Sayuri Honda is an unassuming office lady who leads a dull life. She feels overshadowed by her handsome younger brother (Kouji), who has had no trouble romantically and has been chased by girls--conversely, Sayuri herself has never been thought of much at all. It's always been a point of confusion, in fact, to the girls chasing after Kouji that Sayuri could possibly be his older sister. As plain, boring, and sad as Sayuri seems to be, her inner world is rather peculiar. She sees her own port town in the light of Lisbon, Portugal. She believes she doesn't want to go there because it would be such a hassle, but she instead replaces her own town with streets and such from Lisbon. We never learn the real names of these places until the very end.
Sayuri has a troubling love life. It consumes her being entirely, as she recalls her failures from childhood and lives that inherited failure today. She remembers the most popular boy in high school, Satoshi, and how she had a huge crush on him. It was one-sided love, but she never let go of it—dreaming even today about her interactions with him.
But eventually, she gets news of a high school reunion from Maki. She remembers Maki well, as he's somebody who was—just like her—in the plain and unassuming class… and the first person who ever confessed to her. Sayuri couldn't handle it that day, of course, and ran home crying without giving him an answer. Before this high school reunion, Sayuri catches up with her old friend Akiko (who I kind of imagined in the image of Akiko Yano or Miyuki Nakajima in terms of looks), the now wife of Andou, Sayuri's boss. Akiko has been married three times before—and was Satoshi's ex-girlfriend.
The high school reunion happens. She meets Satoshi there briefly, who Naoko (another one of Sayuri's friends) says has the same charm he used to, but has flourished a little, showing more aggression and such (I don't remember what terms she used exactly, but think about stereotypical bad boy tropes). Satoshi does end up being something like that. He tells her that it's nice to see everyone after so long, but you especially—I have a real sense of nostalgia looking at. Obviously, Sayuri is enchanted. They were going to sit down together, being pulled at by the hand by Satoshi, but Akiko comes down the stairs that moment, glittering and everything. She isn't even supposed to be there, since she's not part of the track and field club. But she's here, and Satoshi goes with her instead. Poor Sayuri.
Kouji has a new girlfriend, Megumi. She's another plain, unassuming girl. There's nothing special about Megumi, in fact, and it enrages Sayuri. Kouji deserves better! she thinks.
On the second day of the reunion, Sayuri finds Satoshi and Akiko holding hands. They beg her (Satoshi threateningly of course) to not tell Andou. At first she keeps her word, but she spills the beans to an already suspicious Andou. He's relieved.
Sayuri, by the way, has lately been enraptured by a guidebook about Portugal. She finds new ways to see her imagined superimposition of Lisbon on top of her port town. When goes back to the bookstore, she's already been out shopping. It's a heavy bag. When she arrives in the corner she wanted to check out, she finds a man reading a book—a very special book to Sayuri. "Portugal no Umi" she reads. By Fernando something. But she's shocked by this scene: an emerald green book tinted with a light blue, and this tidy-looking man (save for his sneakers) reading it while standing. His eyes tint with the same emerald green tinted with that light blue. (Incidentally, I was able to find this cover of Portugal no Umi. It is rather pretty looking.) She drops her bag, he helps her up, and she promptly leaves for the comic book corner.
She finds Megumi in this corner reaching for a book. Sayuri remembers love as she's seen it—with Satoshi, then Akiko, then how they got back together, then Andou and how tells him about everything. She becomes enraged and shouts at Megumi, telling her that she does not accept her relationship with Kouji. She quickly apologizes and leaves. Back at home, Sayuri takes a two hour long bath. She also orders three of Pessoa's books (she searched the internet and found that Portugal no Umi was by Fernando Pessoa—what a coincidence, because someone once recommended that I read The Book of Disquiet. It is one of the books Sayuri picks up).
Sayuri gets a call from Satoshi. He wants to talk in person at a restaurant. Sayuri knows that Satoshi really wanted to message Akiko, but he couldn't for whatever reason. Sayuri accepts his invitation, and they have dinner after work. She notices that he's looking out the window blankly when she arrives at the table and is briefly mesmerized, talking about how people are naturally born into "popular" or "unpopular" regardless of the fact that "prince" and "princess" dynamics are what kids grow up with in plays and the like.
