Senmu No Inu and P No Higeki

Some of Takahashi Rumiko's best stories

More than Ranma 1/2, or Urusei Yatsura, or Maison Ikkoku, or Inuyasha ... Takahashi Rumiko's short stories deal with some of the more fragile, beautiful, and mundane aspects of life and human nature. In other words: less fantasy (though there's still a good dollop of it), and more human interest.

Among her more recent short story compilations are two books, P No Higeki ("The Tragedy of P") and Senmu No Inu ("The Managing Director's Dog"). Each book contains six short stories that may especially appeal to readers with an appreciation for stories about relationships, character, and understanding other people. These are not stories for people expecting Takahashi's slapstick works; these are for thinking and feeling adults.

Note: the lack of furigana can make reading these books difficult (at least for me).

Here are some stories from the two volumes:

From Senmu No Inu

(Published in 1999)

Kimi Ga Iru Dake De (hard to translate, but close to: "Just Having You Around..." (thanks to a reader for the new English version :)): A proud middle-aged business executive loses his job when his company folds. To help the household honor, he fills in for his sick wife at her part-time place of employment ("Think how much trouble they'll go through from your absence!"). It's a small lunch shop that also sells things like meat buns. Assigned to the counter to welcome customers and ring up sales, the businessman -- brusque, gruff, stern, unyielding -- promptly makes a nuisance of himself despite his honorable intentions. His stern business exterior is completely ill-fitted to a job as a counter clerk. He scares customers with his intense gaze. His attempts at smiling make him look more evil. He yells at unruly kids who are ruining the food, which alienates their mothers. The shop employees start thinking of the ill wife as a saintly savior who must return to save them from this well-meaning executive... but then they learn she's been hospitalized!

The meek shop owner doesn't have the guts to tell the big proud man that he's making a mess of things. At last, the owner tells the businessman to wear a giant bunny suit and hold a sign -- a last-ditch effort to scare him off which naturally backfires: Enter giant bunny with sinister Darth Vader breathing.

It seems our hero is as poorly cut out for counter sales as the meek shop owner is for business office leadership. But luckily, there is also a different person at the counter: Achara, a young Thai woman who, although she is still learning Japanese, is smart and friendly and also very determined. She does correctly what our poor hero has botched. She compliments women passersby, overcoming their distrust of foreigners. She charms customers into the store with her friendly smile. She even skillfully forces the parents of the destructive boys to purchase the ruined goods.

Our hero is inspired by Achara and dutifully studies her ways, but he makes the mistake of stepping in when one unruly young liar starts purposefully blaming Achara's language skills for an "incorrect" order. The young punk even yells at the shop owner. Our justice-driven, upright executive (still in bunny suit) slams the young man down and shouts that he should be ashamed, but the shop owner steps in and apologizes profusely to the "customer." The customer, after all, is king. This event is the last straw in the shop owner's eyes ... the proud executive must go. (But of course, being meek and easily cowed, the shop owner can't quite bring himself to say this.)

Our hero overhears the discussion of the problem the next day, and wanders dejectedly away. Achara happens by and cheerfully greets him. Her Japanese is improving rapidly, and he admires her for her courage in coming to a strange country and learning a strange language. They sit on a bench. She then hears him talk of how proud and upright he'd been as a businessman for thirty years, and how he had tried to change when he lost his job and got reduced to a part-time shop clerk. But, he says as a tear rolls down his cheek, it's not so easy to change. It is hard for him to forget his former proud executive ways, to be a humble man again with an empty cup. But Achara sees how much he is hurting; she reaches out and reminds him of how much he has endured and how hard he has tried, and thanks him for his effort. The stern, sad ex-executive, comforted by Achara, feels a weight lifted from his spirit.

Back at the shop, the meek shop owner is confessing to the others that he did secretly feel good when the old businessman berated the obnoxious liar. Just then, the tough old man himself enters ... and apologizes deeply and humbly to the shop owner. He has put aside his pride and has gained something new -- the reader can sense it.

Some months later, he gets an office job (for which he is much more suited) and his wife (fully recovered) returns to the lunch shop. There, she wryly observes him coming by sometimes, ostensibly for buying lunch, but in reality to see Achara again.

Cha No Ma No Lovesong ("Living Room Lovesong"): a middle-aged woman, alone on her wedding anniversary night, dies after eating durian fruit with alcohol (an apparently dangerous combination). She leaves behind a husband and a college-aged son (who lives away from home). At the funeral, the husband thinks of how little his recent wedding anniversaries had been celebrated (which is why he hadn't bothered coming home on time), and also finds that he can't cry for his wife, even though he wants to.

