This is a review for the novel Child of the Stars(星の子) by Imamura Natsuko(今村 夏子). Imamura is a well renowned author who has won an impressive amount of literary awards. Child of the Stars won the Noma Literary Prize in 2017 as well as being nominated for the Book Sellers Award in 2018. I looked at this book every single time I walked into Kinokuniya, but never got around to reading it until just now. I purchased the book on Amazon JP’s online store for 654 yen.
The story starts out with the main character, a young girl named Chihiro Hayashi, reflecting on the impact that she had on her family as an infant. Chihiro was a very difficult baby which caused her family a lot of stress. She had a skin condition which made her very uncomfortable in pretty much all situations and caused her to cry often. Her family quickly became overwhelmed and despite as nothing the doctors suggested seemed to help Chihiro. One day when Chihiro’s dad was explaining the situation to a coworker, Mr. Ochiai. Ochiai had a seemingly weird solution to Chihiro’s problems. He stated that water at the Hayashi was bad, gave the father a few bottles of special water, and gave detailed instructions on how and when to bath Chihiro.
The family had already decided that they would try out anything, no matter how strange it seemed, to help Chihiro find comfort. They bathed her exactly as instructed and started seeing results right away! She started crying less and her skin color was improving. The family rejoiced and became true believers of the power of this special water. They became very close with the Ochiai family and started joining the gatherings and adopting the groups habits and rituals. Chihiro was so young when this started happening that she saw everything as normal. But other family members were not as welcoming to the changes. Chihiro’s older sister and her uncle made a plan to show the parents that they were being scammed, but the parent’s beliefs were just to strong. It caused a large rift in the family. Chihiro’s parents completely departed themselves from their extended family and her older sister ran away. Extended family members do what they can to support Chihiro and try to help her leave, but she supports her parents so much that she had a hard time parting.
As Chihiro gets older, she becomes more and more aware of the differences between her family and the seemingly normal people around her. She starts to make friends outside of the religion and lose faith in those fellow believers that she used to so close to. After becoming unable to look at anyone in the face, with the help of a classmate she was able to start relating to others and getting crush after crush on different boys she sees around her. A big catalysis in Chihiro’s life is when her crush and teacher mistook her parents as strange and dangerous people when he spotted them in the park while dropping Chihiro off after school.
My experience reading this book:
I think that Child of the Stars is the most entertaining Japanese novel that I have read so far. There were some scenes in the book that had me laughing and I had a fun time reading this book.
I think one of my favorite scenes was when Chihiro became unable to look anyone in the face after she developed a crush on an actor. Everyone just seemed so ugly to her, she was unable to even look at her own face in the mirror. Her father gave her some huge purple glasses that he got from the religious catalog, but the glasses seemed to have no effect on her. What did help her was becoming close a classmate who was able to make the situation into a game. Chihiro started to get better relating to those around her and was able to get over her ‘eye illness.’
I am kind of disappointed in myself that it took me so long to purchase this novel. There were so many times that I saw it on a shelf at Kinokuniya and thought about picking it up. I am so happy that I finally did.
The ending is very much in the style of Japanese story telling. I have heard from many western raised learners that some find it hard to feel satisfied with this type of ending. Don’t expect a solid ending, just treat it like a slice of life story and enjoy the short ride in Chihiro’s life.
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.
Vocabulary: N2-N3 student level
I really want to recommend this as a great book for students who have a strong grasp of N3 level materials. While there is some more advanced vocabulary sprinkled through out the book, it is not an excessive amount.
There were times were I saw a word that I was not able to guess from context alone, but each time the word was explained by someone or the reading was spelled out in the next line. For example 免疫力 was brought up in a classroom setting and the teacher asked for one of the students to explain the meaning.
Like I mentioned, there are a few random and more advanced vocabulary words used in this book, but there is no specific vocabulary group that sticks out to me. I think almost all of the words fall under general everyday use.
This novel does not provide furigana for the names of characters as they are introduced in the story.
Grammar: N3 student level
This book is written from the first person perspective of a young girl and I think the grammar used in the book really reflects this. The book starts when Chihiro is in grade school and she speaks in a fairly simple way. Even as she ages in the book, the grammar still stayed fairly simple. I think that a N3 level student would not find the grammar in this book as a barrier to understanding.
