I loved this collection so much! “Where The Wild Ladies Are” is one of those books that I know I shall return to one day. I loved the folklore mentioned, myths, legends, history. A lot of the stories are based on Japanese folklore, and for me, this was a little introduction to it, with a lot of new information and knowledge to take into, but I really enjoyed it.
Genre: Short stories, fiction, japanese literature, horror, fantasy
Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
Format I read it in: Paperback
A lot of the characters are female, and I also quite enjoyed this – it brought what I think is a refreshing take. There are a lot of paranormal characters, events and it makes a great read if you’re in the mood for a soft spooky read. As I got through the end, I started to realise that some of the characters seem to be connected to each other, and figuring that out was a lot of fun, a bit like a mini puzzle to connect all dots.
I greatly recommend this book, and I will definitely add Matsuda Aoko to the list of writers I’d love to read more books from. Also, Polly Barton deserves a big mention for the incredible work she did as a translator. As is tradition with anthologies and books that have multiple stories in them, the final rating is the average rating of all stories combined (3.7, rounded to 4 stars). And below are my thoughts for every story individually.
1. The Peony Lanterns – ★★★
Shinzaburo is on his own during the Obon holiday, when suddenly, late in the night, someone knocks on his door. Two ladies are trying to sell him lanterns and the interaction is quite interesting. Light-hearted story, with a little mystery at the end, it’s a perfect story to start the book.
2. Smartening Up – ★★★
It started off weird, then a mild aunt appeared with a plot twist of her own. Since the aunt visited, the story became even weirder, but I was so impressed at how intrigued it made me. Very interesting, and I’ll keep the synopsis a secret, as I don’t want to give anything away!
“You can change your destiny simply by lifting the corners of your mouth. Good fortune comes spilling out of every smile.”
3. My Superpowers – ★★★★
A woman suffering from eczema is sharing her experience, and compares Oiwa and Okon’s face portrayals on TV to her own. She covers how people don’t always see past the skin condition, and how unfair that can be. They look at her as if she’s a monster – but this monster has feelings too! She speaks about embracing it, and referring to it as her superpower, and I love that way of thinking!
4. Quite a catch – ★★★★★
Shigemi-chan goes fishing one day, and against all odds, catches what happens to be the skeleton bones of Hina-chan. What she doesn’t expect, though, is for Hina-chan to visit her every night and offer gratitude. Even though it is a paranormal story, I loved how Shigemi-chan’s life improves for the better with this new found relationship. It shows that finding a person, you can change for the better.
5. The Jealous Type – ★★★★★
This was not a traditional ghost story like the others, but I enjoyed it a lot. I loved the psychological elements. The narrative of making jealousy into a good thing. That being jealous is a gift. The way the story is told is so intense, descriptive and intriguing. So far, it’s my favourite story in the collection.
6. Where The Wild Ladies Are – ★★★★★
Shigeru recently lost his mum and he’s now living on auto-pilot. Working at the production line for an incense factory suits him quite well. He one day hears something odd at his mother’s grave, and when he stops visiting so often, he begins to notice some weird things around him, such as ladies that eat tofu and reminding him of the Kitsune – fox spirits, all very similar to the creatures he encountered when he read a book called “Where The Wild Ladies Are” when he was little. I enjoyed this story very much. From his shift start, I was amused and intrigued!
“There are times when something that is more important to you than you ever know, more meaningful than you ever thought, is torn out of your hands and carried so far away that you can never get it back.”
7. Loved One – ★★★★
Even though there was a bit of humour in this story, it really gripped me. I loved the “customer service” aspect and the genuine care Mr. Tei showed. What stood out to me was the character being unable to smell and not knowing what osmanthus smells like. For people that can smell everything all the time, this is not a big deal, and it never crossed our mind. But for someone who has never known a certain smell, it’s a completely different ball game. I also can’t help but mention the love for the cat. I haven’t had a cat pet, but the description was beautiful and honest, and very heart-warming.
8. A Fox’s Life – ★★★
“How unfair society was! Male employees need to pretend to be capable of doing things they couldn’t do, while female employees had to pretend to be incapable of doing things they actually could do.”
