruko was left job less, bored, and with no boyfriend. She is fully conscious of the fact that she has been stalking Mamoru and that her feelings seem to be stronger then his.  But that doesn’t stop her obsession. Her apartment slowly became a disaster and she was unmotivated to find a new job.  Mamoru was always in the back of her mind. Even after months of no contact and Mamoru introducing Teruko to a cool girl that he has started to like, she still dropped everything and ditched a job interview just to go run an errand for him.  Is there anything in this world that could change her mind?

My experience reading this book:

Whatever love is… I doubt that it was the feeling the Teruko was feeling towards Mamoru. This was my first time reading a story where the main character was so obsessed with another person.  It was interesting, but I didn’t really feel enough of Teruko’s emotion from the writing style.  Her obsession felt kinda life-less and mechanical in a way where it felt alien and kind of creepy to me.  I don’t think she ever went into her reasons behind why she was so obsessed with Mamoru.  I suppose that the reasons behind her feelings might not have mattered to her.  But still… Teruko just seem so self aware about what was happening.  I wonder why she didn’t bother to think that deeply about things.

She described and analyzed all of his words and actions, but I felt like I never really got a feeling for who Mamoru was as a person.  Teruko’s view of him was just so strong that I was unable to get any glances of Mamoru that were not completely influenced by her view point of him.  Due to the fact that I wasn’t able to emotionally connect to the protagonist in this first person perceptive based story line means I wasn’t really able to feel anything for any of the characters.  But Sumire seemed really cool and I liked her style.

Overall I kinda feel lukewarm about this book.  It wasn’t bad.  The ending was pretty funny. But I was slightly disappointed to find out that I enjoyed the movie more then the book.  Usually novels are my favorite type of media and I was excited about finding a new author.  While I think I will read some of Mitsuyo Kakuta(角田 光代)’s other works in the future, I am in no hurry to go out and buy her other novels at this point. The books that I am vaguely interested in reading are 対岸の彼女, which won the Naoki Literary Prize, and さがしもの.

Level Preface

Just to give some background to my current level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. This year I have finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I am planning on taking N1 in July 2020.

Vocab: N1-N2 student level

Furigana is used every time a new character is introduced in this story.  Furigana also often accompanies the names of locations when they are first mentioned in this book.

N2 level students should be able to get through this book just fine, but it will be a vocabulary builder.  N1 students should have a much easier time with this book. The vocabulary repeat factor in the book is really good!  I often see words repeated in the same page and found this to really help me to reinforce readings and gather more context to build on creating deeper contentions to the words meaning in my head.

I did not notice too many particular specialized vocabulary group in this novel. Location in Tokyo are mentioned very often so I think its good practice for those are are familiar with Tokyo or who want to get more familiar with it. The names of different Japanese dishes are brought up often, but there was usually no description of the dishes past its name.

Grammar: N2 student level.

This book feels like its a solid N2 level.  This book is not dialog heavy.  And when there is dialog, it is written in a super causal way. I do not recommend this book to N3 level students due to both the level of vocabulary and grammar.

It seems like all of the characters in this book speak standard dialect, but I think some learners may have difficulty with how causally they speak.

Cultural References

Location names are used very often in this book.  All of the locations tend to be different neighborhood in Tokyo and little description is used to describe each area.  For those who have lived in Tokyo, it should be easy enough to imagine the setting for each part of the story.  But for those who have never been to the neighborhood, you are not given any clues to what the area looks like or what its vibe is.  I don’t necessary think that it is a problem for understanding the story, but I think it might be off putting to some readers.

Teruko is so into Mamoru that she cannot really see that world around her well. So I think it fits if the reader only has a vague idea of the books setting as I am sure that it something that would be found in Teruko’s ‘I don’t care’ pile.

The characters in this book spend a lot of time at bars eating.  The names of different Japanese dishes is a big weak point of mine.  I am a vegetarian, so there is so much that I cannot eat that I just basically ignore everything that has meat or fish in it.  This book has inspired me to learn more about the specific names of Japanese dishes as food is a huge culture thing.  Those who don’t know Japanese cuisine well may find themselves skipping words as characters basically order everything off of the menu.

I think that people from America(I’m assuming other countries as well) might find this weird, but its not uncommon for Japanese guys to just drop off the face of the earth and then message months later kind of like what happened to Teruko.  I have never had it happen with anyone that I was dating, but it would happen often with guys that I met randomly.  In my experience, some guys would ask for my number at parties and then wait forever to message me. Like seriously forever, like I would forget who the guy even was by the time they got around to sending that first message.  It was really weird for me at first, but then as it happened a few times I figured that it was normal and my Japanese female friends were able to confirm it.  That is one cultural norm I could not get with and just ignored messages if it took that long for someone to message me.  And even if I ignored that first message…a few months later I would get another message!  Nah, I ain’t got time for that.

Who should read this book?

Language learners who are at a solid N2 level and are intrigued by the genre of romantic horror.  Those who want to watch a women slowly become more and more passive about her life while chasing after a guy who doesn’t really seem to be that into her.

Length: Short

At 216 pages long, this is a fairly short book.  The formatting inside of it is normal for an adult novel.  Since this novel became a vocabulary builder for me, it took me a bit longer to read then the other books I was working on this month.  I spent 4 days reading Mitsuyo Kakuta(角田 光代)  and it is making me reconsider the speed of which I am reading my other books at.  Taking it nice and slow at 50 pages a day seemed to work really well for me this time.

Related media:

I am not sure exactly why I like the movie based off of this novel so much, but I think it is the overall atmosphere that director Imaizumi Rikiya(今泉力哉) is able to create.  His movies tend to be quiet but be filled with lots of funny moments. I have only seen four of his movie so far and have enjoyed all of them even though I am not usually a fan of romantic movies.

mellow (2020)
his (2020)


Author: Kuri

I love reading Japanese novels and have seen that many people want to read them but don't know where to start. I have decided to share my experiences to help people reach their literacy goals.

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