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London Literature Festival 2021: Mieko Kawakami's Heaven

Centred on the expansive theme of friendship, this year’s London Literature Festival inaugurated Japanese writer’s Mieko Kawakami’s novel ‘Heaven’ to the English-speaking realm in a completely new format. Featuring live performances from Nino Furuhata in the role of ‘Eyes’ and Grace Akatsu as his classmate, and soon-to-be pen friend, Kojima, alongside a mesmerising musical soundscape by Hatis Noit, the story was raised from print to stage like the hairs on my spine.

The theatrical positioning of the performers in a triangle where the two protagonists were placed on opposite ends immediately signalled that the friendship we were about to witness unfold was not a typical one. The air of tension that their relationship is charged with was made palpable from the beginning, even before the two characters had opened their mouths. Still and silent, they sat a few metres apart from each other at what looked like school desks, enveloped in a column of rising smoke and dust. Instead of words, we are initially drawn into the characters’ inner world by Hatis Noit’s melancholy vocals, which, stretched out on a loop, seem to echo into infinity, giving the entire sound piece a sacred quality. As the title suggests, the two main figures are driven by a desire to escape from the harsh reality of being a misfit teenager (worst combination ever), but also by a search for happiness in an ultimately flawed world; a search which, perhaps, never comes to an end. These themes, if not uttered explicitly through the characters’ speech, emerged clearly from Hatis Noit’s audio palette, enhanced by the pulsing interplay of blue and red lights. Contradicting feelings of anguish and hope accompany the existential themes at the heart of the book, as naïve idealism meets indifferent cruelty.

Image credit: Reiko Toyama

Later in the plot it is revealed that the title also refers to a painting hung inside a museum that the two classmates, who, in the meantime, have become each other’s only, if secret, friend, visited during the summer holidays. It is a painting that Kojima herself has renamed ‘Heaven’ because the original title was so “boring that it made (her) cry”. This act of renaming is important, since it contrasts with Kojima’s otherwise seemingly resigned passivity in her victimhood at school. By renaming the painting, she exerts her own perspective onto her living environment. She is a firm believer in the power of perspective, something that crops up again when she explains to ‘Eyes’ that their struggle as victims of bullying serves a real purpose, and is therefore not meaningless. Rather it humanises and sensitises them. The meaning of Heaven as something we have the potential to seek and envision for ourselves seems to ensue from this Nietzschean tinged passage. By default of their abstracted nature however, such notions are in constant flux, transient and elusive.

Nietzsche’s influence on the book’s subtext surfaces again through Kojima’s final speech, where she emphasises that “(they) are not giving in. (They) are letting it happen. (Their) will is intact”, thus referencing the German philosopher’s ‘Will to Power’ theory, but somewhat reversing it too. Whereas the original theory states that it is inherently human to desire dominance over other external bodies/forces, Kawakami demonstrates how apparent submission, ‘letting it happen’ can be equally or even more powerful when it is a deliberate act of will. Whereas the violence inflicted by the bullies doesn’t ‘matter’ to them, it is randomly wielded, thus losing all its significance. This surrender expressed by Kojima is deliberately chosen and subsequently turns into a form of ecstatic transcendence.

Favoured by a minimal mise-en-scene coupled with Hatis Noit’s ethereal soundscape, the philosophical substance of the book unequivocally shone through the Purcell Room of the Southbank Centre. Driving the novel to its frenzied and bittersweet climax is the conflict between tenderness and brutality, between acceptance and resistance. As opposite facets of the same coin, it is suggested that one cannot exist without the other- it is and was how the universe has always worked, based upon the clash of individual molecular particles.

Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor


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