Kuzuha grew up with people always telling her she looks like a fox. Everything she does – she always finds shortcuts and does it faster and better than anyone else. She decides to find a job and encounters a slightly different environment – she can do things better than the male employees, but she can’t voice that or attempt such a testament. I won’t reveal the rest of the story, so you can enjoy it at your own leisure, but I liked the portrayal of what Japanese working society looked like in the past. I can’t comment on the accuracy, but I loved how vividly it was described and the point of view Kuzuha presented, especially during the end of the story.
“Doing a job where you could put your talents to good use, where it was okay to go at things with everything you had, was wonderful.”
9. What She Can Do – ★★★★★
Amazing and heartwarming story about a mother and her child. Running away, she has to do two jobs to support her family. And when she goes for her night shift, and leaves the child alone, she prays she will return to the same sight. But little does the mum know, a ghost guardian angel visits every night and helps in a beautiful way. The story moved me and made me feel good in the end, despite the sorrow, sadness and pain I felt in the beginning. A truly remarkable story.
10. Enoki – ★★★
A story of Enoki, with her resin and burrs, that people think she has super-human powers and produces breast milk. A tale of two sides: being objectified and only worth what people think of you. In this case, people come to you because they need something. And the other side – being people’s only hope. A mother, whose milk has stopped, praying that your powers will keep her child alive. Interesting story, but I didn’t find it moving, despite the topic.
11. Silently Burning – ★★★★
“It’s hardly my fault if they decide to underestimate what a good woman like me is capable of, but I’m still relieved to see them looking pleased.”
Beautiful story about a young calligrapher, whose fate brings her to the Oshichi’s temple. I enjoyed learning about the stamp albums called “shuincho” and how much importance people give to their collections. I also enjoyed the story, the mystery surrounding Oshichi, and the little mystery aspect about the calligrapher in the end too.
12. A New Recruit – ★★
“It always struck me as very strange that even if you felt yourself the same as the person you were talking to, it didn’t necessarily mean the other person saw you in that regard.”
For some reason, I didn’t enjoy this story. I couldn’t connect with it and it didn’t invoke any major feelings in me, good or bad. I was slightly surprised that there was a mild spoiler for “The Sixth Sense” in there, so do thread carefully if you are not familiar with the plot and the twist at the end.
13. Team Sarashina – ★★
Again, a slightly underwhelming story in my opinion. I liked the team spirit, the dedication and competitiveness, but aside from that, it was just a description of a mysterious team that works for Mr. Tei.
14. A Day Off – ★★
This lady and her toad help women stay safe from being assaulted on the street. They walk together, or at a distance, and if a man approaches, they fend him off. Today is her day off and our heroine is struggling to get out of bed. Her motivation is low and she’s lost all faith in men. I think her day job has emotionally and psychologically drained her. The story had a sombre mood, unsurprisingly, but I didn’t enjoy it because there was no action and no ending to it.
15. Having a Blast – ★★★★★
A story based on the rakugo story San-nen-me (The Third Year), a dying woman makes a deal with her husband that if he remarries, she’ll come back to haunt the new wife. When the husband remarries, the lady has to first wait 3 years for her hair to grow, as people are shaved at their funerals. Like the story, here we have a woman that has just passed away, but when her husband remarries, she decides to not wait and visit him instantly, with her shaved hair. She’s decided she won’t let it grow back and starts rocking the Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road look. The story continues with the husband’s point of view when he dies, and then the second wife’s point of view as well. I love how these stories are connected and how all roads leads us back to Mr. Tei in the end.
16. The Missing One – ★★★
This tale was light-hearted and beautiful in its own way. A little family owned gift shop, and a lady finding her feet running the shop. I liked the ghost story, although more like a legend, and the encounter that occurred in the last few pages.
17. On High – ★★★★
A perfect end to such a rich collection of stories. Inspired by a play, and featuring a few characters we’ve been familiarised with before. Truly ending this collection on a high.
About The Author:
Aoko Matsuda is a writer and translator. In 2013, her debut book, Stackable, was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize. In 2019, her short story ‘The Woman Dies’ (from the collection The Year of No Wild Flowers), published on Granta online, was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award. Her novella The Girl Who Is Getting Married was published by Strangers Press in 2016. She has translated work by Karen Russell, Amelia Gray and Carmen Maria Machado into Japanese.