The book is very dialog heavy and this too helps with keeping the prose of the book easy to understand. This can help students who want to collect phrases to use when speaking in Japanese. The dialog is written in causal form for the most part. Sometimes their will be light polite form used, but overall its all extremely basic grammar. There are no flowery descriptions in the book and it feels like a really straight forward read.
I think this novel is very accessible to language learners regardless of their familiarity with Japanese cultural. In fact, people from other countries might feel like they relate more to the characters in the book as being a member of a religious organization in Japan is not very common. I really related to some of the unique difficulties of becoming close to someone who deeply practices their faith. In the beginning, it would be so easy in the friendship to either ignore or accept the differences in beliefs. But when both parties start to open up, it can be difficult when the types of advice each person offers for situations differ greatly. Like in the case with Chihiro’s uncle. He was really worried and scared for his sister and wanted to protect them from what he saw as a scam. He slowly tried to accept the differences as he realized how much the beliefs meant to the family, but it became difficult when the family offers religious advice and items from the religious group’s shopping catalog as solutions to any problem the uncle has. Since the family felt so strongly about the value of what they are getting from the religion, its only natural for them to want those close to them to join as well. Boundaries start to blur and it can be difficult to maintain relationships.
When I lived in Japan, every time religion was mentioned it had a negative connotation. When I was an international student, there was a whole lecture dedicated to warning students against joining a religion. There were even photos of past teachers who were fired due to the fact that they tried to bring students to church. There are lots of small religions in Japan that are very active in recruiting new members. The school said that exchange students and those who are new to Japan in general are very vulnerable to falling prey to these types of groups as they offer support and people who are in a new living situation who are unfamiliar with Japanese cultural norms might be unable to identify the dangers. In the end, I was never approached by a Japanese person who wanted to offer me spiritual guidance. But I was approached many times by people from western religions. There seemed to be a strong community of Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses where I lived in Japan.
When I was reading over reviews for this novel, it seemed like a lot of reviewers felt really bad for Chihiro. But as someone who was raised in a fairly religious family, I didn’t have any feels of pity towards her. I just found parts of her story that I really related to. It made me reflect back on my own process of growing up and progressively questioning the values my parents held. But I understand that the experience of being raised in a religion must be much different in Japan then compared to America.
And as with most novels written about younger people, you will get a better idea of what a typical Japanese school experience would entail. I think that this is really important in being able to understand a very basic area of Japanese life that almost all Japanese people have experienced. Its a great talking point as many people seem interested in comparing education between countries and seeing what the differences are.
Who should read this book?
I think this novel could be a great first choice for those who have never read a full novel in Japanese before. I think it would be great for someone who is finished with N3 level studies and getting started with N2.
I do not recommend this to people who are religious, as the characters in the story aren’t very nice about religions in general.
At 227 pages, this is not a long novel. It is very dialog heavy, and I think this book has less words then the average novel of the same length due to the conversation style between the characters. There are some parts of the book where pages of only half full due to long conversations taking place.
The length is another reason why I think this novel would make a great first novel for beginners. Its falls in the sweet spot of being worth buying and being easy to finish. Being outside of Japan, I have a hard time buying books under 200 pages as I don’t want to invest my money in something that I will finish too quickly. I spent around 4 days reading this novel.
This book is being turned into a movie that will be released on 10/09/2020. Based off of the trailer it seems very loyal to the books story line. Even though I LOVED this novel, I do not have any plans to see the movie. The trailer kinda falls flat for me. But I think that pairing up movies and novels is a great way for beginner readers to have the confidence to dive into Japanese literature.
The Girl in the Purple Skirt (むらさきのスカートの女) is currently Imamura Natsuko’s most well known novel. This is the novel that got Imamura Natsuko the Akutagawa Prize (芥川龍之介賞) in 2019. This novel is written from the view point of the narrator is is obsessed with and often observes a women who is referred to as ‘The Girl in the Purple Skirt’. I really love the idea of reading a story about this type of relationship. Its like the people who ride the same bus as to me work. They are strangers who are somewhat apart of my life. Luckily I am not obsessed with any of my fellow riders, but I am looking forward to reading this book in the future. I have recently read another book based off obsession, Mitsuyo Kakuta’s What is Love(愛はなんだ) so I am in no hurry to read another stalker book. The fact that The Girl in the Purple Skirt is only 160 pages long makes me pause a bit as I wonder if it is worth buying a book that I will finish so quickly. This one may have to wait until I move back to Japan and have access to libraries.