Within ten days, the husband has a whole new problem: His dead wife is now hanging around the house as a ghost. She's pestering him about household issues. Only he can see or hear her, and it's driving him nuts. She especially gets nasty when he starts developing a crush on a kind, young, pretty office subordinate. The young woman starts coming around often to cook him dinner and take care of him.

Does she love him too, or is she just being nice? He begins to hope that it's the former. But his ghostly wife starts spreading nasty rumors by haunting his coworkers in their dreams and suggesting an office affair is going on. Desperate, he tries to exorcise the ghost (to no avail), and pleads with her to tell him why she's still hanging around. She can't remember, and she nastily starts hinting that it's to antagonize him. He wants her to go away!

One fateful cold rainy night, sick from a cold and yearning to be with the young office worker rather than the pestering spirit of his wife, he finds the girl -- and discovers that she has a boyfriend. The young couple is going through a rough phase, but they reconcile and appear to have a solid relationship. There had never been anything more than kind-hearted, innocent sympathy at play! The ghostly wife watches.

Broken-hearted, downcast, and still sick, the husband stumbles off to bed. But as he heads off, he hears his dead wife reminisce about how he and she had had an arranged marriage, such that they'd never had to go through awkward young-love moments like the one they had just witnessed. She then tells him to look in the bottom drawer in the living room ... and she's gone. She's finally moved on for good.

When he looks, he finds a wedding anniversary present from his wife: a new wallet, and her card reading: "Thank you, Dad, for everything. Please keep doing your best." This ungiven loving gift, he realizes, was the reason his wife had stayed as a ghost.

Things around the house seem oddly lonely. He's finally able to cry a bit for his wife.

From P No Higeki

(Published in 1994)

P No Higeki ("The Tragedy of P"): A busy young housewife at a strict No Pets Allowed apartment building is utterly shocked when her husband brings home a penguin. The penguin, name "Pitt," is the pet of an important American client who is headed back to the States for a week. Hence, the need to look after the penguin ... for one whole week. Luckily, the bird is cute and adorable.

Of course, the family's little boy, despite all warnings, invites all the boys of his class ... including the young son of Mrs. Kakei, the scary all-business, no-nonsense residents' committee member who seems to delight in enforcing the No Pets rule. Although our heroine convinces the boys to not tell their parents, she is worried by the next committee meeting where Mrs. Kakei strictly insists that even helping animals may result in eviction. Meanwhile, the little boys don't tell their parents about the penguin, but they do tell their older siblings.

A week passes, but the bird needs to stay a bit longer. To make matters worse, rumor goes around of spies seeking out hidden pets, and worst of all, Mrs. Kakei comes by the apartment. Despite numerous mishaps and close shaves, somehow Mrs. Kakei never sees the penguin.

Things come to a head when another resident is caught with a cat. An argument erupts, with Mrs. Kakei insisting either the cat goes, or the resident and the cat both go. When Mrs. Kakei is accused of being an animal hater, though, she asks if animal lovers are automatically saints and animal haters are automatically evil. Later, Mrs. Kakei's son tells our heroine that Mrs. Kakei doesn't hate animals. She used to have a dog, in fact, for whom she searched desperately for a new home before moving to the apartment complex. And, of that family, this harsh, seemingly anti-pet woman had cried most when leaving the dog.

Mrs. Kakei, despite her apparent anti-animal exterior, was actually against the idea of forcing animals to live in a cramped apartment with nowhere to run and no freedom to make noise. She didn't want animals trapped in the boundaries humanity had imposed ... even if there was nowhere left for the animals to go.

That night, Pitt is taken out on a walk. The night is starry and beautiful, and our heroine lets the bird run freely for a while. She reflects that the sky and stars and wind and light all belong to the animals; they are not things humans give.... In the midst of these deep musings, Pitt defecates on the sidewalk and she has to clean it up.

Our heroine meets up with her husband, who says Pitt is to return to his owner the next day. Together they take Pitt back toward the apartment... where they promptly run into Mrs. Kakei at the elevator. The No Pets lady stares at the penguin and says nothing.

Some days later, the two women run into each other at the zoo, in the penguin section, at the behest of the kids. Mrs. Kakei, when asked, says she would've reported the penguin if it had remained another day. Our heroine, for her part, watches Mrs. Kakei call to the penguins, and realizes that Mrs. Kakei had secretly wanted to reach out and touch Pitt that starry night by the elevator.

(Side note: the four "Acts" that comprised "P No Higeki" were alliteratively named "Pet," "Public," "Pessimism," and "Peace." Perfect picks for Pitt the Penguin's prohibited pets parable.)

Copyright Eri Izawa 2001, 2002

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