An Interview with Nobuko Takagi
Nobuko Takagi got her start writing novels pretty late in the grand scheme of Japanese publishing. While most women go into “retirement” after having kids, Takagi waited until after hers could call her “mommy” before leaving said child with her husband, in pursuit of a love affair and to write her first novel. An Akutagawa Award and 50 some odd books later, she’s still not looking back. That is, till I make her rehash all of it in this interview, which as it turns out, is scheduled the night before she’s to see her son, now a college student, for the first time in a while.
I first read Translucent Tree some years back, while I was still a publishing flack. At the time, I was unable to read anything without parsing all kinds of pull quotes and excerpts (if only mentally). My favorite scene was an awkward phone conversation between the two main protagonists -- Chigiri and Go -- who find themselves uncharacteristically shy as adults approaching their golden years. As I read the book I also started making an imaginary list of comparable authors: Marguerite Duras and Alice Munro easily coming to mind. But also, The Bridges of Madison County, which for better or worse, was one of my favorite films (sic) as a teenager.
I read Translucent Tree again, this time in remarkable English prose, to prepare for the interview you’re about to read. I read it a little older and a little farther from Book Marketing. My favorite scene was still the aforementioned phone conversation, but because it was excruciatingly honest. They weren’t shy, they were proud. Truth be told, in the time between readings, I became embarrassed for my old self being so naive as to believe in everlasting love. So when Takagi starts insisting those fantasies are alive and well by plowing over my naiveté with... middle-aged sex scenes, suffice it to say I was moved. In a completely new way. And I was glad to be able to praise and revile such fantasies of love. Because once you put down the romance novel, you can finally see the forest for the trees.
I’ve read the original Japanese, and now the English translation, which I must say, is really quite good, but what’s the difference between the audience you wrote for in Japan and the audience that will eventually read this in English? Are your ideal readers different?
This is a story about the brilliance of love. The love and the sex are vividly depicted, so when the book was originally published, it was tagged “an extreme and remote love story.” I just want to communicate the sanctity of love. And in terms of its modern elements, there was that aspect of Chigiri’s financial problems in the beginning, making money the only element of impurity. That just accentuates how pure the love is though. That ambivalence of intentions is all that makes it a modern love story.
Love has all these strings attached, obstacles really. Certainly in its Japanese setting here. There’s The War, and the poverty stricken Chigiri, but that gives in to the romance. Even on a moral level, these days, you’re hedged off from pure love. My protagonists are simply in love, they have sex, what have you, but they’re put in a situation, morally, where they can’t just give in and raise up their love.
You alluded to morals, but in the US, one could argue we’re a pretty conservative society, at least in terms of ratings and censorship. Very moralistic. Recently there was Brokeback Mountain, which everyone ostensibly praised and loved, but at the same time, people in that same America who would refuse to watch it because it’s immoral.
I suppose what shocked me the most about your book, and I’m going to be blunt, were the sex scenes between middle-aged lovers. I thought it was beautiful, but I think when people hear “sex scenes” they envision young people. On top of which there is that murky moral question of whether Chigiri is doing this for money... Prostitution and passionate sex scenes generally star young people, and here we have middle-aged characters. Were you doing that expressly to...
Yes, well... this man and woman, neither of them is free or liberated. They aren’t in positions where they can do whatever they want. They have obligations, and Chigiri in particular, has to care for her ailing father, in the rural styx, and as I said before she has these financial difficulties to worry about. And then Go Imai, her lover, has a successful career, but it takes him away from home and his family, and he’s unfulfilled by his long career in TV production. This man and woman happened to meet each other in passing 25 years ago, and based on seeing each other again as adults, are able to start something new in their lives. They try to make a financial arrangement so as not let their hearts be caught up in it. They think that won’t make their affair so emotionally fraught, but that in turn makes it impossible for them not to fall in love. None of that can happen if they’re young, right?
I was very inspired by Graham Greene actually. Particularly by his way of depicting the tension between the physical and the emotional instincts in us. I think of my own work as being pretty traditional actually; talking about how the heart can be swayed, how love can be built up by the friction between emotion and physicality.
There is definitely the “splendor of love” message in this narrative. It is a traditional love story in that sense, even with all the friction, and the distance, and the contrasts of city and country, building things up. And of course, the divorced quasi-prostitute.
What I thought was interesting though, was that in the midst of all the conflicts, there is the knowledge of the possibility of this being everlasting love, floating in the background. But we’re talking about a divorcée, which statistically makes her very unlikely to be able to uphold a forever-union. This isn’t her first love, so it can’t be her last. But there’s the possibility of it. So in that sense, I think it was imperative that Go Imai die for the story to work. For this “true love story of extremes” to work, he had to die. In all these traditional love stories, Romeo & Juliet, Brokeback Mountain... someone dies.
