Introduction by John Freeman
“A First-Rate Material” is a ghoulish love story, a genre only Sayaka Murata could make so wafer-delicate, so crooner-sweet that you hum along to it, as if a muzak of Gothic thoughts have not just trickled right into your brain-stem.
Like all her work, it depends on a tiny, brutal reversal. What if, instead of wearing diamonds and conflict jewels on fingers and necks, humans adorned themselves with…other human parts? What if, instead of cremation or burial after death, the body became the daily material of other people’s lives?
Here’s the wedding industry in all its savage greed. Women sit having tea, complimenting each other over the finest human hair sweaters. Our heroine has to admit, she does indeed fancy such a garment, but her fiancé doesn’t care for human products in his clothing and jewelry. In fact, he thinks it’s “barbaric.” And by no means will he have a bookcase made of collar bones.
One of Murata’s greatest skills is how neatly her tales escalate, and their uncanniness isn’t in their details, it’s in their logic. If animal bones are okay, what is so awful about a human tooth on a ring? And if you won’t use these parts of the body, if it is so sacred, why in the world would you burn it after death? Why wouldn’t you yourself want to be enshrined forever as a chandelier made from your nails and teeth and skin?
In negotiating these questions, Murata’s lovers find an unexpected common ground. They then tack toward a conclusion only she would write. The scrim of so-called civilization is thin indeed, thinner than skin itself. In this translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori, you’ll feel yourself reach the edge of this barrier, brought to the edge of your own sense of morality.
– John Freeman
Author of Wind, Trees
Forget Cashmere and Angora, Buy 100% Human Hair
“A First-Rate Material” by Sayaka Murata
It was a holiday, and I was enjoying chatting with two girlfriends from university days over afternoon tea. Through the window, the gray office buildings of the business district sat beneath a cloudless sky. Reservations at this hotel lobby tearoom were hard to come by, and it was thronged with a female clientele. An elegant white-haired lady with a deep purple stole across her shoulders daintily carried a piece of tart to her mouth. At the table next to us, some girls with colorful painted nails were taking photos of their cakes. One of them spilled apricot jam on her white cardigan and hastily started wiping it off with a pink handkerchief.
Yumi opened the menu and ordered a second cup of tea, then noticed the sweater I was wearing.
“Hey, Nana, that sweater… is it human hair?”
“Oh, can you tell?” I beamed at her, nodding. “Yes, one hundred percent.”
“Fantastic! It must have been expensive.”
“Yeah, a bit… I took out a loan. But it’ll last me for life,” I answered rather bashfully, lightly running my fingertips over the garment. The jet-black hair was closely knitted into rows of braids, with an intricate weave at the cuffs and neck, and it glistened alluringly in the rays of light shining in through the lobby windows. Even though it was mine, it was so beautiful, and I gazed at it, enraptured.
Aya was eyeing it enviously too. “A hundred percent human hair is just the thing for winter! Warm, durable, and luxurious. My sweater contains some too, but it’s so expensive I could only afford it mixed with wool. But human hair really does feel completely different, doesn’t it?”
“Thanks. It’s too special to wear every day, and normally I keep it safely stored away, but today I really wanted to dress up—it’s the first time we’ve seen each other for ages, and coming to a hotel, too.”
“Really? But now that you’ve bought it, it’s such a waste not to wear it more,” Yumi said.
Aya agreed. “Expensive clothes are not meant to simply decorate your closet, you know. You have to put them to good use! Nana, you’re engaged to be married now, aren’t you? Human hair is just the thing to wear for formal occasions, like meeting your future in-laws.”
I toyed with my teacup. “Well, yes, but…” I said in a small voice. “You see, my fiancé doesn’t really like clothes made from human hair.”
“Whaaat?” Aya’s eyes widened in bewilderment. “Why on earth not? I can’t understand that!”
“I can’t either, but it’s not just human hair—he doesn’t like any fashion accessories or furnishings made from human materials,” I said, forcing a smile.
“You’re kidding!” Shocked, Yumi put the macaroon she’d been about to put in her mouth back on her plate and looked at me dubiously. “So, what about bone rings? Tooth earrings?”
“He can’t stand them. We’re talking about making our wedding rings platinum, too.”
Aya and Yumi looked at each other.
“Really? But wedding rings made from front teeth are the best!”
“Nana, your fiancé’s a banker, isn’t he? He must be well-off, so isn’t he just being stingy?”
“No, I don’t think it’s that…” I answered vaguely, and smiled. I couldn’t explain it very well myself.
