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In Tsugumi the author has created one of her most palpable and intriguing characters. Maria is the only daughter of an unmarried woman. She has grown up at the seaside alongside her cousin Tsugumi, a lifelong invalid, charismatic, spoiled, and occasionally cruel. When Tsugumi invites Maria to spend a last summer by the sea, a restful idyll becomes a time of dramatic growth as Tsugumi finds love and Maria learns the true meaning of home and family. Leaving behind the town of my childhood, the quiet cycles of fishery and tourism that keep it running, I came to study at a certain university here in Tokyo.
I guess maybe there is something slightly different about me. Because when I lose my temper, it only takes a moment before I feel the anger start to sweep back like a wave and sink down into the sand. Everyone gets annoyed about something at least once a day, me included. But I noticed that there was something I did whenever this happened to me—that there was a sentence I would start chanting over and over deep down inside, like a sort of Buddhist chant, without even realizing that I was doing it.
Compared to the pain Tsugumi gives me, this is nothing at all. And there was something else that I understood as I stared into the orange light of the gradually darkening sky—something that made me feel sort of like I wanted to cry. And so the only place left in this world to which my heart can return is there in the days I spent with Tsugumi, only there. From the time she was born, Tsugumi was ridiculously frail, and she had a whole slew of physical ailments and defects.
Her doctors announced that she would die young, and her family began preparing for the worst. And so as Tsugumi toddled her unsteady way toward adulthood, she developed a personality that was just as pushy and insolent as it could be.
She was strong enough that she could manage to lead a more or less normal life, but that just made matters worse. She was malicious, she was rude, she had a foul mouth, she was selfish, she was horribly spoiled, and to top it all off she was brilliantly sneaky. My father was in Tokyo, having an awful time trying to work out a divorce with the woman he was married to then.
The two of them had already been living apart for ages, and he and my mother wanted to be officially married. This meant a lot of coming and going for him, and you would have thought it would be kind of grueling, but he and my mother were always daydreaming about the day when all three of us would be able to live together in Tokyo as a real family, without needing to keep a low profile.
Having that dream to hold on to seemed to make their lives fairly enjoyable. So in the end, although the situation may have looked somewhat complicated from the outside, I grew up as the untroubled only child of a man and woman very deeply in love.
The Yamamoto family was composed of the following four members: Uncle Tadashi, who managed the inn; Aunt Masako; and their two daughters, Tsugumi and her older sister, Yoko. Uncle Tadashi kept his distance. In the process of raising Tsugumi, the top two contenders for the prize became so thoroughly gentle and good that they seemed almost to have entered the realm of angels. She had the best view in the whole building, one looking out over the ocean.
During the day, sunlight glinted on the water, and whenever it rained the waves would turn rough and misty, and at night the lights of several squid boats could always be seen shining through the dark.
The ocean out there was beautiful. There were always plenty of crabs around, so they were particularly convenient. But even at times like that, Tsugumi sneered. Stop crying already! Long black hair, translucent white skin, and large, very large eyes. Eyelids with thick lines of long eyelashes that cast pale shadows whenever she let her gaze fall.
Her arms and legs were long and slim, her veins seemed to lie just beneath the surface of her skin, and her body was small and tight—her physical appearance was so trim and gorgeous you could almost believe she was a doll fashioned that way by some god. Ever since junior high, Tsugumi had made a sport of flirting with the boys in her class, getting them to come out with her for walks on the beach.
Her boyfriends changed so often it was a joke, and you always had the feeling that in a town as small as ours she was bound to end up becoming the subject of some rather nasty rumors. But instead people just came to believe that her kindness and beauty totally overwhelmed everyone she came in contact with, leaving them hopelessly entranced.
In the evening, Tsugumi and whichever boy she was messing around with at the time would walk out along the tall concrete embankment that lined the beach, where they could look out over the gradually dimming bay.
Birds would be swirling low under the tinted sky as the glittering sighs of the waves rushed quietly toward them. The beach, empty except for a single dog that was still out running around, seemed to stretch on like a desert, wide and white, and out in the water there were a few boats being tossed about by the wind.
Off in the distance, silhouettes of islands began fading into mist, and a line of clouds faintly gleaming with red was slipping away beyond the sea. Worried, the boy offers her his hand. She takes it in her own thin hand, keeping her head turned to the ground. Then she lifts her face and gives him a little smile. Her cheeks shine in the light of the sinking sun, and her face seems achingly fragile, like the overwhelming brilliance of the twilight sky, which keeps changing from instant to instant, never lingering for long.
