The Shooting Gallery by Yūko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

First published in English in 1988, The Shooting Gallery is a collection of eight short stories by the acclaimed Japanese writer Yūko Tsushima (daughter of Osamu Dazai, also a renowned author). When viewed as a whole, the book is very much of piece with Tsushima’s other work, much of which is concerned with single mothers – modern women who defy the conventional expectations of marriage and motherhood, a stance which tends to place them on the margins of traditional society. (You can read my thoughts about Tsushima’s excellent novellas Territory of Light and Child of Fortune by clicking on the relevant links.)

In several of these stories, the central protagonist is a somewhat isolated mother, typically divorced or separated from her previous partner, often struggling to balance her desire for freedom with the responsibilities of raising children with little or no support. While Tsushima’s prose appears clear on the surface, there is a subtlety to it, a sense of mystery or elusiveness that adds to its beauty.

In the titular story (from 1975), a single mother – previously abandoned by her husband – takes her two young sons on a trip to the seaside for a day out. During the train journey, the two boys, aged seven and four, spend most of their time squabbling with one another in their impatience to get to the sea. (It is abundantly clear from the start that the boys are something of a handful.) Further frustration ensues once the family arrive at their destination. It is April, very early in the season, and several of the local attractions are closed. The beach itself is deserted, smelly and littered with rubbish – hardly the picturesque setting the children were promised. As the mother searches for somewhere suitable to have lunch, the boys become increasingly cranky, highlighting the challenges of single motherhood and the constraints this situation imposes. 

Tsushima makes excellent use of imagery in this story, ranging from the variety of associations suggested by the sea to the mother’s daydream of a winged dragon – the latter acting as a metaphor for freedom and a means of escape.

During The Shooting Gallery, the mother reflects on the fact that her children don’t really know their father; in essence, the man is so ‘absent’ from the family that as far as the boys are concerned, he may as well not exist. This feeling of dissociation or abandonment is also very present in The Silent Traders (1982), in which a divorced mother arranges an opportunity for her two children to see their father after a long absence. In essence, she considers it important that the children interact with him as a living, breathing individual – not just a static photo that never moves or speaks. The father, however, has clearly moved on, his new family being the sole focus of attention…

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, I thought in confusion, unable to say a word about the children. He was indeed their father, but not a father who watched over them. As far as he was concerned the only children he had were the two borne by his wife. Agreeing to see mine was simply a favour on his part, for which I could only be grateful. (p. 43)

One of Tsushima’s strengths is her ability to capture the differences in emotional investment on the part of women vs men. While the mother sees the importance of her children spending time with their father, her ex-husband does not.

Other stories in the collection explore slightly different aspects of marriage and/or motherhood. In Missing (1973)one of my favourite narratives in the book a mother waits anxiously for her teenage daughter to return, fearful that she might have left for good. As she tries to distract herself from the situation, the mother reflects on her sister, whose seventh-anniversary service was earlier in the day. It’s a story of wasted talents, missed opportunities and a career put on hold – all for the sake of ‘three grubby children’, the sister’s only notable achievement while still alive.

The Chrysanthemum Beetle (1983) is a very interesting story, a tale of male jealously and the consequences of this insecurity for the women caught in its slipstream. As the narrative unfolds, Izumi, a young woman who lives with her widowed mother, realises she is in a three-way relationship with her lover, Takashi, and another woman, Nobuko. In this scene, Nobuko relates her theory about Takashi to Izumi when the two women meet for dinner…

He goes through life dreading his own jealous nature, so that as soon as he finds a relationship that take some of the pressure off – as I did, and you did – he can’t rest until he’s satisfied himself that the other person is jealous too. And while he’s at it he seems to lose his own balance. It’s both a disappointment and a relief when it turns out that we are jealous, and then he starts brooding over what makes us that way, which leads him into very deep water… (p. 71)

It’s a fascinating piece that blends contemporary scenarios with elements from classic Japanese myths and ghost stories, all woven together in the author’s lucid yet layered prose.  

Finally, in A Sensitive Season (1974) – the only story in the collection to focus on a male protagonist – a young boy, Yutaka, finds himself in the care of his Aunt Natchan, having being abandoned by his wayward mother.

One day Yutaka’s mother had turned up very pregnant; she has shut herself away at home for three years and then quite suddenly ran off leaving the child behind. It was then that his aunt had reluctantly given up her job at a kindergarten to become private nanny to Yukata and his grandfather, but perhaps what had worked at the kindergarten didn’t work at home, for she had soon dropped the cheerful expression she used to wear for the children and became nervy and silent instead. (pp. 6–7) 

When Natchan develops an interest in a man working at the adjacent house, Yutaka worries that he will be abandoned once again – left to fend for himself and his invalid grandfather. It’s another story that explores the balance between familial obligations and personal independence – made all the more interesting in this instance due to the way Natchan is painted, i.e. as a rather unsympathetic character who views her dependents as annoying.