Aya nodded triumphantly. “Yes, there are people like that who are loaded but just don’t understand fashion… but Naoki’s always so well-dressed, I’d never have expected it of him. When it comes to your wedding rings, though, I’d discuss that with him a bit more. After all, they’re what you’ll be using to pledge your eternal love for each other.” She raised her teacup to her mouth. On her left hand was a ring made from pure white bone, her wedding ring, made from a fibula for her marriage last year, and it looked really good on her slender finger. I still clearly remembered how envious I’d felt when she’d happily shown it off to me, even while explaining that it was considerably cheaper than tooth.
I surreptitiously stroked my ring finger. The truth was that I did want a ring made from either tooth or bone. I’d talked about this any number of times with Naoki, and I knew better than anyone how futile it was.
“Look, go once more to the shop together. If he can just see what it looks like on his finger, he’ll change his mind, you know.”
I gave a little nod, looked down to avoid their eyes, and reached for the now-cold scone on my plate.
I’d just said goodbye to Aya and Yumi when I felt my cell phone vibrate. I took it from my bag and saw that an email had arrived from Naoki, who’d had to go in to work even though it was a holiday.
Got away earlier than I thought. How about coming over?
Okay, I replied, and got on a subway headed for his place.
He lived in a neighborhood close to where he worked, with office blocks alongside conveniently located residential condos. Once we were married, we planned to move to a new house in the suburbs, where there was a more natural environment better suited to kids. I was looking forward to living there, but felt a little sad at the thought that I wouldn’t be returning to this neighborhood, where I’d spent so much time over the five years we’d been dating.
I rang the bell, and Naoki’s amiable voice came through the interphone telling me to come in, so I opened the door with my key.
He must have only just arrived home since he was still in his shirt and tie, with a cardigan over his shoulders, and was turning on the underfloor heating.
“I bought dinner on the way,” I said. “It’s cold outside, so I thought hotpot would be good.”
“Sounds great, thanks. How were the girls?”
“They’re both fine. They gave us an engagement present.”
I passed him the bag containing the pair of wineglasses from Aya and Yumi, put down my purse and the bag of groceries, and took off my duffle coat. His smile instantly vanished, replaced by a scowl.
Seeing the undisguised revulsion on his face, I remembered that I was still wearing the sweater.
“Didn’t I tell you not to wear human hair?” he said in a low voice, avoiding my eyes, his face turned away from me so forcefully I thought his neck might snap as he plonked himself onto the couch.
“Um, well, I hadn’t seen my friends for ages, and I wanted to impress them. I haven’t worn it at all lately, and I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to wear it just this once.”
“You should throw it away. You promised me you wouldn’t wear it. Have you gone back on your word?”
“But I haven’t even paid off the loan yet. I promised I wouldn’t wear it in front of you, but I never said I wouldn’t ever wear it again. Why am I being told off for wearing something I bought with my own money?”
I choked up in spite of myself, and Naoki avoided looking at me as he drummed his fingers irritably on the floor.
“It gives me the creeps.”
“But why? It’s no different from your hair, or mine. It’s more natural for us than hair from any other animal—it’s a material really close to us.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly why it creeps me out,” he spat, picking up a packet of cigarettes and a small ashtray from the side table.
Naoki hardly ever smoked, and he only ever reached for his cigarettes when he was really stressed and irritable and needed to calm himself down. I always did my best to comfort him whenever he lit up after work, complaining about being tired, but this time it was my fault he was feeling like this—just because of what I was wearing, I thought miserably.
“You’re going to Miho’s shop to look at new furniture tomorrow, aren’t you?” he said, puffing out smoke. “I can’t go along, so I’ll leave it up to you, but let’s get one thing straight—if you choose even just one item made from human products, I won’t marry you. Teeth, bones, and skin are all out. Otherwise I’ll break off the engagement.”
“Talk about a unilateral decision. What could be more normal than making people into clothes or furniture after they die? How come you’ve got such an aversion to it?”
“It’s sacrilegious! I can’t believe you’re so unfazed by using items hacked from dead bodies.”
“Is using other animals any better? This is a precious and noble aspect of the workings of our advanced life form—not wasting the bodies of people when they die, or at least having one’s own body still being useful. Can’t you see how wonderful it is? There are so many parts that can be reused as furniture, and it’s a waste to throw them away… isn’t that more sacrilegious?”
“No, it isn’t,” Naoki retorted. “What’s wrong with everyone? It’s crazy. Look at this!” he said, ripping out his necktie pin and throwing it to the floor. “It’s made from fingernails pulled from someone’s body. A dead body! It’s grotesque. Horrifying!”
“Stop! Don’t break it! If you hate it so much, why do you wear it?”
“It’s an engagement gift from my boss. It’s revolting— even just touching it makes my skin crawl.”
I held back my tears and yelled, “It’s not like using human material is uncivilized. It’s far more heartless to just burn it all!”
We always ended up fighting over this issue. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Naoki was so averse to wearing or using anything human.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll throw it away.” I took off the sleek black sweater and, stifling my sobs, scrunched it up and stuffed it into the kitchen garbage can. As I stood there in my silk undershirt feeling miserable, I felt Naoki put his arms around me from behind.
“I’m sorry I got so emotional. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make you understand, but somehow I find human hair sweaters and bone cutlery and furniture terrifying.”
Naoki’s slim arms rubbed gently against my body. His body was enveloped in a soft cashmere cardigan. I couldn’t understand why he thought human hair was so wrong when goat hair was fine. But I noticed his hands were trembling slightly and said in a small voice, “I’m sorry, I was wrong— especially since I knew you didn’t like it.”
“No. I’m wrong for making you put up with me,” he murmured weakly, burying his face in my shoulder. “I just can’t understand why everyone is okay with something so barbaric. Cats or dogs or rabbits would never do anything like this. Normal animals don’t make sweaters or lamps out of the dead bodies of their fellow creatures. I just want to be like other animals and do what’s right…”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that, and gently stroked the cashmere-enveloped arms that clung to me. Turning to face him, I hugged his hunched-over body to me and rubbed his back. He relaxed a little and sighed, his cold lips touching my neck. With his face buried in my neck, I kept on stroking his backbone for the longest time.
When I told Miho that I’d decided I wouldn’t consider any furnishings made from human material, her eyes widened. “No way! You’re telling me that even with your budget, you’re not going to buy the shinbone chair or the rib cage table or the finger bone clock or the dried stomach lampshade?”
“Not even the display cabinet of teeth strung together? The warm rug made with human hair?”
“No. I don’t want Naoki to suffer. Our house should be somewhere we can both feel comfortable.”
Frowning, Miho closed the catalogs she’d spread out in front of me. “I wish I didn’t have to say this,” she said in a low voice, “but don’t you think Naoki’s sick? How come he’s so neurotic about human materials?”
“I don’t know. It’s probably got something to do with having had a bad relationship with his father when he was little.”
“He ought to get some counseling. It’s abnormal. In any case, one day we’ll all be turned into sweaters or clocks or lamps when we die. We humans are also materials—and that’s wonderful!”
Miho was right, but I shook my head. “I agree with you, but… anyway, for now I intend to furnish our house in a way that won’t cause any distress for Naoki.”
Miho finally seemed to understand that I wasn’t going to budge, and she sighed. “Okay, okay. But it’s such a waste when, with your budget, you could get some fabulous furniture. Oh well, I guess we’ll go with this dining table and chairs that don’t have any human bone in them.”
“I really recommend that chandelier with scales made from human nails for your living room, but I suppose we’re going to have to settle for this glass one.”
“Yes, if I may.”
Sighing, Miho went on sticking Post-it notes in the catalog as we decided on each item.
“I wonder why other animals don’t reuse the bodies of their own dead,” I said.
“Beats me. But the female praying mantis eats the male, doesn’t she? It totally makes sense. I think there are some animals that know to make good use of their dead.”
“Really? I guess…”
“Nana, aren’t you being poisoned by Naoki?”
“Of course not. But I don’t really understand what he means by ‘barbaric.’ That’s what he says about using human products. But I think it’s more barbaric to burn everything without reusing the materials. We use the same word to condemn each other’s values. I wonder if we can really carry on like this…”
“Well, I really couldn’t say. But Nana, you’re doing your best to understand him, aren’t you? If you’re willing to make mutual concessions, you’ll definitely be able to work things out together,” she said warmly, and I gave a sigh of relief.
“Okay then,” she said. “I’ll draw up the invoice on these items and place the orders. It’ll take a while, so feel free to look around.”
Miho picked up the catalogs with the Post-it notes and went to the back of the store. I gazed absently around. Time flowed by at a leisurely pace here, maybe because it was afternoon, with happy-looking young couples and genteel elderly ladies all browsing around the furniture. The first floor was full of cheap plastic and glass furnishings, but the second floor had quality furniture on display. Even the armrests of the couch I was now sitting on were of white bone.
There were some bowls made from inverted craniums on a row of dining tables at the other side of the store. Hanging from the ceiling was one of the chandeliers with human nail scales that Miho had recommended. Warm light, somewhere between pink and yellow, filtered out through the nails. How happy I would be sitting down to a special dinner with Naoki beneath such a chandelier, with soup in those skull dishes on the table!
I glanced down at my own nails. They looked identical to the ones on the chandelier. After I died, how lovely it would be to have them made into such a beautiful chandelier for someone to enjoy. However much I made a show of going along with Naoki, I would never stop caring for my body, knowing it would someday be converted into furnishings. I would always feel that I too was a material, that I would continue to be put to practical use after I died. The thought that this was a marvelous and noble process was deeply rooted within me.
I stood up and went over to a nearby bookcase. The dividers were made of bone, probably shoulder blades, given their size. There were several real books placed on the shelves to model what it would look like in the home. Naoki liked books, and I thought how perfect his study would be with such a splendid bookcase in it. I picked up a small dictionary that was leaning against the divider and looked up the word barbaric, which had been niggling me for a while.
Ruthless, merciless, savage, heinous.
But I could only think that this applied more to Nao ki’s idea of burning people’s bodies when they died. He was such a gentle person and I still couldn’t believe he could be so harsh and cruel as to say that we should discard the entire body even though so much could be reused.
But I loved him. For his sake, I was resolved to spend the rest of my life without wearing or using human material, without touching the people who, after their deaths, continued to surround us with their warmth as material and furnishings.
The following Sunday, Naoki and I went to visit his family in Yokohama.
We had already completed the formalities for our engagement, and now there were all kinds of matters to discuss, like what time to hold the ceremony, whom to invite, and so forth. Naoki’s little sister was going to be in charge of receiving guests on the groom’s side, so we had to talk about that, too.
Naoki’s father had died five years previously. His mother and sister welcomed us cheerfully.
“Come on in! Sorry to take up your time when you’re so busy.”
“Not at all! Lovely to see you.”
Naoki’s sister Mami was a graduate student some years younger than him, and had treated me affectionately ever since he and I had started dating.
“I’m so happy you’re going to be my elder sister, Nana,” she said delightedly as she served us homemade brownies.
Their mother poured tea to go with Mami’s treats, and we chatted while enjoying them.
“Naoki, why don’t you play the trumpet at the wedding? Wouldn’t it be a great way to show your love for Nana?” Mami asked.
“No way! It’s years since I’ve played any music, and I’d be far too self-conscious now. Out of the question.”
Naoki looked really cute with his embarrassed smile, and I snuggled up to him happily, feeling that it had been ages since I’d seen him looking so calm and relaxed.
After we’d been talking for a while, Naoki’s mother stood up, saying, “I’ve got something for the two of you.”
She went into another room and came back with a long, thin wooden box. She put it on the table and gently opened the lid. Wondering what it was, I peered inside to see what looked like some thin washi paper.
“What is it?” We both looked at her questioningly.
“It’s a veil made from your father,” she informed us in hushed voice, gazing at it as she took the diaphanous fabric out of the box. It was indeed a billowy, floaty veil made from human skin.
“Five years ago, when your father got cancer, it was his dying wish to be made into a veil. It must have been just around the time you started dating Nana, Naoki. He always was too strict with you, so it was hardly surprising that you rebelled against him. You never did make up after that quarrel ended in fisticuffs when he tried to force you into medical college. He used to say he’d as good as disowned you, and he refused to talk about you. But then, right at the end, he said, ‘The boy’s a fool, but he’s got taste in women,’ and he told me he wanted to be made into a veil for the wedding ceremony.”
I sneaked a quick look at Naoki. He was staring at the veil, his face utterly expressionless.
“You didn’t come to the funeral, so I never had the chance to tell you about it, but I always believed this day would come. Naoki, please forgive your father. Use this veil for your wedding.
“Nana, why don’t you try it on?” Mami begged me, her eyes red and filled with tears. “Isn’t it magnificent?”
Gingerly I reached out and touched the veil. Human skin was generally considered too flimsy and delicate for garments. It looked like rough Japanese washi paper, but it was supersoft to the touch.
“Nana, look this way.”
My mother-in-law gently lifted the veil and put it over my head, fixing it with a small comb, so that my upper body was enveloped in its lightness.
The veil reached down to my lower back, covering my ears, cheeks, and shoulders in my father-in-law’s soft skin. It was plain and extremely simple, but if I looked closely, I could see the fine lines of the distinctive mesh of his skin, like delicate lacework. I felt as though I were swathed in an infinite number of particles of light residing in each individual cell.
“It looks amazing on you, Nana!”
My mother-in-law and Mami both looked enthralled. Faint spots and moles left on my father-in-law’s skin formed an intricate pattern, and here and there in the light, the white and yellowish-brown blended to give a bluish tinge, complex hues intertwining in a way that could never be manufactured artificially. The rays of sun shining in through the window were softened by the veil as they gently filtered through and coalesced on my skin.
With my whole body swathed in the skin-tinged glow, I felt as though I were standing in the most sacred church in the world.
I looked at Naoki through the delicate, beautiful veil. Still looking down, he slowly raised his arm and lifted the hem. I half expected him to rip it off, but he murmured in a low voice, “This scar…That was the one from junior high…”
Next to his hand, I saw a small mark in the lacy hem.
“That’s right. It’s from that time you hit him,” his mother said. “It left a scar on his back, you know. I don’t suppose you ever knew it, but whenever he went to a hot spring, he would proudly show it off and say, ‘The boy had backbone after all.’”
Naoki stared at the veil, his expression unreadable. I watched him with bated breath, thinking he might suddenly blow up, the way he did that time he threw away his tiepin. But he kept staring at the veil, saying nothing.
After a while his pale face moved slowly toward me, as though he were falling into my father-in-law’s skin. “Dad…” he muttered hoarsely, burying his face in the veil.
“Naoki!” Mami exclaimed tearfully.
“Son, you forgive him, don’t you?” his mother said, her voice full of emotion.
“Yes… of course. We’ll use the veil at our wedding. Won’t we, Nana?”
I wasn’t sure whether I should smile or not, and just managed a weak nod. The veil trembled and softly tickled my cheeks and back with the movement. The membrane of light passing through my father-in-law’s skin shimmered over my body.
In the car on the way home, I drove while Naoki slumped vacantly in the passenger seat. Despite the cold, he had the window wide open and was gazing outside.
“Hey, are we really going to use that veil?” I asked him as the box rattled on the back seat.
Naoki didn’t answer, but leaned on the open window and lightly shut his eyes, snuggling in the breeze like a child who’d fallen asleep in bed.
“If you really don’t want to use it,” I went on patiently, choosing my words carefully, “we can always find an excuse, like the wedding planner objected to it, or it didn’t go with the dress.”
Naoki still didn’t respond, but just sat there as the breeze messed up his hair and clothes. Irritated, I said more forcefully, “Come on, Naoki, answer me! Which is it? Were you being honest or lying for the sake of your family? Look, if you really do feel moved by your father’s wishes, then we’ll use it, but if you feel using human skin is too barbaric, we won’t. I don’t mind either way, so it’s up to you to say how you feel…
“Which is it? Come on, tell me. Are you moved, or not? Do you think it’s barbaric or not?” I demanded, raising my voice.
“I just don’t know what to think anymore,” he finally said. “Maybe everyone’s right, and making things out of people after they die really is a wonderful, moving thing to do…”
I frowned, and put my foot down on the accelerator, speeding up. “Look, only you can decide whether you’re moved by the idea or not, Naoki. I’m sure I don’t know.”
“I can’t… I don’t… I really don’t know what to think anymore. Until this morning I was confident about how to use words like barbaric and moved, but now it all feels so groundless,” he muttered vacantly. He looked like a half-wit, with his mouth hanging stupidly open, almost as if he were drooling.
“That word barbaric has been standing in judgment over us, though, hasn’t it? Where has its power gone?”
“I don’t know how I could have been so confident of myself… but one thing I can say is that the veil did look lovely on you. And that’s because it’s someone’s skin. Human skin really does suit people.”
Naoki shut his mouth and said no more.
The only sounds in the car were from the breeze and the veil’s box rattling on the back seat.
A hundred years later, what would our bodies be used for? Would we be chair legs or sweaters or clock hands? Would we be used for a longer time after our deaths than the time we’d been alive?
Naoki was leaning back in the seat, his arms hanging limply, as if he’d become a material object. The breeze was ruffling his hair and eyelashes. Beneath his sideburns, there was a slight scar where he’d once cut himself shaving. That scar would probably still be there if he ever became a lampshade or a book cover one day, I mused.
Quietly taking one hand off the steering wheel, I took his hand, which was lying there, abandoned. It was warm, and he squeezed mine back. The sensation of his skin against mine was similar to the way I’d felt earlier, enveloped in the veil. The faint wriggle of finger bones and the pulsing of veins beneath his skin were conveyed through my fingertips.
Right now the live Naoki, not yet converted into a material, was holding my hand. We were spending our very short time as living beings sharing our body heat. Feeling this life was a precious momentary illusion, I squeezed his slim fingers even tighter.