This is a review of the novel The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ) by Kaho Nashiki(梨木香歩). This is a young adult novel that really high lights that fact that juvenile fiction isn’t always easier then regular novels from the language learners perceptive. I do not recommend that this be any language learners first book.
I bought this book while I was visiting my partner’s parents in Osaka at Book-Off. I have seen the book a few times and the very easy to read title and cute cover stuck out to me. It was only 100yen so I decided just to pick it up and opened it up for the first time this year. I was inspired to read this story due to the fact that a Japanese blogger I watch often mentioned it as being one of her favorite books.
Sorry if this review is a bit hard to follow, but besides Mai, none of her family members were actually named. They were just referred to by the narrator as their role like ‘mom’ or ‘dad.’
This novel starts with the death of Mai’s grandmother and is a reflection of the month or so that Mai stayed with her out in the country side of Japan. While Mai doesn’t really go into many details with her family, she makes the announcement that she no longer wants to attend school. This really worried her mother, as she was basically raising Mai alone while her husband lived in a city far away for work. Unsure of what to do, she ended up having Mai stay with her own mother who lived about an hour away. Mai’s grandmother is a British women who lived her whole adult life in Japan and eventually ended up living alone in the middle of no where after the death of her husband.
Mai loves her grandmother and is happy to be able to escape her school situation. As Mai slowly gets used to her surroundings, her grandmother starts working on having Mai feeling accepted and slowly work on building life skills to help her succeed in life. Mai’s grandmother told her about the family history and how witchcraft runs in the family. Mai was excited to start her ‘witch training,’only to be somewhat disappointed by the fact that it entailed chores and going to bed early. Mai’s grandmother claimed that the first step to being a witch is having a strong control over oneself and ones actions.
There is also a short story included in the end called Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日) which describes a day in the life of Mai and a friend that she made at school names Shouko. The feeling in this story is much more mature then it was in The Witch of the West is Dead. The vocabulary is at a much higher level as well. Mai had specific plans with Shouko to attempt to see a group of migrating birds pass by. But Shouko had secret plans of her own and Mai reluctantly goes along with them.
The author did a great job at describing some of the feelings that a 13 year old girl experiences. I remember the feeling of being uncomfortable often and I also referred to the feeling as being home sick even though it happened when I was at home as well. I never really talked to anyone about that feeling before and was really surprised to see it written in this book. While my personal story is much different then Mai’s, I was able to related to her feelings and it made me reflect on my junior high days.
This is over all kind of like cheesy feel-good story that you would expect from a Hallmark movie. This is more of a comfort read then anything else. While there is a lot of personal growth in the main character Mai, the plot is very basic and predictable. There are elements to this story that I really like tho. I do not think that this is a story for everyone. I’ll get more into the parts that I like to help you find if this book is right for you.
My experience reading the book
This is a fairly short book and I was able to read it over 2 days. The formatting of this book had lots of spacing in between characters and line of text making it very easy to read. There were lots of words that I was unfamiliar with. But my recent style has been to not focus on the exact meaning of words. I just look up the reading, and gather the meaning slowly through context. Sadly there were lots of names of trees and plants that I was unable to picture. But I am planning on learning more about plants when I move to Japan and am not in a hurry.
I love nature and learning about nature based words in Japanese. But I did find the vocabulary in this book more changeling then Miura’s 神去なあなあ日常. The trees and flowers mentioned in The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ) were not used often enough to have them stick in my head. Also the descriptions were not vivid enough for me to be able to truly picture what each plant looked like.
As a non-Japanese person who has lived within Japanese culture, the way that the grandmother was portrayed as a large impact on me.
So I am just going to leave this here in Japanese as it is something that I have only felt in Japanese if that makes sense. I don’t want to pretend like I understand the experience of being a minority in America and that makes me pause before explaining myself in English. I am still getting used to sharing on the type of blog format so I am hoping I can grow to be more expressive and open in my writing in the future.
The writing style in this kind of what I would refer to as ‘The Beauty of everyday life.’ This story goes into great details of the small things in life such as chores, cleaning, and other daily actions. For example, in the beginning of the story when Mai and her mother arrive at Grandma’s house, the author goes into great detail about the sandwich that the three make together. Each action, down to putting butter on the bread and picking the leafy vegetable to add to the sandwich are described. I think the passage lasts around lasts around 4 pages long. There are equally long passages describing Mai and her grandmother making strawberry jam and doing the laundry together.
