“Sisters in Yellow”: Kawakami Mieko’s Noir Novel of Family and Desperate Acts

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A review of Sisters in Yellow, Kawakami Mieko’s latest novel to be released in Japan, which is a noir story of a girl who runs away from home and finds a new “family,” until bad luck leads her down an increasingly dangerous road.

From the beginning, a disquieting atmosphere hangs over Kawakami Mieko’s latest novel Kiiroi ie, which has the English title Sisters in Yellow. The 40-year-old narrator Hana learns by chance online that a woman she lived with for several years has been accused of assault, intimidation, and illegal confinement.

From there the story jumps back in time to the twentieth century, transporting the reader to nighttime Tokyo redolent with the smells of alcohol and cigarette smoke.

A Mesmerizing Work of Entertainment

The teenage Hana discovers that her mother’s ex-boyfriend has stolen the money she had sweated to save working a part-time job, a sum she intended to use to leave home. In despair, she runs away and starts living with her mother’s friend Kimiko. The two open a bar called Lemon in the chic Tokyo neighborhood of Sangenjaya. Soon after, Ran, a girl who was working as a hostess at a “cabaret club,” and Momoko, a runaway from a wealthy family, move in with them.

Hana’s lonely former life is replaced by one surrounded with laughing voices, as the four build a kind of family. One night, however, Lemon burns down in a fire, and the story changes in tone.

With their source of income gone, the four depend on a small amount of cash kept hidden in a can in the attic of their home. Kimiko is short on life skills and Hana left all her personal ID behind when she ran away and thus cannot open a bank account, rent a new property, or find stable employment. While Hana looks desperately for a way to earn money, Ran and Momoko spend their days idly, making little effort to try to find a job, as if they are trying to ignore their situation.

From this predicament, Kawakami builds a superb, mesmerizing work of entertainment, foreshadowing developments along the way. Hana found a family, but can she find happiness? What is Kimiko’s true character? And where will the four’s lives together lead next?

From wanting to hold Hana back from traveling along an increasingly dangerous road, we become fascinated in seeing how far she will fall.

Runaway Train to Disaster

The Japanese title Kiiroi ie could be translated directly as “The Yellow House,” but ie, which plays a symbolic role, also suggests “home” or “family.” Kimiko, Hana, Ran, and Momoko all have issues with their biological families, but living in a house together, they come to depend on and trust each other, finding what appears to be happiness for a time.

“If you put yellow things in the west, it brings good fortune.” Kimiko’s belief in feng shui leads her to collect more than 50 yellow objects and place them in the corresponding part of the house. Hana keeps the “yellow corner” clean, dusting and polishing it every day.

At first, this seems to be the reason for the book’s title, but a chilling revelation later shows its true meaning. As the characters verge ever closer to criminality, the plot continues to accelerate, like a runaway train set for disaster. A coda from Hana brings an ambiguous kind of resolution.

Kawakami broke through after winning the Akutagawa Prize for her 2008 novella Chichi to ran—an expanded and extended version of the story was published as Natsu monogatari in 2019, which was the basis for the English Breasts and Eggs, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. In Hevun (trans. by Bett and Boyd as Heaven), she told a story of bullying in the world of teenage boys, immune to reason. Her essay “Kimi wa akachan” (You’re a Baby), however, was a warm and sometimes comical look at her own pregnancy and childbirth.

Her versatility in topic and style is displayed once again in her first noir novel, which is also a thought-provoking family narrative that remains with the reader when the book is over.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of Kiiroi ie. Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha.)

Kiiroi ie

Kiiroi ie

By Kawakami Mieko
Published by Chūō Kōron Shinsha in February 2023

book review books Kawakami Mieko