Life is definitely lost in this story, but Go Imai continues to lives within Chigiri, who becomes delirious at the end of her life, with Alzheimer’s. That’s what makes it a happy ending.
Her losing her mind?
Humans, or the ones who live long lives, eventually forget the people they once loved, but if the memory is strong enough, they might live on. So I still think of this as a love story with a happy ending, because they do continue to love each other till the end. But yes, she does go insane.
In terms of this everlasting love ideal of the traditional love story, one of your sub-themes is tree life, which suggests the possibility of an “ever after.”
Human life is finite, Go dies, Chigiri dies. And no one knows it, but they’ve carved their initials into that fateful cedar tree, in the shape of an ear, the shape of bodily love. I think it’s my wishful thinking that that makes their love a little more permanent also. Because humans die, but trees last pretty close to forever. And we have no idea what happened to the body of the tree hundreds of years ago to make it look the way it might now. The love between these two humans keeps form tens and hundreds of years later in that tree trunk.
These parallel narratives -- the lovers and the trees -- they supplement each other, don’t they. And nature in general, plays a big part in the story, actually. Did you research, and, well... go into the great outdoors, examine plant life?
Oh yes. Humans take in a lot from their environments, right? They influence each other, actually. That’s why in my novels I always have elements of the seasons, be it plant life, or typhoons or whatever. I like to carefully place typhoons in my denouements, actually. (Laughing)
There’s definitely something visceral and physical about your story collection in title alone -- Soaked in Asia... In terms of the great outdoors though, there is a lot of information about trees, specifically. Had you done research on trees?
Not trees per se, but I wanted trees to be a part of the story, so I became very interested in pine trees, in particular. Pine trees grow straight up from the ground and don’t change direction, whereas humans do. Humans will get sad and die before they’re ready.
I guess it just struck me how much knowledge you seemed to have about trees and their local environs in the book. But in light of the traditional love story, when thinking about Japanese tree life, I think Americans probably envision things like cherry blossoms and red maples. You chose evergreen trees, which is striking, albeit inadvertent I suppose, in terms of outside recognition. However, you did choose very masculine trees -- cedars and pines and evergreens. As you mentioned, they shoot straight up, and aren’t brightly florid. It’s very phallic. Whereas Japanese maples, for example, are bright red and flare outwards...
My father was actually a professor of botany. So as a child I was always taught about the names of plants, and things like that. But my father was also a kamikaze pilot who never got to die for his country. He was very emotionally distraught, and I was born in the midst of that. He was supposed to die and didn’t, so he escaped into this world of plants, actually. And as his oldest daughter, I think he wanted to teach me about his obsession. Walking around town, even, he’d point out plants and tell me their names. For him, memorizing names was the definition of love. That influenced me most.
What you just described about your father believing he ought to have died in war, and how he escaped into plant life, resonates with what you are saying about your writing true love stories. Do you think you’re in some way upholding your father’s...
There’s definitely some of that. It’s not like I’m writing this because my father told me about plants, but I’ve digested all of his obsessions, and it’s in me, so when I write, it comes from all that I’ve absorbed. So somewhere, I feel like humans must inevitably crumble, whereas plant life can live forever, and if I really wanted to depict everlasting love, writing about trees was inevitable. That’s partly why I’ve changed the way I spell my name [Takagi includes the character for arbor].
You’ve mentioned how your father has influenced you in all this, but how was your mother dealing with your father’s situation?
My mother didn’t really understand. She didn’t really understand my father. If anything I understood him better, perhaps. My father was heavily weighed down as to the meaning of life because of his military duty. He was convinced he’d eventually go out on his suicide mission. It was already decided, he was going to go into air in August 1945, and I was actually in my mother’s womb at the time, but the war ended before he got to go up.
Right, so it was very dramatic for us. And actually when I was 28, he died under... shall we say, unusual circumstances, and I was the one who found his body. But ever since the war ended, my father had this approach to life like it was just chump change. Like life was meaningless after the war. You see, I was 28, married, my sister just got married...
Wow. I don’t mean to be laughing, but it’s all so incredible.
No, no. It was definitely dramatic.
This belief your father had that he had expired his life and that whatever he managed to eke out afterward was like leftovers... do you take anything from that?
Well, I didn’t mention this yet, but I gave birth to a child right before he died, so I feel almost like he passed the baton, so to speak... I know, it gets more dramatic, right? At the time I had a lover, so I ran off with him, but this was really about getting my start as a novelist, which I knew would be impossible if I stayed at home raising a child.
You see, and that’s the thing. I wanted so badly to believe love could be everlasting, but I know it can’t. That’s why it was imperative that Go and Chigiri die or go insane.
So in fact the nature and sanctity of love is more important to you than human life.
Yes, in a manner of speaking. And I suppose that’s my wishful thinking.