Unlike her 1998 anthology “Queer Japan,” co-editor Barbara Summerhawk avoids getting too explicit in the title of her new book. But the subtitle, in very politically correct terminology, explains what the collection is all about. “Sparkling Rain” includes short fiction by 14 lesbian or bisexual women from Japan, along with a manga (“Plica-Chan,” by Amamiya Sae) and background essays on the history of Japanese lesbian literature.
Readers looking for overt eroticism, kinky sex stories or homosexual porn may be a disappointed, since emotions and relationships are the main themes of most of the tales. The short story “Monalisa Night” by Marou Izumo and the 16 pages of “Plica-Chan” come the closest to softcore porn, but even here, humor, sexual politics and social dynamics override raw sexuality. Nevertheless, readers are taken on a guided tour of some pretty exotic locations, like lesbian bars, parties, girls’ school dormitories and same-sex conjugal households.
“Monalisa Night” begins in Crazy Nannies, a New York City lesbian bar where Kiyomi, a femme who lives with her lover Yuri in Tokyo, is hit on by a butch dyke who likes to flex her biceps along with her aggressive personality. The story is written in montage style, alternating flashes of Kiyomi’s adventures in New York with Yuri’s back in Tokyo.
As Kiyomi struggles to be faithful, the younger Yuri is easily led into temptation at a Tokyo lesbian bar. Here she falls for and seduces Yasmin, a statuesque American blonde who is briefly in Japan on an art-related research project. Yuri’s research, on the other hand, consists of a detailed exploration of Yasmin’s body and produces some of the most graphic scenes of lesbian sexuality in the collection.
“Plica-Chan” begins with the manga’s heroine, dressed in black, leaving ex-lover Riko’s wedding — to a man. Although the simply drawn comic depicts bare breasts, cunnilingus and pear-shaped posteriors, the angst of the misunderstood lesbian in a straight society is the real theme: the wedding, which “felt more like a funeral”; the story of “coming out” to a straight friend; and Plica-Chan’s adventures at a gay pride parade all illustrate the frustrations that lesbian women feel every day.
The book’s title story, by Kaho Nakayama, is a moving and sensitive tale of two elderly lesbians who live a life of isolation in a rural community. Seventy-one-year-old Itsuko is bedridden after a stroke, and her longtime partner Yukino becomes her caregiver, to the detriment of her own weakening heart. Told in flashbacks, the story describes how their relationship began and developed years earlier. As a counterpoint to the poignant scenes of devotion and self-sacrifice are the lurking dark secrets of their past, secrets which have torn Yukino’s marriage apart and left her estranged from her son Yoshiyuki, the one remaining family member who can alleviate her hardships.
Co-editors Summerhawk and Hughes have exercised sensitivity in their selections, but have not neglected the secrets which often, sometimes with tragic consequences, plague the lives of those among us who differ from the mainstream. “Sparkling Rain” has the potential to empower “women who love women” and to enlighten the heterosexual majority who may know little and understand less about Japan’s lesbian subculture.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).