Anyone who has read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings are already well-acquainted with Murata’s quirkiness and unconventionality. Murata has admitted in interviews she has always felt like an outsider—an alien—which might be what gives her the insight to frame her stories from unique perspectives. Her latest book Life Ceremony, a collection of short stories, is no exception. Murata’s stories question humanity’s sense of normal and will quite possibly make readers cringe and give them visceral feelings of disgust or discomfort. The aim of these stories is not meant to aggravate readers but to make them question rules and expectations set by society.
Murata doesn’t even try to ease her readers in as the first story in her collection is about a world that manufactures things out of human parts. Nana, the protagonist, is at odds with her fiancé who abhors the idea of owning anything made out of humans. During an argument the couple has over her recent purchase of a sweater made from 100% human hair, Nana asks him:
“But why? It’s no different from your hair, or mine. It’s more natural for us than hair from any other animal—it’s a material really close to us…what could be more normal than making people into clothes or furniture after they die?…This is a precious and noble aspect of the workings of our advanced lifeform—not wasting the bodies of people when they die, or at least having one’s own body still being useful. Can’t you see how wonderful that is? There are so many parts that can be reused as furniture, and it’s a waste to throw them away.”
Murata has the ability to make weirdness seem sensible and understandable. Her ability to find logical rationale for surreal scenarios such as this will have readers find themselves pushing away any discomfort they had and seriously considering the story as an allegory to real life. In the title story, for instance, she seems to comment on society’s evolution of morality through cannibalism; in this world, it is okay to feast on the deceased as a celebration of the person’s life and then procreate with strangers to make a new life.
Life Ceremony also seems to comment on modern society’s sensitivity regarding food choices as do a few other stories. A Magnificent Spread is the story of three families whose members each like to eat completely different (albeit strange) things, but they find a way to respect and accept each other’s differences. As one character states, “What people eat is part of their own culture. It’s the culmination of their own unique personal life experiences. And it’s wrong to force it on other people.” In Eating the City, Rina, who hates the taste of store-bought vegetables in Tokyo, decides to secretly scavenge the city for its plants and finds herself becoming unexpectedly attuned with urban nature.
Murata also explores relationships that are outside the norm: a close friendship between two completely different women—one who was married and raised a family but was still a virgin, and another who had never married and was a nymphomaniac; the love triangle of a girl, her childhood curtain, and her boyfriend (yes, you read that correctly); the relationship two girls have with their human pet; and the friendship between two different high school girls and how one of them learns about sex and sexuality through the other’s incestuous relationship with her cousin.
Through it all, the element that seems to tie all these stories together is Murata’s own state of being: misfit, outsider, alien. The last story in this collection, The Hatchling, is the perfect ending for her book. Haruka is a woman who has several different personas that developed through different phases in her life. Because of this, friends from her life know a completely different Haruka, and this becomes a problem for her when she needs to invite friends to her wedding. Which side of herself should she show at the wedding? Which side of herself should she show her future husband for the rest of their lives?
Though her characters are misfits, her stories are tinged with hope as most of them find acceptance through others or themselves. Her stories are guaranteed to have you experiencing several kinds of emotions all at once while questioning your own understanding of life, people, and morality.