A World for Two: Separation of the Public and the Private Face in May Sky

There was nothing on this world anymore but these stone steps, and the two of us.1

May Sky is a story of isolation from the start. We begin with our narrator, so deeply sunken into himself that he has no friends and can barely go on in life. Then we meet an outrageously unsympathetic shrine maiden. These are are practically the only voices we encounter. Throughout the story, other people wander in and out, but even those who try — i.e. Mizoguchi's nameless ex-colleague — are unable to influence Mizoguchi's life at all. And Minori, who declared quite loudly that other people can go to hell for all she cares, is the one who is able to teach Mizoguchi to take control and responsibility for his life. Similarly, Minori's classmates and friends criticize her behavior, but she intentionally ignores them; it's only Mizoguchi who is able to finally make her speak the truth at all.

It requires a fairly deep interaction to effect such a dramatic change in another. In the context of this story, such an interaction between them is surprising; Japanese society is relatively group-oriented2, and Minori and Mizoguchi mutually acknowledge that neither belongs to a "group" in the other's social or family life. Mizoguchi has no friends, and Minori explicitly states that she's a lot nicer to her "friends" than she is to him. They certain don't behave as if they were in a social group: there is no deferring to each other, no holding back of their honest feelings, or consideration for what might inconvenience the other, and so forth. Mizoguchi notes that they're more familiar (read: really rude!) with each other than "strangers", and not close enough to be "friends"; this is what he means. Their bickering and occasional indulging of the other ahead of the self (Minori cooking for Mizoguchi, Mizoguchi buying incredible amounts of food for Minori) is also strange — such behavior is generally reserved for family members2. Mizoguchi emphasizes several times that the stone steps of the temple seem like a world built just for the two of them. That would appear to be the case, as there is no clearly defined space — not the company, not school, not normal society — for them.

These are two young people who are very much struggling with their inner and outer identities — a key issue that marks the period of early adulthood for many individuals3. This is not necessarily an element unique to Japanese culture; indeed, as the German lyrical poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes in his Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, "it never occurred to me before how many faces there are. There are multitudes of people, but there are so many more faces, because each person has several of them"4. So perhaps our protagonists may not be so unique in their complainings on this matter, but that does not stop them from feeling great pain over it. Caught in between the "private faces" they have always had and the "public faces" they are forced to assume, Mizoguchi and Minori both feel uniquely isolated in a society where group harmony is everything2.

Perhaps this segregation from the rigid groups in their lives is important for their transformation. The silent conflicts in the background of May Sky are the meaninglessness of company life (Mizoguchi) and the burden of appearing other than what she is to her friends (Minori). These institutions can hardly be fought against — how could one, except by a rejection that would only end in more despair? In any case neither of them truly blames their problems on other groups of people; besides, May Sky does not lash out at all groups. A key moment in Mizoguchi's development is him actually finding a group to belong to — the "geezers" who come out of the woodwork to have a little festival in town. They accept him and suddenly Mizoguchi finds himself a part of a hundred-year-old tradition celebrating the town's history. It is difficult for someone unfamiliar with Japanese society to understand exactly how significant this is — when these "geezers" (who happen to be community leaders and town elders!) allow Mizoguchi to become an official processional celebrant in the festival, they are telling the entire city that this unfamiliar man is to be trusted, for he is officially part of the community now5. Not to spoil August Snow too much, but we find out that Minori, too, was new to the nameless town, and did not feel that she belonged there any more than Mizoguchi did. She, too, managed to find a kind of place with the town. So in this story, it's the unexpected connections — or maybe connections from those who don't expect or demand anything from our protagonists — that are able to effect a change in them.

One last thought: we can't only blame the company and friends groups for the characters' lack of realization before the story comes along. We can see clearly that our protagonists really care nothing for other people — and that they also refuse to honestly assist with anyone else's problems; Minori fakes sympathy at her friends, while Mizoguchi can only think of himself in the wake of his colleague's decision. That is their status quo, that is the burden that weighs them down — until they meet on the stone steps of a temple. Somehow, inexplicably, beautifully, they are able to make this simple and pure connection. And still, they are able to join a "group" of acceptance, belonging, and hilarious fun (and bad karaoke). After that we see that they come to accept their selves and circles for what they are: Mizoguchi learns to live with and even enjoy his job. And Minori ... well, her friends push her into an incident with some chicken ...

All because they listened to each other — like the melody of a piano — above the clamor of the world.

And anyone can listen to their story.

1 December 2008
Irene Ying

Works Cited

  1. Scrubbing trans. Ying I and Park S. May Sky. al|together 2008: 5
  2. Peak L. "Learning to become part of the group: the Japanese child's transition to preschool life". Journal of Japanese Studies 15(1): 93-123.
  3. Conlan CJ. "Politeness, paradigms of family, and the Japanese ESL speaker". Language Sciences 18(3-4): 729-742.
  4. Rilke RM trans. Mitchell S. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Vintage International: 1990.
  5. Roemer MK. "Ritual participation and social support in a major Japanese festival". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 46(2): 185-200.