She's disappointed to see that Satoshi is calling her by her last name in front of the waitress, feeling as though she has to compete for his attention and noticing her distance. She doesn't care, though. They talk about high school and such, and Akiko. She doesn't seem to be responding to Satoshi, and he wants Sayuri to contact Akiko for him. After all, she and Akiko seemed to be close. Even knowing she's a "second," Sayuri accepts Satoshi's invitation to be his girlfriend for three days. He'll be going back to Tokyo after that. Sayuri tells him that she wants to go on a hiking excursion with him tomorrow and eat roasted sweet potatoes.
Let me break from the summary and briefly comment this: Sayuri is very enchanted by Satoshi, almost out of obligation to this devotion to climbing out of her love cohort. Satoshi doesn't treat her well at all, and you notice between the lines that Sayuri has apprehensions about their relationship that don't suit any kind of relationship; that is to say, Sayuri is madly obsessed over maintaining this relationship, but Satoshi doesn't care in the slightest. She has no self-respect in this regard, and you notice Satoshi trampling all over her. He can do whatever he wants, and Sayuri will feel like she has to be with Satoshi because he is the "prince." Sayuri is never upfront about her obsession, but you see it in her thoughts and actions. After all, who thinks about their high school love life several years after the fact?
When she's taking the night bus, she sees the same man who was reading Portugal no Umi. Sayuri notices that there's yellow paint on his hands when he turns around to talk. They have a chat about Pessoa, and we find out that he's a security guard… implied to have some aspirations of being a painter. Before she leaves, the man asks her what color she thinks she is (he points out that it's a weird question). Sayuri leaves the bus without working out an answer, saying that she'll think on it. The man says that he'll be waiting for an answer.
I can't remember if it's here, but Sayuri realizes that there was something strangely familiar about this man. She realizes that he reminds her of Maki, the awkward, clumsy, and unassuming confessor. Keep it in mind for now. Also, for some reason I imagine this man to be almost foreign-looking. Sayuri points out that he's dark-skinned (on the back of his hand, anyway) and I imagine him with large kind eyes, older (40-ish), bald, and a strongly defined but kind-looking face. He shouldn't look anything like that, but that's the image that popped up in my head for some reason. Relaxed, calm, kind, and plain.
Sayuri goes on this hiking trip. It's raining hard, so she thinks her plans have been ruined, but Satoshi takes her there by car hoping maybe the rain will stop. They talk a lot there when they arrive at the parking lot overlooking their port town. Satoshi tells her about how Sayuri is just like the port town (or that she suits it). Satoshi incidentally hates it. He has never felt like he was "winning" here, and left for Tokyo. Of course, he didn't mean it like that to Sayuri. She just kind of reeks of this town. Oh, how about Akiko? Sayuri and Satoshi have a good time and they continue going out for the next few days.
This part of the book is a little muddy in my head. Sayuri goes shopping before she leaves to join Satoshi in Tokyo. I thought it was a same day thing when I read it, but I think it wasn't necessarily the same day. She has to get a present for Umihara, the 40-something who works at her father's electronics shop and he's gotten close with (romantically). She buys something but notices the security guard—it's the man who was reading Portugal no Umi. They talk for a while and connect well, working out the colors of people: yellow or plain white.
When gets back home, she finds out that Kouji has arrived at her father's place. How rare. But she soon realizes that it's not for anything trivial. Her father says that they're having a baby. Dumbfounded, Sayuri thinks it's Umihara at first, but then realizes it's Kouji's baby. Megumi is pregnant. Kouji asks her if she's been mean to Megumi (she didn't tell him what happened). Sayuri tells Kouji that she's done nothing and has only been a proud big sister to him, but Kouji looks at her with a hatred that Sayuri has never seen before. Kouji screams and says that he absolutely will keep the baby and that he'll stay with Megumi. Sayuri is again dumbfounded, but then yells out that she's not wrong. She tells him that he'll see what a mistake he made choosing Megumi like that, etc.
She goes to work later. She finds out through colleague Umeki that Andou plans on getting divorced. She and Andou have a talk about it, and it confirms that they are—it's not going to work out between them. Something interesting happens here, where Yoshida highlights Sayuri's nervous terror before giving us the context on why she's terrified. We know, though, why she's terrified. If Satoshi finds out, he's choosing Akiko. That's Sayuri's thought. She frantically dials Satoshi at work, going to the cafe across the street and can't connect to him 10 times or so. She eventually gets a hold of him and it doesn't seem like he knows anything (as far as we know from context clues) but the line gets cut and Sayuri goes to the wharf where the book started (she finds a dead butterfly and feels a sharp pain in her head) and gets a call. She doesn't realize that it's not from Satoshi, but an unknown number. It's Megumi. She coolly accepts Megumi's request to meet at a restaurant before going to Tokyo.
