The Shocking, Subversive Endings of Taeko Kōno’s Stories


Arts & Culture


The fiery, beguiling stories in Taeko Kōno’s collection Toddler Hunting and Other Stories, translated by Lucy North, are vertiginous tightrope walks between two planes of reality. Kōno (1926–2015) wrote these stories between 1961 and 1969, when several Japanese women writers were poking holes in the long-held idea that a wife is defined in relation to her husband and is submissive to him. (See also, for instance, the stories “Lingering Affection,” by Jakucho Setouchi, and “Luminous Watch,” by Setsuko Tsumura, both of them excellent.) It wasn’t until 1945 that women in Japan had been granted the right to vote, and not until the new constitution of 1946 that women had been allowed to ask for a divorce and public schools made coeducational.

To illustrate what makes Kōno’s stories unforgettable, it’s useful to think about how a story can potentially end. Imagine, for example, a story about a married, childless couple driving across the state for a short weekend vacation in the seaside town where they met. The wife is trying to work up the resolve to tell the husband she doesn’t want to be married anymore; the husband has no idea. The wife knows that the further they get into the trip, the more difficult the situation becomes. In one potential ending, the wife waits until they’re walking on the beach to tell him, and he drives off without her. In another, she doesn’t tell him at all, and they drive home, the husband content and oblivious, listening to classical music on the radio. Both endings are narratively definitive—readers know all they need to know for the story to end (the wife either chooses to voice her feelings or she doesn’t). The first ending is also factually definitive—readers know exactly what’s going to happen plot-wise after the final period (the husband has left her and she must make her way back home). But the second ending isn’t factually definitive: the wife hasn’t articulated how she feels, and the thing is still silently between them, maybe growing, maybe not. Still, in both endings, readers know what the finale means for the reality of the wife.

Toddler Hunting, on the other hand, doesn’t let us off this easy. These stories have no interest in closure, not even oblique closure. Like those of many other good short stories, the ending of a Kōno story is narratively definitive. (A story can be ruined by stopping too early or too late; good stories have a sense of exactly when they become narratively definitive.) But somewhere right before the end, the story has taken a sharp, dizzying turn, so that when it finally lands, it is in a place that is not merely surprising and inevitable but on a different plane entirely, one removed from the established reality. The effect is profoundly unsettling.

When I think of a Taeko Kōno story, I picture a glass filling with liquid. As the story reaches its end, the glass is filled to the brim. But in the final moment, the liquid spills over the side and lands on the surface below. That new plane, something that we hadn’t even considered before, is now—surprisingly yet inevitably—stained.

In the beginning of the collection’s first story, “Night Journey” (1963), Fukuko and Murao are waiting for another couple, Utako and Saeki, to come by their apartment after dinner. Their guests are late. But it’s a Saturday and they can stay up, so Fukuko and Murao decide to travel half an hour by train into the city to “barge in on them,” which they’ve never done before.

From this opening, Kōno begins building, with almost novelistic texture and scope, the story of the two couples—the first plane of reality. The glass begins filling.

Fukuko and Utako have been very close since they were girls; Utako, two years older, helped Fukuko with her schoolwork and taught her how to swim. Fukuko married her coworker Murao, who also developed a fondness for Utako: “ ‘I can’t understand why such an attractive woman isn’t married,’ Murao came to wonder out loud, often, to Fukuko.” A few years later, however, Utako married Saeki. The two couples became closer, spending time as a foursome and traveling together. Everything was peachy.

Back in the present, at the midpoint of the story, Fukuko and Murao discover that Utako and Saeki aren’t home. Everything that follows is a descent into the dark, the negative of the story’s light first half. “Would you like to walk a little?” Murao suggests, and so they do. It’s at this point that Murao puts Fukuko’s finger in his mouth and “bites down, hard.” Fukuko asks gently, “What do you think you’re doing?”

This finger biting is the moment the liquid spills over. The finger triggers, like a fleshy madeleine, a flashback that is unlike what has come before. It details a night on which the two couples stayed together late. We find out that “Fukuko liked physical pain during sex, and Murao willingly complied.” This bit of information is essential: it tells us that pliable Murao is the one following Fukuko through the strength of her desires. Fukuko, aroused by the flattering candlelight, began heaping compliments on Saeki, and then Murao complimented Utako, and suddenly Utako said, “Well, what are we going to do about it?” The two couples went into adjoining rooms and Fukuko knew that “all she had to do was step in to the other room” to incite sex between the foursome. But ultimately “her body wouldn’t obey her” and the moment passed. (Notice that it’s Fukuko’s desire, again, that ultimately drives the action, or inaction.) In the morning, the two couples teased each other and half-jokingly agreed to try again another night. That future other night, it turns out, is the night of the story.