Her white teeth, her thin neck, her large eyes as they gaze into his—it all gets mixed up with the sand and the wind and the sound of the waves, and seems on the verge of dropping away into nothing. Even for me, who ought to have known her true character well enough, those scenes on the beach had an aura of sadness about them that struck chords somewhere deep within me, filling my chest with pain. Tsugumi and I became very close friends as the result of a certain incident. Of course, we had known each other even as children.
If you could manage to put up with her maliciousness and her vicious tongue, she was actually lots of fun to play with. As she imagined it, our little fishing town was a world without boundaries.
Each grain of sand was a particle of mystery. She was smart and she liked to study, so her grades tended to be fairly high for someone who stayed home sick as often as she did, and then she was always reading books about all kinds of things, so she knew a lot.
And of course one has to be fairly intelligent to start with, to think up so many different ways of being mean. In the garden there was this old box that used to have a thermometer and a barometer and so on inside—classes had used it to study the weather—but now it was empty. The idea was that this box was connected to the spirit world and that letters from the other side would appear inside it.
The garden where the box stood was an ordinary sort of place when the sun was up, but it certainly was frightening when you snuck out in the dark, and for a while we would both be totally absorbed in our game. In junior high I joined the basketball team, and practice was so demanding that I no longer had time to spend with Tsugumi.
And then the incident occurred. As I recall, it was when I was in eighth grade, during spring vacation. A light rain was falling that night, and I had been cooped up in my room. In seaside towns like ours the rain carries the scent of the tide. All around me was the rushing of raindrops plunging through the dark. I felt depressed from the very bottom of my heart. My grandfather had just died. My mother knew as well as the rest of us how outrageous my cousin could be, so she just said that I was probably right, and walked off.
I plopped back down on the floor and began flipping blankly through some magazine, and eventually began to nod off. And then I heard the sound of slippers padding toward my room from the opposite end of the hall. At the precise moment that I jerked up my head, the door slid smoothly open and I saw Tsugumi standing there, soaking wet. She was panting. Clear drops of water kept dripping down from the hood of her raincoat onto the tatami.
Her eyes were wide open. She had an expression on her face like she was feeling uneasy, as if something had frightened her. When she spoke, however, her voice was bossy and urgent.
Handling it extremely gently, as if it were something precious, she slipped a single sheet of paper from the pocket of her raincoat and held it straight out. I reached out vaguely with one hand, wondering why on earth she was acting in such an exaggerated way, and took the paper from her. Handwriting that called up a soft ache of memories. The letter began as all his letters to me did:. Take care of your grandmother, your father, and your mother.
I was shocked. For a moment an image of my grandfather floated through my mind—I saw his straight back as he sat facing his desk—and my chest felt as if it would burst. When I spoke, it was with incredible force.
Tsugumi looked straight into my eyes, her brilliant red lips trembling, and answered me in a touchingly earnest tone, as if she were saying a prayer. I had completely forgotten that old weather box, but now in a flash all the vanished memories returned. Tsugumi lowered her voice to a whisper. I was in bed earlier, right, and the old guy showed up in my dream. Even after I woke up things felt kind of weird, you know?
Sort of like there was something he had wanted to say. The thing is, kiddo, that you were there in the dream too, and the old guy kind of seemed like he wanted to talk with you—after all he loved you most of all, right? So then it hit me. I went and took a peek in the mailbox, right, and damned if.
Hey kid, did you ever tell him about the haunted mailbox while he was alive? Then this really is scary! Now, pressing the palms of her hands together tightly and holding them before her chest, she closed her eyes.
She seemed to be remembering herself running through the rain to the mailbox, just a short while ago. Even now the quiet sigh of the rainfall was echoing through the dark. Everything that had happened up to then, death and life, it all seemed to be sliding down into a whirlpool of mystery, a place where a different kind of truth held sway—that was the feeling, the softly uneasy stillness in the room.
Her face was terribly pale. She looked at me imploringly.
'Goodbye Tsugumi': Banana Yoshimoto's portrait of a feisty young woman in '80s Japan
However, I am still planning to read and review some J-Lit, with posts on Japanese books scheduled for each TranslationThurs in January and possibly February too…. The story is narrated by Maria, a young woman whose early life was full of uncertainty due to her unusual home circumstances. The divorce finally comes through, and Maria and her parents begin a life as a real family in Tokyo, but part of her remains back on the coast. Even though her new life is happy, she misses the time spent with her cousins Yoko and Tsugumi in her hometown. The announcement that the inn is to be sold, then, comes as a shock, and Maria heads off for one last golden summer before the ties with her childhood disappear forever. Tsugumi is a beautiful, frail young woman, ill since childhood, her tainted beauty a flame to the mothlike local youths.