Review: Red Girls by Kazuki Sakuraba

red girls

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Haikasoru (April 21, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1421578573
  • Kindle $8.99
  • Paperback $12.99

Kazuki Sakuraba, award-winning author of the Gosick series for teens, takes a new direction in Red Girls, about three generations of a family in western Japan led by a clairvoyant matriarch, as they survive economic and social upheaval.

From the first page, readers should forget the stereotypes of Japanese fantasy: no shoguns, geishas or criminal clans inhabit Red Girls. The story tells of two important families who own the largest companies in the village of Benimidori, in Japan’s western Tottori Prefecture. In the red house high on the hillside above Benimidori are the old-money Akakuchiba clan, whose business is steelmaking. On the seashore is the black house of the Kurobishis, who manage a shipbuilding and transportation company founded after World War II.

However, a young girl from outside both these families makes her presence felt from early childhood. Manyo, a daughter of the “Outlanders,” mountain people from east of Benimidori, is abandoned in the village, and adopted by a young newlywed couple. At the age of ten, Manyo starts having premonitions of people’s deaths. Her ability becomes known in the village when she foretells the death of a soldier due to his carbine rifle exploding. Manyo eventually attracts the attention of clan matriarch Tatsu Akakuchiba, who selects her to marry her eldest son, Yoji, in order to revitalize the clan.

A Kurobishi daughter, Midori, makes fun of Manyo because she cannot seem to learn anything in school. She calls Manyo “stray cat,” while Manyo, in turn, labels Midori “goldfish” because of her protruding eyes. Midori and Manyo later make peace with each other when Midori’s family business collapses, and they support each other through the economic troubles that beset their country over the next three decades.

Manyo tries to warn some of the people she sees in her premonitions that they are in danger, hoping to avert the unhappy events she has foreseen. But the dire visions continue, with many directly endangering her own family.

Once married to the quiet, studious Yoji, Manyo becomes Madame Tatsu’s apprentice, and is groomed to take over the Akakuchiba household. Manyo eventually has four children, all named by her mother-in-law: a son, Namida (“tear”, because she wept at his birth); Kemari, her first daughter (“hairball”, because she was born covered in black hair); Kaban, a girl (“bag”); and her last child, a son, Kodoku (“solitude”). The housekeeper, Masago, becomes Yoji’s lover and has a daughter, Momoyo, two years after Kemari is born.

Kemari comes into the world in an ominous year, when the Fire element and the powerful zodiac symbol of Horse coincide. She develops a ferocious personality, and, in middle school, rises to the leadership of the Chugoku “Iron Angels”, a local all-girls’ motorcycle gang. By the time she finishes high school, Kemari and her Iron Angels take over the biker gangs of three neighboring prefectures. Momoyo, her half-sister, steals Kemari’s first boyfriend, igniting a lifelong rivalry. She becomes as obsessed with Kemari as her mother was with Manyo. Kemari’s best friend, Choko Hozumi, also rides with the gang. But Choko, cracking under pressure to excel academically, gets involved in crime, and is shipped off to reform school.

Kemari channels her energy into drawing and writing a serialized manga story about the exploits of the “Iron Angels”. As the manga extends its influence, becoming a national best-seller, it dominates Kemari’s life. When her parents want her to marry, Kemari agrees with her grandmother’s choice of Yoshio, a young engineer at the steelworks. They have a daughter, whom Kemari names Toko (“eyes”).

When Manyo, Toko’s grandmother, dies, she tells Toko a secret – that she has killed someone, although she did not intend to do it. Toko then becomes obsessed with finding out who, of the many people who died while Manyo was alive, was the one she supposedly killed.

The reader may find the story’s structure a bit confusing: Toko, the granddaughter, narrates the story from its beginnings in Manyo’s childhood, but plays no part in it until the final third of the book. The back cover summary of the story can be misleading, suggesting that the secret shared by Manyo with Toko is a mainspring of the plot. As Manyo remains a prime mover in the tale till the very last page, Red Girls can more accurately be described as “Manyo’s story”.

The superbly idiomatic English translation of Red Girls, by Jocelyne Allen, smoothes the reader’s path throughout the story.

Red Girls is driven by supernatural events, precognition, and the fixations of its many strong women. How they and their families survive and adjust to their rapidly changing society provides fascinating glimpses into the history of postwar Japan. Red Girls will exert a spell, as readers ride a twisting highway of power and mysterious energy with Manyo, Kemari, and Toko of the House of Akakuchiba.

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