We flash back to the present for the frightening seven final pages, over a quarter of the story. These pages simply follow Fukuko and Murao as they walk around at night. They encounter no one. They find a canal and then a playground, climb a bluff, discover an unfinished house, go to a temple, and finally enter a cemetery.

How could these last seven pages of night wandering be so frightening? It’s because we don’t get an answer for why this is happening. In this new reality, there are no rules. Whatever rules we learned apply only to that genial first reality. The original goal of the story—to spend time with Utako and Saeki and, we assume, switch partners—has been disrupted, forcing Fukuko and Murao in a different direction. But what are they hoping to find? For seven pages, we don’t know: the wandering is so flatly told and coldly distant that it’s almost robotic: “The houses on the left petered out, giving way to a low railing that ran alongside a canal. They came to a bridge, and crossing it, they walked on, now following the course of a meandering stream.” That the couple seem to agree silently on their path makes us feel like we’re not being told something, or as though we’ve missed something important. The meaning is either being hidden from us or is absent entirely, we can’t be sure. Fukuko and Murao just keep going and we just keep getting more anxious.

There are only two breaks in this flat writing. The first is two pages from the end, when Fukuko wonders what would have happened if Utako and Saeki had indeed come over as planned. She pictures Murao pinning Utako’s arms down and Saeki’s possible reactions if she asked him to do the same to her. But this is all hypothetical, a possible reality the characters could have inhabited but never do.

Instead we get the new reality, which finally rips through in the story’s last paragraph:

Fukuko realized that she’d been in a particular mood for some time now, a mood that would keep her walking beside Murao into the night, walking on and on until they became the perpetrators—or the victims—of some unpredictable crime.

The reality of the ending of “Night Journey” is entirely separate from the reality of its premise. At last, we get our answer for why the couple is wandering around, but that answer only opens up new questions. This effect is achieved by how carefully uncertain the words are in the last paragraph. Fukuko is in a “particular” mood; the couple could be on either side of a crime, and that crime is “unpredictable.” What could happen could be anything—readers are given no blueprint for the new reality, nothing to concretely imagine. Ultimately, we don’t know what this final image means. And so the story ends with Fukuko and Murao walking off toward a new inevitability: an abyss.

The ending of “Night Journey” is surprising yet inevitable, but if that were all then we’d still be in the safe realm of the two possible endings I laid out in the story about the weekend trip. In those two possible endings, there is only one glass; it gets filled all the way to the top, but no more. In those two endings, readers are given something to make sense of, to concretely imagine. That safe realm provides closure, something approaching comfort, since we know what to make of it—it exists on the same plane of reality where we’ve been all along. A possible ending more closely resembling a Kōno ending would be, say: the couple stop for gas and hear a noise in the trunk. When they open it, a boy climbs out—he’s in clean clothes and seems perfectly happy and asks whether they can go to the nearby amusement park. The husband looks at the wife, who does not take the child to the police. She doesn’t ask questions. She has them reroute their car to the amusement park.

More than once while reading Toddler Hunting, I flipped back through the previous pages to see if I’d forgotten some detail—a character trait, a line of dialogue—that would help explain what was happening. But every time I found that no, Kōno had intentionally not provided answers to my questions. Of course, not every story in the collection concludes on the exact same note. (“Full Tide,” with its passive young protagonist, is the biggest outlier.) But in nearly all, Kōno provokes a sense of having passed through something. She leaves us nervous and disoriented at the arrival of a thorny, feral second reality.

In “Snow” (1962), Hayako suffers blinding headaches in the presence of snow, a malady inextricably tied to a terrible family secret. The story’s new reality is created toward the end, when riding on a train with her partner, Kisaki, Hayako changes their destination suddenly—to a remote span of snow-covered hills.

In “Ants Swarm” (1964), Fumiko, who enjoys physical pain during sex with her husband, Matsuda, considers having a baby with him. The story’s new reality develops gradually, like a Polaroid, as Fumiko stares at a piece of raw meat on her kitchen counter covered in ants.

In these stories, as in “Night Journey,” there comes an exhilarating and eerie moment a few pages from the end, in which anything seems possible. Fukuko and Murao could have just taken the train back home. The initial reality could have persisted. But instead the characters choose the most disruptive course, and head right into the storm.

In Kōno’s stories women grapple with their new personal freedoms. “Everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power,” as the apocryphal Oscar Wilde saying has it. In Kōno’s stories, in which sex, power, and desire are all intertwined, the desire of the protagonists, all of them women, is so powerful that it topples their lives and their carefully constructed circumstances. The protagonists are driven to see what will happen if they pursue their desire to its end, and it takes them into uncharted territory: a new reality of their creation. What’s more, this new reality, despite feeling radical and jarring, feels true, proving the fraudulence of the previous reality by showing how easily it has been destroyed. Kōno’s writing is shocking, ominous, and subversive; it lays bare the destruction and the renewal that freedom and desire can cause.

Gabe Habash is the author of the novel Stephen Florida.