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from the February 2010 issue

Rieko Matsuura’s “The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P”

Reviewed by Juliet Grames

Twenty-two-year-old Kazumi, an otherwise typical girl, wakes up one morning to find that the big toe on her right foot has turned into a penis. Suddenly everything in her life is upended. After dumping her boyfriend, who reacts unfavorably to the new toe-penis (he tries to cut it off), Kazumi begins her journey of self-discovery, exploring her unprecedented situation. Now that she has a penis, for example, should she still be as wary of having sex with women? Should she expect her male lovers to be willing to touch her new penis? Will she have to wear socks at the pool?

Published in Japan in 1993, Rieko Matsuura’s The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P went on to become a bestseller and a cult classic there, and is now available in English for the first time with Kodansha’s publication of Michael Emmerich’s able translation. Strewn with simultaneously powerful and titillating observations about humans’ attempts to find erotic and emotional compatibility, The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P is not quite an allegory; the toe-penis, though certainly symbolic of many sexual questions young women face, is also an actual penis. Kazumi’s condition may seem like a supernatural occurrence, but the rest of the book is rooted in reality. The result is a wild fairy tale that resonates deeply. What woman, after all, has not wondered (however idly) what it would be like to have a penis? What man has wondered what it would be like not to?

In the childlike Kazumi we are offered the perfect narrator in this re-coming-of-age story. She documents each thought, sensation, and misgiving in a plainspoken fashion, and her deliberated bluntness reopens thought processes which readers probably have not explored as adults. Masao, Kazumi’s first boyfriend, is unwilling to come in contact with the toe-penis—he admits he thinks of penises, including his own, as dirty. Kazumi comes to think this supposedly normal man has deep and irrational hang-ups: “He showed no hesitation to shove a part of his body he considered dirty into the mouth of someone he loved … Was the pleasure he got from fellatio based on a kind of cruelty?” In another memorable conversation, Kazumi’s male friend Tamotsu tells her that porn doesn’t turn her on because her penis hasn’t matured yet. Kazumi, ever vigilant of her reality, shoots back “Is that what you call maturity? When your sexual desires conform to a pattern?” Here and elsewhere Matsuura makes the reader pause to consider.

Endlessly entertaining, The Apprenticeship of Big Toe P scratches a secret itch that transcends culture or gender. Michael Emmerich’s translation is both lucid and highly readable; he jumps the hurdles of Japanese-language puns and ideograph explanations nimbly. Anyone who reads Matsuura’s cult classic is guaranteed to come away with a more dynamic view of their own biologies and relationships.

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