52 Books by 52 Women: The Woman with the Flying Head

I don’t remember who originally recommended The Woman with the Flying Head, a book of short stories by Kurahashi Yumiko, selected and translated by Atsuko Sakaki. I picked it up at Half Price Books in Austin, Texas, circa 2003, because some people I knew and some I didn’t were starting up an online book club, and this was one of the books on the list. The book club fizzled out pretty quickly, and ever since then this book has been sitting on my shelf, intriguing and unread. It’s survived several rounds of book collection trimming, with the logic that it really did look like a book I’d like to read and was obscure enough that I’d probably never run across it again if I sold it. I finally read it this week, not because it was “next in line” in my 52 Books by 52 Women reading project, but because I realized the book I was already reading was way too long to finish this week, whereas this one’s only 155 pages and easy to knock out in a few otherwise-busy days.


I’ve never heard of Kurahashi aside from this book, but apparently she was known for her experimental fiction that, according to Sakaki’s introduction, was often controversially antirealist, especially for a female author in Japan. I say “was” because Kurahashi died in 2005, and I never heard about that till now because she’s not particularly known in the States.

Most of the stories are like surreal modern fairy tales. Two adult siblings find a giant egg in their room, out of which hatches an uncommunicative alien that they keep as a kind of pet and sometime lover. A guy finds a creepy witch mask and gets an overwhelming urge to put it on his girlfriend. Another woman finds her own face turning into a witch mask because of her jealousy about her lover’s other mistresses. There’s an aboriginal people whose heads fly off when they’re sleeping. Someone meets an incredibly ugly man who says he used to be handsome until someone magically traded faces with him.

Not all the stories have a supernatural element. One story, for instance, is about a young man who paints Gertrude Stein-inspired pictures of close-up flowers and the vaginas of women he befriends on a computer network and asks to send him pictures of their nethers in exchange for his artistic renderings. The interesting thing about this story, one of the later-written ones in the book, is that it dates from 1991, two years before the popular adoption of the World Wide Web.

Some of the stories date from the 1960s, others from the 1980s, and their arrangement in the book has more to do with thematic links than anything else. A story from the point of view of two cats, the respective pets of an engaged couple, is followed by a story about a person who seems to have transformed into a cat. One story about a witch mask is followed by another. Fortunately the stories are distinct enough that these repeated themes don’t make the tales themselves seem repetitive, although some of the titles are. For instance, there are two stories called “The Passage of Dreams” and “The Long Passage of Dreams” that otherwise have nothing in common, though I’d erroneously guessed before reading them that one might be a more fleshed-out version of the other. At least two of the stories are seemingly excerpted from a longer work and have some of the same characters, though the stories themselves are effectively self-contained.

There’s a whole lot of fucking in these stories, most of it disturbing. A brother and sister both fuck a passive hermaphrodite alien that has a great black void inside it, like a passageway to another dimension. A couple watches a borrowed video in which a guy has sex with a black cat that moves in a seductive, womanly way.  A woman has sex with her dead husband. A guy has sex with his adopted daughter’s body while her unsuspecting head flies out the window at night.

Even characters who don’t do violent things are often having violent thoughts, thinking about biting someone’s tongue off for no particular reason or raping the young woman who’s taking care of him. It’s usually the male characters who have these thoughts, but it’s often unclear until fairly far along in the story what the point-of-view character’s gender is. Only in some of the stories do the characters have names, and the sexes might be more obvious to me if I were more familiar with Japanese names.

I tend to enjoy fiction with a touch of the absurd or fantastical, whether it’s Kafka or Borges, Garcia Marquez or Haruki Murakami. So this was somewhat up my alley, and I’m glad I finally read the book. At the same time, it wouldn’t particularly make me want to seek out more of her work if there were anything else of hers available in English, which I don’t believe there is. It does make me curious about the rest of the Japanese Women Writing series that it was published as part of, however, by East Gate Books. I don’t feel the need to keep the book now that I’ve read it, or to recommend it to others—unless someone someday says something that reminds me of a particular story in the collection, in which case I might struggle to remember the name of the author or the book, and almost surely fail. And it will haunt me until my dying day, unless I just look at this blog to remind myself. That works, too.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Week 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Week 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Week 3: Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

Week 4: Kurahashi Yumiko, The Woman with the Flying Head

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