“The Red Cocoon” begins with a man walking between houses, looking for a house to be his own. While he contemplates hanging himself, he realizes that perhaps he should consider his situation differently, and begin to look for his home rather than lament that he is without one. He is rebuffed when arguing with a homeowner that her house could be his, and is driven from the park bench he seeks out as substitute house by a policeman, who argues that the bench belongs to everyone, and therefore he cannot sleep on it. He wrestles with the idea of the bench belonging to everyone and yet not anyone. The man continues to search for “A house . . . houses that don’t disappear, turn into something else, that stand on the ground and don’t move” (Kobos 450). The story turns when he notices a red thread hanging from his shoe and begins to follow it, pulling on it, initially unaware that it is causing his foot to unravel. The thread begins to move on its own and unravels him entirely, wrapping him and constraining him as it does so until it forms a red cocoon. The man has a house now, but has nothing of him left to live inside it. The policeman finds the cocoon and takes it home for his son as a toy.
The strong theme of identify and belonging in Kobos’ story is represented as the man’s search for a house that belongs to him, and additionally where he belongs. The man is metaphorically seeking who he is, or his identity. He tries to find it in that which society has provided to other people, such as the woman homeowner. The woman is kind until she realizes that the man wants her house, at which time she is frightened and defensive, and shuts the window in the man’s face. In this she represents the society that fears and shuts out those who question it. The man tries to understand “the incomprehensible logic by which, because something belongs to someone, it does not belong to me ” (Kobos 450). He wonders why “everything belong[s] to someone else and not to me? Even if it isn’t mine, can’t there be just one thing that doesn’t belong to anyone?” (Kobos 450). He is questioning the structures on which his society is constructed, and why he is not allowed to question them or require proof that what others are presenting as truth is actually so. Because he is unwilling to accept society’s definition of place and self, he has no place to fit into.
Society rebuffs him in his search, and he therefore sacrifices himself, first unknowingly and then apart from his own will to form a house, in this case a cocoon. However, he is lost in the process, and the power structures of his society take what is left of him and give him to others in that power structure for their amusement. Kobos presents a situation where there are many houses and where property is to be owned by everyone, but where the individual is undone and ceases to exist. While the main character has technically achieved his goal – he has a house of his own – he in another sense has not. He muses “This, at least, is my house for sure, which nobody can keep me out of. The only trouble is now that I have a house, there’s no “I” to return to it” (Kobos 451). This idea and the fact that the thread is red, a color associated with communism, makes it likely that the thread represents that political structure. The spread of communism was a concern of many in 1950 when the story was written.
In contrast, “Newlyweds” centers on a drunken young man who has a home; he just is not sure whether he wants to go back to it. He stays on the train and rides past his stop, and is soon joined by an old vagrant who clears the rest of the passengers from the train car by his smell. The old man questions the young man, who ignores him, but then transforms into a beautiful woman, to whom the young man pays attention. The woman questions why he does not want to go home, gets him to describe his home and his wife, and leads him through several seemingly unrelated and rather existential conversations, causing him to consider the choices he is making and eventually decide to return home.
The character of the woman is central to the story, as she serves as the catalyst that causes the man to consider first the home and wife he has, then their shared language and how it creates and inclusiveness, followed by the nature of the train, and finally the community of which he is now part. Through this process, she helps him to see and appreciate his place and role, and therefore willingly chose to return to it even though he has the option to leave. The character serves as a conglomeration of the women the young man has favorably interacted with in the past. He notes he “definitely knew that face from somewhere— like maybe she was my favorite actress, or my first girlfriend, or a cousin, or my mother, or an older woman I’d lusted after— her face looked very familiar (Banana 868). Her smile “seemed awfully familiar to me (Banana 869) and “this being sitting next to me felt somehow familiar, like the scent of a place, before I was born, where all the primal emotions, love and hate, blended in the air” (Banana 871). In this familiarity she represents the favorable aspects of women and society, the very things the young man is avoiding in his drunken state.
Goff argues that Japanese literature often employs a trickster character, one that can transform and question the main character, as a way of causing that main character to develop positive traits or make good decisions (68). This trickster character will have a magic or mystic persona and will not reveal much about him or herself in the story, but instead serves to confront the main character, whether kindly or through pranks (Goff 68). Banana could have just had the young man talk to an older, wiser person. The fact that Banana causes the woman to emerge from an old smelly man and then return to this state after she is finished with the young newlywed supports the woman as a trickster in the story. She can therefore be interpreted in light of this established literary character role.
