"The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P": A Review
March 28, 2011
In the early ‘90s, Rieko Matsuura had an instant cult classic and a bestselling novel with Oyayubi P no Shugyo Jidai
, or The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P
in English. And it’s no wonder too, with its indelible premise, so easily and so sensationally summarized as: A woman finds her big toe has turned into a penis. If that’s not enough to get headlines, what is?
But those expecting some sort of raunchy sex romp will have to look elsewhere. Although sex certainly comes into play here, The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P
is more in line with a fictionalized philosophical treatise than erotica. The toe-penis (and I will remind you that this toe-penis is not just a symbol – it is very, very real) is more of gateway, a catalyst for exploring the minefield that is modern sexuality and its role in romantic relationships. The toe-penis’s sudden appearance on the naïve protagonist Kazumi’s foot is what shakes up her otherwise normal life into a sort of comedy of errors as she bounces around sexual relationships and ultimately into a sort of underground sexual circus called the Flower Show that secretly tours around Japan.
Although there are obviously some fantastic elements at play here, what’s remarkable is how very grounded (and dry) the novel is. There are some very funny sequences in the course of the novel, but when I mentioned earlier that the novel is more along the lines of a philosophical treatise, it is because so much of the novel is spent with Kazumi actually thinking
about things like what her toe-penis means and the nature of sex and love. Even without the toe-penis, Kazumi is characterized as a dense and all-around naïve person, to the point where her endless wondering and confusion becomes a bit annoying. In an interview on the book’s website
, Matsuura says that she deliberately made Kazumi this way to facilitate the questioning of sex that is so important to the novel, but I wonder if there might have been some other way to achieve the same effect, or even maybe to tone it down in certain places. Some of these pontifications early in the novel are refreshing and even fascinating; by the end it started feeling like certain things were being rehashed, and it was frustrating that Kazumi could have seemingly learned so little after going through so much.
The questioning nature of the novel extends beyond that of just Kazumi, but to many of the other characters as well. In general I would say that the characters are more or less well defined, but they too are sometimes pushed into being just mouthpieces for differing opinions (especially obviously flawed or male/phall-ocentric ones) about sex for Matsuura to present to the reader in contrast. The worst characterization is undoubtedly Masami, the male-female post-op transsexual, who is written as such a stereotypical “queen” that it’s embarrassing – as well as disappointing, given how much care Matsuura tries to present homosexual relationships in the same light as heterosexual ones.
Despite some of these missteps, the novel ultimately does have a very important message – that A) sex is and always will be complicated, and B) that the key to any successful relationship is an open mind, to go forward without assumptions about what “sex” and “love” are as dictated by culture at large. And although the novel is very relationship-y, focusing more on who Kazumi has feelings for and who she’s sleeping with and the meaning of it all
more than the activities of the Flower Show, The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P
works because it is overall very thoughtful and capable of deep emotion and humor, brought to life into English by a wonderful translation by Michael Emmerich. Not a perfect novel by any means, but a very interesting one, even if it’s more intellectually interesting than titillating, as one might expect from such an attention-grabbing premise.
is a senior at the University of Rochester studying Japanese and Literary Translation Studies. He is a contributing reviewer at Three Percent
(a resource for international literature sponsored by Open Letter Books
), which just ran his review of Kotaro Isaka’s Remote Control
. He has also contributed to the IES Abroad Student Blogs and runs his own site Wednesday Afternoon Picnic
. He is an aspiring translator with a particular interest in contemporary post-modern authors such as Genichiro Takahashi and Masahiko Shimada.