There’s a person living not too far from me known as the Woman in the Purple Skirt. She only ever wears a purple-colored skirt – which is why she has this name.
I had no idea what to expect from The Woman in the Purple Skirt – perhaps another Japanese story about a slightly odd character who doesn’t fit into traditionlal society? That’s certainly how it started out.
The Woman in the Purple Skirt spends most of her day sitting on a park bench, in her purple skirt, being teased by the local children. She ignores this attention and acts like she cannot see them at all. She appears to be impervious to her status in the neighbourhood as the odd-bod.
Some people would pretend they hadn’t seen her, and carry on as before. Others would quickly move aside, to give her room to pass. Some would pump their fists and look happy and hopeful. Others would do the opposite and look fearful and downcast. (It’s one of the rules that two sightings in a single day means good luck, while three means bad luck.)
Occasionally she gets a job and she has her own apartment to go home to each night. She doesn’t appear to take very good care of herself – wild hair, untidy clothing, sporadic eating habits. Our narrator (who describes herself as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan) decides to help her out by secretly leaving the job vacancies paper on her park bench and leaving her a bag of shampoo samples. By circling possible job positions in the paper, the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan eventually leads her to applying for a job as a housekeeper at the hotel where she also works.
This is where things go way off-piste. A weird stalker-ish vibe takes over the story and suddenly we don’t know who to trust or to believe any longer. Who is being manipulated and for what purpose? The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan tells us that she wants to befriend the Woman in the Purple Skirt, yet she is unable to simply approach her and start up a conversation. Instead she spends a huge amount of time and energy trying to find ways to put them in the same place at the same time in the hope a natural, spontaneous conversation will happen.
We are once again reminded of the very strict, rigid protocols within workplaces in Japan, especially those around greeting colleagues, customers and other social behaviours whilst working. These are all skills everyone has to learn when starting a new job, and there are times that I have wondered if a very specific script to follow might not be an advantage for the some of the people I’ve worked with over the years who struggle with basic social interactions…but I still find the idea rather off-putting. It certainly takes the personal response and any spontaneity out of social interactions. Perhaps this is why the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan feels unable to simply approach the other woman and say ‘hi’?
The Woman in the Purple Skirt progresses through the training process with flying colours. She makes new friends and appears to fit in very quickly, as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan becomes odder and odder. It is very clear that the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is an unreliable narrator, her motives suspect, yet hers is the only perspective we have. There are times she is almost invisible to those around her, disappearing into the background quietly, watching, waiting, wishing for friendship. It turns out that the isolated, friendless loner is not the Woman in the Purple Skirt but the nondescript, inexplicable Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.
Unfortunately, no one knows or cares about the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. That’s the difference between her and the Woman in the Purple Skirt.
The ending is somewhat confusing and resolves very little to the satisfaction of the reader. This is not necessarily the stumbling block one might initially think though. Something about The Woman in the Purple Skirt gets under your skin. It’s unsettling and unnerving and has more to say about loneliness and vulnerability and obsession than one first thinks. Human connection is such an essential need and judging by the contemporary literature coming out of Japan, it is a major social problem as more and more young people struggle to find a healthy work/life balance and struggle to initiate and maintain relationships.
The Woman in the Purple in the end is not a story about a woman wearing a purple skirt, it is as you may have already worked out, all about the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan.
According to her publishers bio, Natsuko Imamura has also worked as a hotel housekeeper.
- Read for Meredith’s Japanese Literature Challenge 16
- Nominated three times for the Akutagawa Prize, she finally won it in 2019 with The Woman in the Purple Skirt.
So I would do it again. And this time, much harder. I might dig my nails into the flesh on the top of her nose, and make her bleed. The Woman in the Purple Skirt might fly into a rage, and then grab me and drag me off the bus. But I didn’t care. That would allow me to tell her who I was, and to apologize to her, and beg her forgiveness. And then we could become friends.
From the TBR: This has been on my TBR since September 2021
Title: The Woman in the Purple Skirt | Murasaki no sukaato no onna Author: Natsuko Imamura Translator: Lucy North ISBN: 9780571364671 Imprint: Faber Published: 14 September 2021 (originally published 1 June 2019) Format: Demy paperback (with French flaps) Pages: 176 Dates Read: 15 January 2023 - 20 January 2023
- This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.