She meets Megumi at a restaurant. A lot can be said about this conversation, but I don't think even I understand its symbolism yet. Megumi tells Sayuri that she's not going to have the baby (to a relieved Sayuri) because she doesn't want to ruin Kouji's young life. Kouji may not be expressing it plainly, but he definitely doesn't want to have the baby either at such a young age. Sayuri is looking out the window here, just as Satoshi had been when he was waiting at the table. But she isn't breaking up even if Sayuri thinks they don't suit each other. Megumi misunderstands what Sayuri meant by "don't suit each other" (I don't remember how she misunderstood it) but Sayuri corrects her and says that it's so that Megumi doesn't get burned in the relationship. They connect from here, and Megumi expresses who she is more frankly, talking about how she was always unassuming and overlooked, even bullied for it. So, Megumi wanted to understand who she was. Sayuri of course wanted to get to the bottom of it and see Megumi's real feelings, so she pressed her on this, and we see that Megumi identified herself to be a personality type, for which there were 10 points. Ah, now I understand what this was about.
These 10 points are the 10 chapters of the book. We see Sayuri's life follow along them, because she and Megumi are the same person. Losing your virginity at 19, liking night bus rides, and… the last point, "I don't want to make a mistake." Satoshi is Kouji, Sayuri is Megumi. Not in a literal sense necessarily, but these are the parallels in their life.
After this meeting ends (it was supposed to be 30 minutes but ended up being 2 hours), Sayuri hugs Megumi, tells her that she can call her anytime, and tells her that she's rooting for her and that she should do her best. Sayuri doesn't know why she says that last line, but it just felt right.
Remember at this point that the next day, Sayuri is leaving for Tokyo to meet Satoshi.
At the bus stop, she sees the Gakashibou (that's how the ending explanation names the wannabe painter—"wishing to be an artist") cross the street at the end of his shift over to her. Nobody is really at their bus stop, and it's nighttime now. All of a sudden, the lights go out. There isn't a single light on the street (except for the one sole car). It's a dramatic scene.
Gakashibou then has an idea and grabs her arm, leading her back into the dollar store he came out of with the idea that they'll go to the rooftop and see the street from there. They go all the way up and finally get to look down on the district from above the eighth floor. It's a very romantic moment, in that it's absolutely dark and it's only these two together on top, hands together, standing on a bench and looking down at the harbor and street in complete darkness. It's amazing, beautiful, etc. Gakashibou asks her if she wants to eat dinner the next day together at… some avenue. Sayuri corrects him and tells him that it's July 24th Avenue. So leaks her secret world. He learns all about it, and Sayuri goes on and on about her life as of lately. She tells him everything. He realizes then that they can't have dinner together, since she's leaving for Tokyo tomorrow. But they talk more. Eventually he asks her if she loves Satoshi. She of course responds yes. But he corrects her—she's not in love with Satoshi, but rather the face, the image, of Satoshi. It's a person who no longer exists.
At this point, you have total intuition for what Gakashibou means. Satoshi is a also kind of a deadbeat, and Sayuri doesn't see that. She sees him for who he was in high school.
Then, we get the mortal choice. When they leave together, Gakashibou walks up to a dark building and tells Sayuri that this sushiya is where he'll be waiting tomorrow. Sayuri tells him she won't come, but Gakashibou tells her that he'll be waiting! Really loudly. It's what kind of shook my image of him as a kind approaching-middle-aged man and more as a young man (as the explanation section describes, too, actually, but I don't remember any explicit references to his age).
The next day, she gets ready. You can see the choice hanging above her head the whole time. Everything seems to push her in the other direction. She has to do something quickly, then she goes to the train, buys a ticket, talks about how she's going to regret this, phones Satoshi, gets a kind of mean response from him when she tells him her train number, and then waits on the platform. She calls Megumi. Or did Megumi call her? I don't remember, but they talk. I think it's Sayuri who did it. She tels Megumi that she's about to make a mistake. Megumi offers her some support as the train arrives at the platform. She tells her to do her best, and that she's rooting for her. Sayuri, confused, immediately asks her why she says that. Megumi tells her that she doesn't know, but because Sayuri told her that, she might as well return those words.