I think it really depends on the individual, but I recently have started to really enjoy this type of writing style. I was recently taking about this style of media with a coworker. She was more interested in sounds and images. But the basic idea is slowing down and seeing the small pleasures that might be missed other wise. Like the sound of ice gently being dropped into a glass and the smoothness of water being poured over it. With each description in this novel, I am easily able to hear the sounds of each action.
I have a fast paced job with a lot of responsibility. I think this has really influenced how I want to spend my free time and what I need to relax and recharge. ‘The beauty of the everyday’ really helps to change my mindset on my days off. Its reminds me that is is okay to take things slow and just be. I find that while reading these types of books that the tension that I have been holding in my body from work suddenly melt away.
Vocabulary – JLPT N1-N2 student level
For context, I am a self-assessed JLPT level 2. Sadly I will not be able to confirm my level this year as there are no near by JLPT tests this year due to COVID. I plan on just skipping N2 and taking N1 next summer in Japan or Canada.
For the most part, I did not find myself using a dictionary during this story. I did look up the readings for different words, but a lot of the new words I saw were easy to guess from context. There are some onomatopoeia used in this story which again, are very easy to gather the meaning from context clues. Most of the words that I did not know come from the vocabulary groups below.
Specialized Vocabulary Groups – rocks, plants, types of trees, flowers, and normal edible plants that you would find in a Japanese garden
I did not spend anytime looking up these types of vocabulary. There was just too many names that I did not know. Mai’s grandmother even goes out of her way to teach Mai different names of plants and quizzes her later on to see if she remembers them. Mai’s grandfather was very interested in rocks and had a huge collection, this is where the names of minerals comes in. While I do want to learn more about trees and plants in general, I am going to wait until I am back in Japan. Many parks have name plates next to various plants to help you know the name and I think that will be an easier way for me to learn
For some of the more rare words used in this story, there will be furigana to help you get the meaning. The names of characters in this story are not introduced with furigana which can make it difficult to know the exact reading. This is only an issue in the second story as there are no kanji based names in The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ).
The vocabulary gets more difficult in the second story, Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日). I did find myself using a dictionary for this one.
Grammar – JLPT N3-N2 student level
The grammar used in this book was fairly straight forward and not at all literary. For a third person style story, it is fairly dialog heavy making some of the sections of the book really easy to read. Since the plot in this book is very simple and straight forward, I do not thing that grammar will cause readings to get lost of have any misunderstandings.
The grammar does feel more complex in the second story, Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日). While the plot in this story is more random, I think vocabulary would cause more issues to readers then grammar.
This book is 221 pages long and contains two stories. The first story, The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ) has 193 pages. The second story, Wandering Through a Day(渡りの一日), is 26 pages long.
I think that it might surprised some people, but it is not uncommon for Japanese children to stop going to school. While I had seen this in Japanese media and was familiar with the idea, I was shocked when I found out that one of my close friends missed a year of school! She said that she was being bullied in grade school and just decided that she did not want to go anymore. Her parents let her stay home and she was not home schooled. She was just free to spend her time as she wished. Even with that, her grade school gave her a graduation certificate and she worked up the courage to return to education and start junior high.
It seems like Japanese students are just pushed through the system sometimes regardless of their grades or attendance.
I have recently ordered this book as I was looking for something to read by Harada Maha(原田マハ) as they seem to be a fairly popular author in Japan. Based off reviews that I have read, We are Alive(生きる僕ら) seems to have a similar plot and setting to The Witch of the West is Dead(西の魔女が死んだ). In this book, Twenty-four year-old Jinsei Akira is working on over coming personal weaknesses that has left him unable to leave the house. He works up the courage to finally step foot outside and starts on his journey of looking for his grandmother who lives in the country side of Japan. This book seems to go into great detail of the life style of the characters and I am looking forward to learning more about farming in general.
And of course I would like to recommend my favorite Japanese series, Little Forest(リトル・フォレスト). In this series that is focused on country living and slow cooking, the main character moves back to her home town after years of being desperate to leave. I love the music, quietness, and nature based color scheme of this short series.