In "Smartening Up," the first story in Aoko Matsuda's collection Where the Wild Ladies Are, the narrator reflects on her dissatisfaction with the way she looks. She has too much body hair, she thinks, and that's why her boyfriend left her. In her estimation, the breakup "happened because my arms, my legs, and other parts of my body were not perfectly hairless—because I was an unkempt person who went about life as if there was nothing wrong with being hairy."
After she comes home from a hair removal clinic, she's visited by an unlikely guest: the ghost of her late aunt, who chides her for "weakening the power of your hair." The narrator is skeptical at first, but when her body becomes entirely covered with thick, dark hair, she feels liberated, finally at home: "As to the question of what kind of creature I am," she thinks, "I really couldn't care less. It doesn't bother me if I stay a nameless monster."
Like all the stories in Matsuda's book, "Smartening Up" takes odd turn after odd turn, and still manages to surprise the reader by ending up somewhere completely unexpected. Where the Wild Ladies Are is an audacious book, a collection of ghost stories that's spooky, original and defiantly feminist.
All of the stories in Matsuda's collection are based, loosely, on traditional Japanese stories of yōkai, ghosts and monsters that figure prominently in the country's folklore. But Matsuda puts her own clever spin on them, and each of her stories feels original and contemporary.
In the title story, a young man named Shigeru finds himself at loose ends after the suicide of his mother. He's looking for work, but finds himself unequipped to search for a job while in an enervated state: "Shigeru felt barely capable of surviving a gentle wave lapping up on shore, let alone a turbulent sea. Between him and a sandcastle built by a kid with a plastic spade, Shigeru suspected he'd be the first to collapse."