Yuri Novel: Yaneura no Nishojo

May 9th, 2010

Yaneura no Nishojo (屋根裏の二処女) by Yoshiya Nobuko is arguably the source material for much of what we consider to be “Yuri.” Published in 1919, it sets down many of the standard tropes that we have come to expect in Yuri series. (Things like the Christian private all-girls school, the attic room, the piano scene, the misty flower-scented atmosphere, and a number of other memes that are familiar to the Yuri audience.)

Yaneura no Nishojo follows Ryuumoto Akiko, a transferee into the YWA (Young Women’s Association) school and dorm life. Because she is a late entry, she is assigned to the dormer room – one of two. Her companion on the fourth floor is Akitsu. The early story largely revolves around Akiko’s failure to feel as if she is fitting in at dorm life but then, as she adapts, she makes friends with the other girls and ultimately, falls in love with Akitsu. Akitsu is engaged to a young man her family chose however, at the end of the story, she returns to the dorm and asks Akiko to come with her. Akitsu and Akiko agree to try and build a life together, and forge a path of their own making. Yaneura no Nishojo was a groundbreaking work when it was published and really is quite exceptional even today, with an overtly feminist ending.

This review has been a long time coming. I bought this novel in 2004 and been reading this book on and off for years now. Some time ago, Guest Reviewer Hafl asked me if he could review this novel – so I suggested we do a dual review. I expect our perspectives are going to be quite different. We are different genders, sexual orientation, nationality and age. So, bearing all this in mind, here is the Okazu review of Yaneura no Nishojo.

1) Did you have any expectations before you read the book?

H: I read the book, because I wanted to learn something about the roots of Yuri as a genre and to improve my understanding of Japanese language, and I was satisfied on both counts. In regards to being entertained by the book, I only expected that the book would not bore me and it didn’t, even during the more long-winded passages of the book.

E: I went into this book with few expectations, mostly around the shoujo-like atmosphere. It was a book I felt I *had* to read at some point and now that I have, I’m glad I did.

2) What were your impressions of Akiko and Akitsu? Did your impression/opinion change as the book progressed?

H: Akiko is the usual angsty teenager archetype, but despite that, I actually liked her. With the book being narrated in her voice liking her is probably important to enjoying the book. At the beginning of the book, she comes across as a very passive character, doing only what she absolutely has to do and not actually caring about anything. Since Yaneura no Nishojo is at least in part a bildungsroman, she changes through the book, so Akiko at the beginning and Akiko at the end are different characters.

It’s harder to tell about Akitsu, since even though she is a central character in the book, we mostly see her from Akiko’s view. That means that in the first half or so of the book, Akitsu is mostly a distant, admired figure, though I still thought that she was basically a nice person. Later, as she starts to have a more active role in the book, I still thought of her mostly in terms of her relationship with Akiko. She generally seemed to be the older of the two, more resembling her actual age than Akiko, who seemed to be not much older than fifteen or sixteen years old. She has more life experience than Akiko and also seems more materially well-off than Akiko (as in the scene when she and Akiko decide to share rooms).

E: I agree that Akiko is a typical angsty teenager and I found her to be a tad mopey for my taste. I don’t think I ever liked her until the very end, but I did feel sympathy for her. Akiko at the end was someone I felt I could trust to hold up her end of their relationship, so I gave her props for maturing quite a bit. It took her three pages to open a door at the beginning of the book, and only one moment to agree to leave with Akitsu.

I think you’ve nailed the problem with Akitsu, Hafl. It’s so hard to know who she really is, because we see her through the eyes of first, admiration, then admiration tinged with desire, then obsessive love and only at the very end do we see her for a moment as a real person. In that one moment, though, I liked her. She wasn’t as political as I expected her to be, nor was she snarky, but the sense that she had been building a life outside the YWA’s walls through the whole novel was quite strong. I liked that.

3) What was, in your opinion, the best or most important scene in the book?

H: The best scene in my opinion is also the scene I liked the best. It is the scene of Akiko moving into the attic room. Up until this point, Akiko was more or less going along with the events and, as I said above, did not seem to care much about anything. In contrast, this scene seems really bright and happy, so it stands out. I’d also like to mention the scene where Akiko learns about Kudou’s death, just because her reaction seemed so wonderfully human.

As for the most important scene, from plot perspective it is the one where Akiko speaks about belief in God in front of everyone in the dormitory and what comes after it. It is really the turning point in the story and an important point in Akiko’s development. From literary perspective, the most important scene is the ending, but more on that later.