In summary, The Shooting Gallery is an excellent collection of stories, very much in line with Tsushima’s other (better-known) work. While the female protagonists are shaded and nuanced, frequently reflecting on their relationships, both past and present, the men tend to be more ambivalent in their emotions, often placing themselves at a distance from their ex-wives and children. There is a haunting, melancholy tone to some of these pieces that augments the feeling of alienation. A beautiful collection of stories about the challenges of single motherhood and the desire for a degree of liberty, this is a book that deserves to be back in print.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation #WITMonth – more info here.

23 thoughts on “The Shooting Gallery by Yūko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

  1. MarinaSofia

    As you know, I am a big fan of her work, so it’s lovely to hear you enjoyed this collection as well. She really has such a great insight into the relationship between children and adults, doesn’t she?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s so good on the subtleties of family dynamics – and on alienation / isolation too. I knew I’d seen a review of this at some point in the past but couldn’t recall exactly where. it must have been yours! I shall head over to yours in a little while to take another look…

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post, Jacqui and on a superficial level what a nice edition. I don’t think I was aware that Tsushima had been translated so far back as she’s only come into my line of sight recently. Certainly, it sounds like she really explores the lives of women quite deeply, and I’m interested in what you say about her female characters being so well-drawn when the men are less so. I think she’s one of the authors I’ve still to get to in my Penguin Moderns set, so I shall get a taste of her writing soon hopefully!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it. Another reader posted a photo of their copy of a Women’s Press edition of Tsushima’s Child of Fortune earlier today, so as a publishing house they were clearly ahead of the pack. I’ll be interested to see what you think of Tsushima when you get to that Penguin Modern. (It’s on my shelf too, as it happens.)

      Reply
  3. Jane

    A new author for me but one I should explore, the relationships between family members is so universal and so complicated! And I love the Women’s Press editions

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think we can all recognise some of the elements here. Even though the period and setting are very different from those we find ourselves in today, many of the emotions remain very relevant. I guess this contributes to the feeling of universality associated with these kinds of stories.

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    A great review of a collection I’ve read but haven’t written about – like you, I’m a fan of Tsushima. Missing is a particularly fine story. You might know this already, but Woman Running in the Mountains is being republished by NYRB next year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’ve been wondering if you had reviewed it as I thought I’d seen a post somewhere, but that must have been Marina’s. As a collection, it’s very much of a piece with her other work, don’t you think? Especially Territory of Light. And thanks for the tip about the NYRB – I had seen it in their ‘forthcoming’ schedule, but it’s always useful to have a reminder!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Oh these stories sound wonderful. The way the stories seem to link thematically especially appeals. I have been meaning to read Tsushima for a while, and was considering Territory of Light as my next read, before plumping for something else. I think I will try to squeeze it in to the month though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, they work really well together as a collection of pieces, which is interesting because I think the stories were selected by the translator – clearly some very good choices on her part! Territory of Light is pretty special, so it’s well worth trying to fit it in if you can – and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like her style very much! If you’re interested, the best place to start would be Territory of Light (available as a Penguin Modern Classic), which remains my favourite of her books.

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    Reading about Tsushima’s work always makes me wonder how much her writing was rooted in her own family’s story and what effect it had on her. And what an interesting selection of stories to put together – another one that needs to go on the TBR.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I keep thinking about that too, as I’m sure it must have had an influence. Some of her work touches on the theme of abandonment, alongside other related aspects – marginalisation, isolation and the challenges of being a single mother. She was only one year old when her father committed suicide, so it would be natural for her to have felt somewhat abandoned following that tragedy…

      Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    This sounds wonderful Jacqui, so carefully observed. I’ve not read this author yet but her style is very appealing. As others have said, a lovely edition too! I have a few Women’s Press buried in the TBR but sadly I don’t think this is one of them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s a pity as I think you’d like her fiction. Oddly enough, I don’t think I’d come across the Women’s Press before I picked this up – not consciously anyway!

      Reply
  8. jenniferbeworr

    It’s clear you have a context for assessing the stories, and I admit I like that! Still you have me curious. I imagine that the approach here as uncluttered and refreshingly Frank. Sounds another fine read for certain.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. Yes, she is quite frank in giving a voice to these women, especially given the constraints of Japanese society as the time. (Most of these stories are from the 1970s and early ’80s when attitudes towards marital break-ups and single motherhood were still very conventional.) A very interesting writer to consider, I think. Territory of Light would be the one to start with, should you fancy giving her a go!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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