Whilst reading The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P/Oyayubi P no shugyo jidai, I was reminded slightly of Jeffrey Eugenides 2003 novel, Middlesex, a book which gives a fictional portrait of a modern day hermaphrodite, some of the territory covered in Big Toe P seems to overlap with that of Eugenides novel, or perhaps the other way around. The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P was published in Japan in 1993 and became a bestseller, Kodansha International published the novel last year, 2009 in a translation by Michael Emmerich. The novel opens with Mano Kazumi visiting her novelist friend M. (a fictional cameo of author Rieko Matsuura perhaps?), they discuss the recent suicide of Kazumi's friend/boss Yoko, the relationship between Kazumi and Yoko runs as an undercurrent which is referred to throughout the novel to examine Kazumi's emotional make up,the two characters are contrasted,Yoko the stronger,and Kazumi as her slower on the up take employee. During Kazumi and M's conversation, Kazumi mentions that she had a vivid dream that the big toe on her right foot had turned into a penis, Kazumi asks M to pull her sock off to double check, and when she does, to their amazement 'The big toe of her right foot was a penis', the two consider the possibility that maybe her attribute could be a curse from Yoko. Leaving M's, Kazumi receives a call from her boyfriend Masao who is trying to avoid a call from his friend Haruhiko, recently shunned by his group of friends as he pinched someone else's girlfriend.Masao and Kazumi are planning to marry, anticipating how Masao will react to her news, Kazumi begins to contemplate sexual relationships from both male and female points of view,'It's a wonderful thing, the existence of two different sexes' she observes. During a role playing game in which they are pretending to both be males, Masao discovers her toe penis, but at the same time Haruhiko turns up in a rage, and Kazumi begins to suspect the two could be possilby having a gay relationship, Haruhiko blurts out that he and Masao once had a three some with a girl, Kazumi runs out of the flat. Meeting up again Masao explains his relationship with Haruhiko, that they aren't having a relationship, and Masao begins to slowly adjust to the change in Kazumi's toe.
There's a lot of exploratory dialogue between Masao and Kazumi exposing and exploring the two's thoughts and approaches to sex and sexual identity, maybe things alluded to in Middlesex are explored a little more in depth here, I read Middlesex quite a while ago, so my comparison might be hazy, Kazumi's newly attributed androgyny also seems to overspill onto other people that discover her toe too, and it's not long until cracks appear in the veneer of Masao's acceptance. One day his anger spills over and he tries to severe her toe, running away she finds refuge in a neighbour's apartment, the blind piano player and composer, Shunji. Looked after by his overbearing cousin Chisato, Shunji seems to be everything that Masao wasn't, Kazumi soon discovers that Chisato has been ripping off Shunji, and Kazumi slowly learns the reason for Shunji's ambivalent attitude towards sex, and their relationship grows. Chisato's overbearingness soon looses it's strength, and she introduces Kazumi to her new boyfriend, who turns out to be,a little incredibly, Haruhiko. Through conversations with Haruhiko there are further explorations into sexuality and sexual politics, Haruhiko's philosophy is quite close to adopting an 'anything goes' approach, but Kazumi has a much more reasoned rationale, and she's constantly sieving her emotions and experiences to reach her conclusions. Through Haruhiko, Kazumi learns of a travelling troupe called 'The Flower Show', a private show, featuring other people with unusual bodies, similar to Kazumi's, she's interested in meeting and possibly joining them, Shunji is also willing to go along, although we get a foreboding sign when Kazumi reflects on taking there phone number from Haruhiko 'I now regretted that I had let Haruhiko cajole me into even doing that'. Through The Flower Show, she meets the nihilistic Tamotsu and his girlfriend Eiko which leads Kazumi further into exploring the relationship between love and desire. The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is an epic 447 pages but it's a deeply absorbing read, it won The Women's Literature Prize, a recent novel by Rieko Matsuura called Kenshin (2007), won the Yomiuri Prize.