Breasts and Eggs
Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs is navel gazing at my favorite, very feminist level.
The women in this novel agonize over their desires for their bodies: what they can do with the body, what they can create with it, how it can be in a way that’s separate from partners (especially male partners), society, family, or sex.
Kawakami explores this question through the eyes of a handful of Japanese women, but our main interrogators are Natsuko, her older sister Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko.
In part one (which was published as a short story over a decade ago), Makiko and Midoriko visit Natsuko, a struggling writer living in Tokyo. Makiko wants a boob job. Desperately. She has done hours of homework and dragged an angsty, preteen Midoriko to Tokyo with her for the operation.
Natsuko doesn’t fully understand her sister’s desire, but she can see Makiko has put a lot of time and effort into researching exactly what she wants. Her niece Midoriko is disgusted. She’s just entering puberty and is repulsed by the changes her body is beginning to go through. She wants nothing to do with her mom’s obsession with breasts.
But Makiko’s desire is complex. She works in a hostess bar, just like her and Natsuko’s mother did, and struggles to provide the life she wants for her daughter. Makiko’s job is to keep men in a bar, buying drinks and slots in the karaoke line-up, and part of the way she keeps the men in their seats is by being pretty. Keeping that appeal is a mercenary choice in one sense, yet part of Makiko’s ownership over her explicitly commodified body – which is also a mother’s body – is having the ability to modify the features she wants to enhance.
"All my mum ever does is research breast implants. I pretend I'm not watching, but she's too busy thinking about boobs to notice anyway. Is she serious?"
Midoriko is soon confronted with the consequences of her mother’s commodification in a way that most daughters are not. She sees her classmates’ disdain for her mother (no doubt planted by their parents), but she also sees her mother’s own self-hatred and insecurity. Midoriko is angry at her mother for many things. She’s mad that they’re poor, she’s mad about her mom’s job, and she’s also mad that she was ever born into a world of suffering and objectification – a theme we’ll see again in part two of the novel.
In part two, we dig into Natsuko’s desire for a child. This desire, just to meet her child, is complicated by a few factors. Natsuko, now a famous and successful author, is asexual, and artificial insemination is not available to single people in Japan. For most of Book Two, Natsuko is torn between her literary career and deeper (and deeper) research into how, and if she should, try to get pregnant on her own.
Book Two is fleshed out with more and interesting characters who each play into the perceived tensions between Natsuko’s career, abilities and desires. There’s Senagawa, her career-first editor; Rika Yusa, a writer and single mother; Aizawa, a child of artificial insemination looking for his biological father; and Yuriko, another child of artificial insemination who believes her mother’s choice to have her at all was selfish.
A reverse Bechdel test?
Breasts and Eggs is almost entirely given over to women’s spaces and conversations, which are rarely centered on men. I’m not sure it would even pass a reverse Bechdel test. I don’t think I’ve read anything like this – where women talk about their bodies so viscerally and a cisgender woman’s ability to get pregnant is so fully divorced from any desire for or from men.
Book One is tight. It’s sharply and poignantly written, and the few scenes that do drift off into dreamy, magical-realism style visions add depth to the considerations of the novel. One dream sequence in the public bath brings in a gender-queer character, and Natsuko’s definition of woman is expanded. Book Two is wider. There are more voices pulling us in more directions and perhaps a bit too much down time for Natsuko to just think about her options.
I’d love to read another translation of this book. Some of the translation choices don’t ring entirely true to me. In Book One, Midoriko journals about the etymology of menarche and menstruation, and the way those words include the word “men.” I don’t speak Japanese, but I’d be curious to know more about that passage in its original language.
One of the things Breasts and Eggs is celebrated for in Japan is that Makiko and Natsuko often speak in the dialect of their native Osaka, which is known for its gregariousness and drama – that doesn’t quite come through in their conversations in this version. Alas, until I can learn Japanese or get my hands on a different translation, I’ll be left wondering.
I’m glad to see Breasts and Eggs winning over bookstagram, not to mention receiving great reviews all over the place. Kawakami’s prose balances precision and intimacy with drifting visions and exuberant family conversations, and I love the asexual representation among wider conversations of women and their agency over their own bodies.