E: For me the most important scene was the scene where they all bring the huge box of apples up to the attic. Up to that point, Akiko acutely feels as if she’s an outsider. At that moment, she bonds with the other girls and from that point on, there are friends in the story. It changes her – she starts to care about people. Even her relationship with Akitsu shifts at that point, and the distance between them closes. It’s as if she’d been watching everyone through gauze up to that point, and now the gauze was removed so you can see everyone clearly.

4) What was your favorite scene of the book (if not covered above.)

E: The scene I liked best was the scene in which the girls all went to the artist N-shi’s atelier. For the first time we got a glimpse of the town they lived in and their relationship with it (which was somewhat removed, after all, these were well-off girls in private school. They had little cause to be walking around town.) It was the first time we saw them relating to young men, and the sense that there were two distinct worlds that rarely met was palpable – and there was a real sense of discomfort at the thought that these men plucked the women out of their world to stick them in a box in the men’s world. It wasn’t stated that coarsely, but the understanding was implicit.

5) What was the scene you liked least and why?

H: There is no scene in particular I can single out as liking the least. Instead, though it may seem silly, I kind of disliked all the longer passages with little action, like the end of the book’s second section, because I had to often refer to a dictionary and sometimes got lost in the grammar.

E: Ah, no kidding! There were sections I kept losing my spot trying to translate so much of the sentences. And the grammar, being “early-20th century convoluted” as I like to refer to it, was challenging in places.

The scene I liked least was the scene where Akiko makes a fool of herself with the overseas guests. I felt it was gratuitous flagellation on the part of the author to reinforce how awkward Akiko felt.

6) Did any other books/series/characters come to mind while you read it?

H: I was reminded of quite a lot of other books and series while reading and also of some general Yuri clichés. For example, I couldn’t help it, but think of Akiko as being blonde, even though this cliché probably did not exist until Shiroi Heya no Futari (which also has the theme of the room/attic being separated from the outside world and then coming in contact with the outside).

There’s also the part with a piano, where I was reminded of Maria-sama ga Miteru, even though the piano has the feeling of being a middle/high class instrument, completely appropriate to any school story of the era, even though Yaneura no Nishojo is not exactly a school story.

E: I ask this question, because so many Yuri memes were *established* in this book – the ones you mention, the whole private religious school and several others. Since I expected all of the ones you mentioned above, the one scene that reminded me most of Maria-sama ga Miteru was the fact that after Akitsu leaves, Akiko’s grades fall. I remember reading the same thing happening to Sei in Ibara no Mori and wondering at the time why it was mentioned so specifically. Also, for me, the end of the book is reminiscent of the end of the Shoujo Kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena) movie manga, which has a scene so similar that it was what catapulted Yoshiya Nobuko’s existence into my awareness at the time. I asked a Nobuko scholar about it and she agreed – the ending of that Utena manga was ripped straight from the end of this novel.

7) What is your thought on the ending?

H: For its time, the ending is actually very surprising. It is hopeful in the least, if not downright happy and that stands in contrast with everything written about gay and lesbian relationships in that time. (Well of Loneliness instantly springs to mind, even though it is a very different book.)

But the ending is surprising, even when taken just as two women deciding to seek their own way through life through their own strength. Again, not something usually seen at the time and it is also seen as a positive thing. Yaneura no Nishojo was also published as an adult book, not as girls’ fiction, that could be easily dismissed as being written for children.

Though, I’ll add that personally, I did not care much for how the ending was written.

E: I’m pretty much with you 100%. It was so forward-thinking and steady-nerved, without being strident. It’s an ending that would seem perfectly average now, but was breathtaking then. For the end alone, I love the book and thank Yoshiya for having written it.

I totally see what you say about the writing at the end of the book, but after the excessive moping in the previous scenes when Akitsu was gone, it was like a drink of clear water to me.

8) What are your overall/final thoughts on the book?

H: To sum it up in short: I liked the book. In greater length, Yaneura no Nishojo is a prototype “Story A” combined with a bildungsroman and with some more resolution to it than any usual example of “Story A”. I can’t really say I saw any direct influence on the Yuri genre, since the only Yuri cliché I could see was the one of one half of the couple being smarter and more experienced, optionally richer, taller and dark-haired with the other half being average, naive, poorer, shorter and usually blonde, but that is a much older thing. (For example in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.)