The theme of identify and belonging in Banana’s story are drawn out by the trickster character of the woman. The man enters the train out of habit, coming home from a night of drinking with his friends, which could also be viewed as a form of escape. The woman first confronts him with the wife and house he is avoiding. He describes them as wonderful and lovely, but yet with discontent. As the young man explains, “sometimes it’s so much fun at home that it makes me want to puke” (Banana 869). However, through this he must identify the causes of his melancholy towards his married life, that he is faced with predictability and focus on issues he feels are unimportant, that his lovely young wife does not provide the challenge or excitement he craves, and that her role as his wife both defines her and leaves her the perfect housewife, a condition he has created and now finds dissatisfactory.
The theme continues as the woman establishes intimacy with the young man through a secret language. The man is first intrigued as she explains, “They’re just words that only you and I can understand. You know, like words you only use with certain people, like with your wife, or an old girlfriend, or your dad, or a friend (Banana 869). From this perspective, their conversation returns to the man’s situation, where he lives, and he tells the woman, “Sometimes I feel like I’m living with the quintessential house wife. I mean, all she talks about is our home” (Banana 870). The man suddenly has flashbacks to emotional moments and people from his childhood, and feels “connected to them, despite their otherness” just as he felt familiarity with the woman (Banana 870).
The theme intensifies as the two discuss the train, what is it for and how it is used, which becomes a metaphor for the man in his society, including in his marriage, or for the purpose of marriage in life. The woman explains that while many people including the man use the train because they are sure it will take them to a certain place, she “contemplate[s] the potential of the train itself” (Banana 870). From this perspective, the young man is suddenly able to see his marriage, community, and society as positive rather than a hindrance. This is accomplished through an image from his neighborhood where various familiar people in his community present, representing different positive facets of life within society.
The pinnacle of this vision is the man’s wife, Atsuko. The man is frustrated as she spends time choosing shampoo, noting “Our house is Atsuko’s universe, and she fills it with small objects, all of her own choosing,” each chosen with the same intensity as the shampoo (Banana 872). This revelation of her character changes the man, causing him to view his wife and home as a “beautiful, all- encompassing web” “at once so polluted, yet so pure” that he must connect to it (Banana 872) It is then the young man realizes he is afraid, and that he must face his fears. With this new outlook, the man chooses to go home. As soon as he commits to this decision, the woman turns back into the vagrant old man, reinforcing her trickster character.
In both stories, the men act based on feelings of isolation. In “The Red Cocoon” it is isolation from society, while in “Newlyweds” it is married life. This isolation drives them to move away from their physical locations, whether by walking or staying on the train. Isolation similarly causes the man to have confrontations with the woman homeowner and policemen in Kabos’ tale, while the young man is confronted by the vagrant/woman in Banana’s story. Both characters are nameless, reinforcing their isolation. In “The Red Cocoon” there are no names of any kind, while in “Newlyweds” only the wife is named. Through this lack of names both authors present an opportunity for any reader to take the characters’ places and consider the similar situations we all face in life.
Both stories also base themselves in a concept of the house, or home. In “The Red Cocoon,” a house is something the main character lacks; in “Newlyweds” it represents the adult life that the young man fears. Bieger explains that the image of home or of a house is often associated with identify in literature, as our actual home provides much information about us, who we are, and how we fit into our larger society (17). The house also is an image of childhood, the place where our family resided and for many people an early memory of safety and provision (Beiger 17). The house/home therefore reflects and reinforces the search for identify and belonging in both stories.
These stories cause the reader to weigh the burdens and benefits of political / societal systems, of marriage, and of stable shelter, all structures that provide, or should provide, meaning and belonging in an otherwise ill-defined world. When these constructions work well, they increase our sense of identify and belonging just as they did for the characters in the stories. When they do not, we are left adrift. Sometimes this means losing our sense of self, but other times it clarifies who we are and helps us to make beneficial life choices.
Banana, Yoshimoto. “Newlyweds.” The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, edited by Thomas J. Rimer and Van C. Guessel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, 866-873.
Bieger, Laura. "No Place Like Home; Or, Dwelling in Narrative." New Literary History, vol. 46 no.1, 2015, pp.17-39,187.
Goff, Janet. "The Trickster in Japanese Culture and Literature." Japan Quarterly, vol. 44 no. 2, 1997, pp. 66-77.
Kobos, Abe. “The Red Cocoon.” The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, edited by Thomas J. Rimer and Van C. Guessel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011, 449-451.