It is not often that I so blindly stumble upon a Japanese author without knowing anything beforehand. In this case, I was quite literally browsing library shelves and came upon Ms Ice Sandwich. What a quirky title, I thought, and a Japanese name. I guess I’ll read this. Browsing library shelves, it turns out, has its perks.
Which is a blatant segue to my first point about Ms Ice Sandwich. If someone were to ask me, “Hey David, what would you say is the Japanese version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” I would now have an answer. Both novels feature a young man coming-of-age, one who is shy with perhaps some development immaturity. Both prominently feature women who could be accused of manic-pixie-dreamgirl status if we weren’t past that in our popular culture lexicon (I hope). Each has its quirks, more in Ms Ice Sandwich due to its Japanese nature, and both feature emotional moments powerful enough to induce tears.
However, I do not wish to sell Ms Ice Sandwich short. It is short, clocking in at just over ninety pages, but Kawakami packs meaning and heart into those ninety pages better than some authors who ramble on for 900. The unnamed protagonist of this novel is worth knowing, a “sweet kid,” for lack of a better cliche. He reminds me of myself when I was a young boy, though I was not so sweet, fawning over women and creating elaborate fantasies about them in the safety of my own head. In this boy’s case, he becomes obsessed with a sandwich vendor whom he calls Ms Ice Sandwich. She has electric blue eyelids that cover the largest and most beautiful eyes he has ever seen. He has never said a word to her, and knows nothing about her personality or disposition beyond what she exudes as a behind-the-counter saleswoman.
Much can be assumed about this obsession. The boy’s mother is an absent one, more concerned with her cell phone and pseudo-business than with mothering, and his father is long gone. The boy has friends, but is fairly awkward in school and Kawakami writes him as potentially having some autistic or OCD tendencies. That he would pick one particular human, one as visually strange as he is emotionally, is no surprise. And his love is innocent, pure even, because he seems to be young enough for such emotions to remain untainted by the film of puberty.
As mirror to the young boy is a girl his own age named Tutti Frutti, a nickname that the boy infamously and uncharacteristically draped upon her due to a funny incident involving flatulence. Tutti lives nearby, is more outgoing and irreverent than the boy, and is also missing a parent – in this case her mother. Tutti also serves as mirror to Ms Ice Sandwich, becoming someone the boy can actually talk to and who is more grounded in reality.
My only complaint with Ms Ice Sandwich, aside from perhaps wishing this were a longer work, is with some of the translation quirks. It is almost immediately apparent that Ms Ice Sandwich is translated by a Brit. The repeated use of the word ‘mum’ and the addition of some very non-Japanese phrases like ‘taking the piss’ are off-putting for anyone who has some knowledge of Japanese culture. Having read the majority of my Japanese literature through American translators, I may have glossed over any American buzz words or phrases, and if nothing else this has cued me into the possibility of keeping a more watchful eye. Thankfully these British stains do not otherwise mar a beautiful novella and one that will have me watching for Meiko Kawakami’s name in the years to come.