E: Strawberry Panic, Maria-sama ga Miteru, Utena, Shiroi Heya no Futari, none of these would exist without Yaneura no Nishojo. To me, it was very much taking a step back to the moment where it all began. I had my doubts about the book since Akiko was so mopey, but now that I have read it, I find that I enjoyed it immensely, if only for the wonderful characters it would spawn half a century later.

***

Yoshiya Nobuko was, during her lifetime, a successful writer. She spent her life with her wife, Monma Chiyo who acted as her secretary and assistant. Their house is now a museum. If you visit the Wikipedia entry on Yoshiya, take it with a grain of salt – most of the scholarship there is lacking in…scholarship. She was a member of the “S” movement, an outspoken feminist and a wildly successful author of stories for girls and women. Her Hana Monogatari defined Japanese girls’ literature for decades, the way American girls’ literature was defined by Little Women or the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. ALC Publishing’s Yuri Monogatari is named in honor of Yoshiya’s series.

There you have it folks, two perspectives on Yoshiya Nobuko’s seminal Yuri work – I hope those of you who are practicing Japanese will consider giving it a try!

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19 Responses

  1. Senbei says:

    Although i’ve attempted to read this book in Yoshiya-sensei’s zenshu, i haven’t bought it. Finding Yoshiya Nobuko books, even in Jimbochou, is a quite challenge. I never really felt that this was something i wanted to buy on Amazon. It would completely undo any excitement at finding it randomly somewhere. So i look for her books whenever I’m in a Japanese bookstore.

    From what I’ve managed to read i found the book kind of drab and daunting. But based on your review I’m definitely going to give it another shot someday.

    I’m curious about this connection you saw to the Utena manga. I’ve read most of it, but i haven’t been able to locate the fifth volume, either in Japanese or in English, so I’m curious. What is it that forms this connection in your mind?

  2. @Senbei –

    It was the Adolescence of Utena movie manga – a single volume, not part of the five-volume series. The connection is obvious when you read the last two pages.

    I understand that you found it drab – it is. It’s a gray world, a girl’s Christian school in pre-war Japan. They have little color, little sweetness in their lives. That was why the blue room in the attic is so significant. The colors mentioned are always ash, black, gray, white – and the BLUE room.

  3. Hafl says:

    Your points about the book made me feel a little silly for not noticing them while reading, like Akiko’s grades dropping.

    I still think Hana Monogatari might have been more significant to development of Yuri as a genre, but Yaneura no Nishojo definitely laid the groundwork for allowing happy ends in Yuri.

  4. @Hafl There is no reason to feel silly. I do not agree that Hana Monogatari was more important to Yuri, although I would agree that it was to Shoujo literature, and therefore Shoujo manga.

  5. Ed Sizemore says:

    Amazing review. I applaud the patience it took to work through this book and the in-depth analysis you both bring. I love learning about the beginning of genres. I’m amazed this book found a publisher in 1919. Given it’s significance as lesbian literature, I’m amazed this has been translated by an academic press. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. @Ed Sizemore – Thank you for the kind words! I know that at least one Yoshiya scholar was hoping to be able to publish the Hana Monogatari in English, but was running into difficulties with the family estate, which has repudiated any feminist or lesbian meaning in any of Yoshiya’s works. It’s sad, honestly, when she herself worked so hard to be taken seriously and became successful in her lifetime.

  7. Ed Sizemore says:

    Erica,

    That’s beyond sad, it’s heartbreaking and so dishonest. This is almost a hundred years later, and the family still can’t come to grips with who Yoshiya really was.

    I know that scholars want to respect the wishes of the family. However, it won’t be long before all her works become part of the public domain. I hope then they will be available here in the US.

  8. @Ed Sizemore – Not surprisingly, it makes me quite mad. It’s beyond sad that they are merely embarrassed by her well-deserved fame.

  9. michiru42 says:

    Wait, Yoshiya-sensei’s estate is ashamed of her? That’s so odd. The books are still being published in new editions in Japan, and dorama are being made out of them, so why is translation in particular a problem for them?

    (Also, who is her estate? Relatives?)

    It’s a shame. I’m translating “Wasurenagusa” for myself and friends, and it’s such a great read.

  10. pencilitin says:

    I’ve been waiting for this review with baited breath! As an unabashedly unilingual reader who is not about to learn an entire new writing system to read a single novel, I am desperate for anything I can get on Yoshiya Nobuko in English. You did a great job and made me curse myself even more for not taking those immersion classes in middle school.

    I don’t know a thing about copyright law in Japan but at the very least I’m hoping the next person in line will be more understanding.

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