A Study of Kanai Mieko


First Person

Photo: Kuwabara Kineo.


Kanai Mieko writes in several genres: poetry, fiction, and criticism—most notably on film and photography. We, who know no Japanese, will probably never read her criticism on film and photography, although this is what we most desire.

Kanai Mieko is highly acclaimed in Japan. She has also been described as noncommittal, apolitical, and frivolous.

One critic laments “that the author, whose talent is comparable to that of Salman Rushdie, would take up such a light, meaningless subject as an ordinary housewife’s uneventful life when she could, and should, be concerned with ideological and political issues of import.”

Kanai Mieko ranks Jane Austen higher than Dostoyevsky.

She’s not interested in describing objects; she wants to accentuate their amorphous nature.

In 1997, Kanai published a novel called Karui memai, or Vague Vertigo. It isn’t available in English. I read about it in Atsuko Sakaki’s book, The Rhetoric of Photography in Modern Japanese Literature. Sakaki gave Kanai’s novel the English title Vague Vertigo. In an earlier paper, she called it Light Dizziness.

Sakaki changed the title to Vague Vertigo to emphasize Kanai’s references to Hitchcock’s film and to Roland Barthes.

Barthes, who wrote: “One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstance I had worn them; to no avail. And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where). This distortion between certainty and oblivion gave me a kind of vertigo, something of a ‘detective’ anguish.”

Researching Kanai Mieko gives me a detective anguish.

Vague Vertigo is about a housewife named Natsumi who lives in an apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo. It has eight chapters in which almost nothing happens. There are descriptions of floor plans, stray cats, anniversary presents, and laundry. Sections of the novel first appeared as monthly installments in a glossy magazine about bourgeois homemaking; also included are two reviews of photography exhibitions. Kanai says that these previously published articles and reviews, which appeared in different journals, were written in order to be collected as a novel.

Written in order to be collected. The exhibition reviews, the advice flipped through in a women’s magazine: always a novel.

You and I have spoken of the never-ending book.

Critics recognize two important motifs in Vague Vertigo: photography and grocery shopping.

Natsumi and her family come across several old photographs. Nobody has any recollection of their being taken. One shows Natsumi as a child, in a dress with red polka dots. Another shows her mother as a child, squatting to peer at an ant’s nest. In these photographs, no one is looking at the camera except Natsumi’s uncle, who was mentally disabled and died young. He knows who held the camera, but can no longer say. These photos give Natsumi fushigina kimochi (“strange feeling”), hakike (“nausea”), and memai (“vertigo”).

She goes to a class reunion. An old friend reaches into her purse, pulls out some articles on photography, and gives them to Natsumi. These articles are reviews of two exhibitions, in 1993 and 1995, by the street photographer Kuwabara Kineo. They were written by Kanai Mieko, and published in two different journals.

Trickiness in writing. A private game. I’m reading about Kanai Mieko because next week I’m teaching her story “Rabbits,” which is about a girl named Lily who slaughters rabbits, dresses herself in their bloody skins, hops around the room, and tries to seduce her father. I’ve assigned the story along with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book of tricks, games, and in-jokes by the math professor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.

Dodgson the photographer. His photograph of Alice Liddell as a beggar maid. Her nipple showing through a rent in her dress.

Kanai Mieko thinks Kuwabara Kineo is an ethical photographer. He is a “cameraman,” not a “journalist.”

Journalists impose a narrative on reality. A cameraman “does not photograph the narrative.” Thus, Kuwabara’s photographs produce nothing in the viewer but “a strange silence and astonishment.”

I’m watching a documentary on Lewis Carroll. A photograph attributed to him, said to be of Alice’s elder sister, Lorina, is being examined by a forensic expert. This pubescent girl, naked, sullen, her head tilted, her hair gathered up like rabbit ears.

Kuwabara’s work, writes Kanai Mieko, is a “corporeal” collaboration between “the eye and the finger.” It is a photography that does not “flatten.” Instead, it “gently exfoliates the surface of the present of light.”

Reading in translation, I don’t know what she means by “the present of light.” It could be the presence of light, or the now, the today, of light.

Kanai’s story “Rabbits” exfoliates the surface of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, not gently but with a piece of glass. It scrapes up the meat of the tale: the young girl’s rage, her isolation, her savage artistry. From what I can tell, it’s not at all like Vague Vertigo.

Still, of Vague Vertigo, Kanai says she wanted to write the moments when housewives “abruptly feel their existence and their memory as unmanageable and undefinable.” So maybe there is a connection to the girl in the bloody rabbit skins. You told me this story made you want to be a writer.

For class, I’m showing my students Alice-inspired images from around the world. Many are from Japan. There are lots of Alice-themed manga and anime. My favorite title is I Am Alice: Body Swap in Wonderland.

Kanai Mieko is a great reader of Roland Barthes. She wrote a novella called Akarui heya no naka de (In the bright room), named after Barthes’s book La chambre claire: his book on photography, which you and I know as Camera Lucida.

“Rabbits” is about becoming a writer. I love the first sentence, especially in the amateur translation I found online, made by a student of Japanese named Olivia. She read the story for a class and decided to translate it, trying it on like skin. “If you’re planning on taking credit for my work,” warns Olivia on her blog, “it could all be completely wrong.” The sentence: “So long as writing, including the act of not writing, is writing, then perhaps inevitably, writing is my fate.”

We spoke of ongoingness, of flânerie. Kuwabara wanted to be a flaneur, without “self-consciousness as a photographer.”

Questions surrounding Dodgson’s photographs: Did he feel self-consciousness as a photographer? Does it matter?

Detective anguish. Vertigo. Rabbit hole.

In “Rabbits,” the narrator follows Lily, the White Rabbit, and tries on her putrid costume. “Rabbits” begins with strange feeling and ends with vertigo. It begins by accentuating the amorphous nature of objects and ends with a strange silence and astonishment.

I’ve never found a photograph of myself I couldn’t place, but I can imagine how it would feel. I can imagine finding a photograph of myself as a young girl, taken by a family friend who no longer visits the house.

In “Rabbits,” Lily’s first appearance is heralded by a weird smell. The narrator writes: “I had no idea what it was, but the smell was a kind of nausea. It wasn’t that the nausea emerged from the smell, nor was it that I caught the smell due to the nausea, but rather the smell emerged from the depths of my body.”

We spoke of Barthes. We spoke of Kanai Mieko. The surprise and delight of our mutual obsession with “Rabbits,” a story we’d discovered separately and by accident.

Atsuko Sakaki: “Kanai Mieko relates how intimately she reads Roland Barthes.”

Reading, writing: body swap in Wonderland.

For some reason, I thought I’d read that Kanai Mieko reads Roland Barthes on the train, but now I just find this one word, “intimately,” so I must have added the train myself. I may have added it because I find reading on trains an intimate experience, as if, by taking the book on a trip, one is taking the author as well. Or perhaps it’s simply because I associate Japan with trains, and with reading on trains, as in the film Sans soleil, which you once suggested I watch. By the way, in this film there is a woman who looks like you. You can find her at 51:40. Of course, she’s Japanese, and she has long hair, but still she looks a lot like you, she has exactly your cast of face. Something about riding on trains reminds me of photographs. “The rustle of strangers,” Kanai writes, “who must have lived personal histories from which they are disoriented, whose lives are not unimaginable, stirs within the spectator a sensation that resembles vertigo.” When I say the woman in Sans soleil looks like you, I mean, of course—since I’ve never seen either of you—her film-image looks like your photograph.


Sofia Samatar is the author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories and the short-story collection Tender. Her next book is Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar.