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Review: ‘Butter’ by Asako Yuzuki

Reviewer: Deborah Steinmair (Vryeweekblad)

Butter by Asako Yuzuki
ISBN: 9780008679231
Format: Trade Paperback

WARNING: while reading Butter by Asako Yuzuki, translated by Polly Barton, you may gain quite a few pounds.

We find ourselves in Tokyo and experience an often bizarre reality through the eyes of a Japanese woman with an Afrikaans-sounding name, Rika. We know her exact dimensions: she is five foot five (tallish in her milieu) and weighs 50kg. So, decidedly slim. She has an androgynous appearance — in her girls’ school she was a near-replacement for boys and was seen by the other girls as a kind of prince. She realised she needed to stay angular and guard against curves. She’s an ambitious journalist, the only woman on the editorial team, and has a sort-of-boyfriend. They see each other about once a month and have little sex. They sleep on separate futons. She is emancipated and a feminist.

Then Rika becomes obsessed with a female serial killer, Manako Kaji, whom she visits in prison, hoping to get an exclusive. Kaji is Rika’s polar opposite: she’s chubby and unabashedly sensual. She does not deny herself any taste sensation. She is one of those women who take pity on men and believes that she was put on earth to serve and pamper them, especially with food. In return, she wants to be admired. She’s not looking for girlfriends, she tells Rika. She’s looking for worshippers.

Her method was to connect online with wealthy and lonely older men, move in and prepare fabulous meals for them. Somehow, they subsequently died one after another. Goddess, feeder and praying mantis.

Rika is fascinated. Kaji is an arch-manipulator and more or less forces Rika to try different dishes and restaurants and report back to her. Rika discovers her inner connoisseur and gains weight — soon she is six kilograms heavier. Of course, she’s still more or less underweight, but her boyfriend (he with the big belly) warns her that people won’t respect her if it seems like she’s not trying hard enough. It’s different for women, he preaches.

It’s a sensual journey of discovery. The reader experiences with Rika the joy of rich food. And simple food with good butter. I must confess, I sometimes got up to make myself rice with a lump of butter and a few drops of soy sauce:

Each individual grain of rice was so intensely sweet. She could sense not only the flavour of the grains on her tongue, but their shape as well. When she chewed them, the inside of her mouth loosened, and when she made to greedily absorb them and taste them, she could feel the insides of her body whirring round as if all its cogs were moving. A soft heat rose up from her solar plexus. Cutting the taste with the pumpkin pickles, pale pink millet roe, and the umeboshi brought out with the rice, she worked her way through in small mouthfuls. 

With her senses awakening to the thrill of earth-shattering foodgasms, the new, chubbier Rika becomes liberated. Her eyes are opened. She realises that she and her boyfriend have never been more than friends. She realises that most people don’t live, they simply exist. That life is too short for healthy takeaways.

As it melted under the heat of her tongue, the sweet butter expanded lusciously, rousing all the cells across her body capable of apprehending its rich goodness. The dense sponge saturated with the rich, weighty aroma of milk made her think that she would never again be satisfied by fluffy shortcake with its sweet and sour tang. True taste comes with a high price tag, and high calorie count to match.

Interesting to me is her friendship, from childhood, with the eccentric Reiko, one of those people who live more intensely than the sleepwalkers around them. Such ambiguous friendships between straight women always fascinate me. Rika thinks to herself that she would love to take care of Reiko for the rest of her life.

Kaji and Reiko compete for Rika’s attention as the balance of power between the sensual serial killer and the disciplined journalist begins to shift. Kaji, who never had regard for women, becomes obsessed with Rika. Where she was once derogatory and sneering, superior in her femininity and goddess status, she becomes clingy and needy.

Reiko also falls headlong into the investigation and traces Kaji’s steps. This leads the friends to strange experiences and encounters with asocial, creepy men in dirty apartments.

There’s something about Japanese novels — I’ve read everything by Haruki Murakami. It’s as if the sliding door between the mundane and all kinds of alternative realities is a paper-thin membrane. Food plays an important role. Women are headstrong and men often lazy, overweight, unreliable. Romantic love remains an illusion.

The characters have complex backgrounds and backstories. I’m sure that much of the lyrical quality was lost in translation, but Yuzuki’s consciousness is overwhelmingly entertaining.

We experience the interior lives of characters but it’s also a whodunnit, plot-driven. Rika and Reiko want to find out the truth. Is Kaji perhaps innocent of everything but gluttony?

I see this international runaway success is based on a true story, that of a woman who became known as the Konkatsu Killer.

It’s a particularly poignant exploration of misogyny, obsession, love and the seductive joys of Japanese food.

Butter is available at the following retailers:

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