As the explanation says, it's at this point that we want to see the grand reversal of fortune. We want Sayuri to not make her mistake, that she now acknowledges will leave her with regret for the rest of her life. We see the great turnaround, and the happy ending right in sight.
Then Sayuri gets in the train car, and the door closes behind her.
I write all this summary because this book doesn't have a translation and because I need to air it out. It's an intense book for a weak-looking plot. Only now does everything really click, and only now do I feel some relief. Everything was set up for a turnaround that never happened, and you feel terrible for Sayuri that she made this choice. You may feel even worse for Maki or the Gakashibou.
Writing out just the plot, I like the weight of Sayuri's horrific, depressing life has been lifted off of my shoulders. I don't have to read as Sayuri again, the woman who is obsessed with a world that doesn't exist. Lisbon-over-port-town was much more real than Sayuri thought, and I think we see a glimpse of that when Sayuri hears the bus announcer in the last chapter. I wonder if it was written to be a contrast to Sayuri's other form of dreaming: dreams of climbing up rather than finding her real match.
Either way, I liked the book a lot. It was just heavy... and it's no shoujo manga. It's real in that we see that the deluded Sayuri can't magically escape her delusion no matter how much things seem to move for her to finally escape it. She isn't cured of her problem whatsoever.
It's a jarring ending because you have to live with the fact that Sayuri never changed. You see fragments of a blossoming flower coming together, we see that putting it together doesn't mean we're dealing with a flower in the first place—it's just the image of one, one that won't be cured of its dreadful condition. And even if Sayuri and Gakashibou were a perfect match together, I think both of them being fragmented in some way (Gakashibou with his desire to be a painter, Sayuri with her desire to leave her misery behind by pursuing Satoshi) might not necessarily—in my own head that is—outweigh the fact that Gakashibou was a wiser person than Sayuri. Maybe it's okay that Sayuri didn't stay behind for him that way.
But that's just consolation. Maybe Gakashibou's issues ran more deeply into his own isolation. After all, what colleagues does a security guard have? We see the scene of him being told off by his boss for talking to someone on the job. He's lonely, too. He paints on the side, just as Sayuri sees her port city as Lisbon. It's their hidden idiosyncrasy, and they match right where the two hurt the most—their loneliness. It would be nice if Gakashibou and Sayuri one day got together and went to Portugal.
The commentary at the end likens the moral of the book to the expression 「破れ鍋に綴じ蓋」. It's a story about how Sayuri didn't obey to this rule and put aside the people who were right for her, the cracked pot (破れ鍋) in pursuit of the prince and suffers because of it. There's a lot of great stuff about similar stories in the media that take after Yoshida's central story idea that the commentator brings up, but the most important thing I learned from it is that "Legally Blonde" is known as "Cutie Blonde" in Japan.
There were some other things that I forgot to point out when I wrote all this a few days ago. I can't tell yet if this is Yoshida's writing style or if it's a Sayuri characteristic as I haven't yet read any other Yoshida work (さよなら渓谷 is on my bookshelf) but there is one particular thing I do want to call to attention: Sayuri describes conversational dynamics monotonously from the angle of surprise. You become very familiar with uncharacteristic displays of emotion through volume and aggression specifically. My Japanese is not the best, but I became extremely acquainted with the words 呟く and 囁く through reading this novel as well as expressions of amazement, perhaps even expressions of time in the context of conveying a sense of startlement (most famously あっという間に). The impressions underlying Sayuri's language all relate back to the idea of her loneliness and sensitivity. She's used to particular somethings that are constantly challenged, often even by herself as she speaks with more fervor than she imagined she would speak with. But maybe most importantly, it's the language of somebody who has no control over anything. She is victim to a vicious ideal right up to the very end, when she doesn't make the choice she could never have made in the first place. That's the tragedy of Sayuri Honda.
"It would be nice if Gakashibou and Sayuri one day got together and went to Portugal."
A few days ago, I would have wallowed in this thought and imagined that after that choice, things would have looked up for Sayuri. But as Sayuri's favorite Pessoa quote goes, "we can imagine everything that we do not know."