The Akutagawa Prize Reading Challenge

I just finished the first story of , and as per @NicoleIsEnough 's suggestion, I’m copying my rambling thoughts on it here from the Read every day challenge thread, so that they’re easier to find and discuss.

I unexpectedly reached the end of the titular story! And…I’m still rather at a loss. I wish we had read it in a book club, there’s so much to speculate on…

Open for very long, very rambling thoughts on the story. Major spoilers for the whole story of course.
  • The mother-in-law looked surprisingly like her mother-in-law. At the end of the story (and after getting a job), the narrator also resembles her own mother-in-law in the mirror.
  • Things the narrator perceives that seem to not actually be there: A hikikomori brother-in-law. Lots of children. A middle-aged neighbour with a very young child. A beast unlike any known animal that digs holes.
  • The grandfather-in-law must be real since there’s a funeral and everything. Yet his strange behaviour is only perceived (if it even happens) by the narrator. In the eyes of everyone else he’s just a regular old man watching TV. So, a grandfather-in-law who only smiles and waves, never speaks, and constantly, even in the pouring rain, even at night, waters the garden.
  • The voices of cicadas permeate everything. They stop when the neighbour or the brother-in-law make an appearance - signifying a departure from reality? A shift to another point in time? (Although I think the brother-in-law also comments on the cicadas at one point.)
  • The beast isn’t aggressive after all. It meekly stays in the hole with the narrator, doing nothing at all (and smelling of nothing).
  • The husband. In the beginning, I got the impression he had a good balanced relationship with his wife, discussing all decisions with her and respecting her opinions. After the move, he’s constantly absent. Even when he’s there, he’s typing on his phone. When he sleeps, he appears dead. Interestingly, his father seems to be also entirely absent.
  • The neighbour, who may not exist as such, talks about her own life and her move to that place, how there’s nothing to do and nowhere to go without a car, and how a child gave her life purpose.
  • The brother-in-law, who probably doesn’t exist and it’s unclear whether he ever existed, talks about how he couldn’t bear the pressure to be a productive, children-producing member of society (a very Murata moment, I thought) and just withdrew.
  • There are red things scattered in the neighbour’s garden. (Oh, and what about the vegetables? Those seemed to be real, they ate them). There are red things in the grass at the riverbank. What are those?
  • The mother-in-law seemed very together and all-powerful in the beginning. A very dynamic woman that might be likely to get too involved in her son’s marriage. She soon loses much of her power though, and at the end she seems more lost than the narrator herself.

So what was the story about? I feel an obvious answer would be it was about trapped women (hence the holes and why three unrelated women looked alike), or being trapped in general (the neighbour “escaping” with a child (as if), the brother-in-law “escaping” by becoming a hikikomori. But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. What about all the (non-existent) children? What about the focus (which I loved) on all the mundane little details, the insects, the flowers (only one in each vase!), the Japanese ginger from the neighbour’s garden (which only felt unpleasantly crunchy to the husband), and so many more. What about the beast? Why did it dig the holes? Why did it get in there itself? The brother-in-law jokes that they should name the beast Asahi. Is the beast supposed to be the narrator’s wild nature, and how it’s constantly getting trapped maybe?
And what about the grandfather-in-law? Why was he always watering? Why did he die after falling in a hole? Why was the mother-in-law so lost and dejected after his death? Was he keeping nature (or the wild side) alive? Why did so many unknown people come to mourn him?
I feel like every little detail had significance, I only wish I could see it.
I’d be very interested in reading @Myria 's and @NicoleIsEnough 's thoughts on the story (or anyone else’s who has read it of course!)

All in all, I loved the story, and the slightly surreal, slightly off feeling that was constantly there in the background. I loved all the vivid descriptions that appealed to all the senses - I felt that I could hear, and feel, and smell what the narrator was describing most of the time. And it was indeed (thanks @Myria ) very close to the kind of “horror” I was looking for. Not horror at all, but something off, something unknown hiding behind normality, only vaguely perceived.