Across the Nightingale Floor by Gillian Rubinstein is about the story of teenagers Takeo and Kaede, set in a fictional medieval Japan-based world. Takeo, born as Tomasu, one of The Hidden, a religion based strongly on the Kakure Kirishitan, the Hidden Christians of Japan, swears revenge on Iida Sadamu of the Tohan who murdered his family and friends. Lord Shigeru of the Otori clan has similar interests and rescues and adopts Takeo. On his way to revenge, Takeo is confronted by the truth that he shares the blood and skills of The Tribe, a group of highly trained and supernatural skilled assassins, and starts to train in their arts to be able to kill Iida Sadamu one day. To reach the warlord he must cross the eponymous Nightingale Floor, an assortment of wooden floorboards which play a song if you step on them.
Kaede on the other hand, wants to survive captivity by the Noguchi and free herself. Knowing that her family’s honor is in her hands, however, she does as she is told, agreeing to marry Lord Shigeru whether she wants to or not and despite her reputation of men dying around her. But when she meets Takeo, both fall in love with each other, and wish for nothing more than to be together. Kaede’s betrothal with Lord Shigeru, as well as Takeo’s quest of revenge stand between them at first. But even when Lord Shigeru dies and Kaede, instead of Takeo, murders Iida Sadamu, The Tribe won’t let Takeo go, forcing him to leave Kaede and their love behind.
Both Takeo and Kaede, as well as several other characters, appear to challenge typical gender tropes throughout the novel. Men are often depicted as strong, powerful, and good fighters who enjoy bloodshed and have to protect their submissive wives, while women are shown to be rather kind, fragile, and weak and require protection from men. These binaries also play a role when the decision of who to marry has to be made. Men get to decide on their partner more often than women, who are sometimes even forced to marry against their will in a game of war and power. Women thus repeatedly appear more like objects than as human beings.
Takeo is depicted as weak at the beginning of the novel. On top of being indebted to Lord Shigeru and having to do everything that’s asked of him, Takeo is unable to talk due to being in shock after losing his family and shows his mourning by crying for them. Lord Shigeru, however, tells him to endure the pain instead of crying, elaborating that only children cry, while men and women endure. Even though men’s reluctance to show their pain through tears is a typical gender trope, it is still unusual that women also endure in this case. Takeo’s initial softness also goes against the common tropes.
His time with The Hidden taught Takeo to always forgive others and not to murder anyone. The slaughtering of his family, however, makes Takeo crave revenge and he learns how to fight to achieve his dream of killing Iida Sadamu. His inherited abilities from The Tribe prove to be useful on his quest and make him a natural-born assassin. Though while his craving for shedding blood, as well as his natural strength, belong to the typical gender tropes, Takeo still fights against most of his instincts. Throughout the novel, he is unwilling to murder anyone unless it is Iida Sadamu or in case it helps to end someone’s suffering.
Otori Shigeru also proves himself to be a character that challenges gender norms on several occasions. He tries to live without unnecessary fighting, treats both women and men equally and acts with kindness and a clear mind even when he knows he is being wronged. But while his behavior is a direct contrast to that of Iida Sadamu or Lord Noguchi, he is still able to act as a strong warrior and doesn’t hesitate when he has to kill others for what he believes is right. In that regard, Shigeru acts more according to common gender tropes than Takeo.
While many men, according to typical gender tropes of a patriachal feudal system such as the one depicted in Tales of the Otori, don’t respect women or acknowledge that they are incredibly strong, Takeo shows many times that he acts differently. He doesn’t get angry at Kaede after finding out that she murdered Iida Sadamu even though he wanted to be the one to kill him and recognizes her strength when they fight each other during practice. Takeo also notices how powerful Shizuka and Yuki are after having fought against one and having seen the other fight and kill several men. This depiction of female strength is portrayed several times throughout the novel and not only restricted to members of The Tribe, considering both Kaede and Lady Maruyama prove to be incredibly powerful as well.
Kaede’s development is especially interesting to look at when analyzing how far the novel challenges typical gender tropes. At the beginning of the story, she is shown as rather weak and helpless, a puppet in a game of power between men. Kaede is also willing to become the wife of whoever those in power ask her to marry, even though she would rather marry for love, if she can help her family that way.
Throughout the novel, she continues to be kind and thoughtful but proves herself to be very intelligent, as well as a powerful woman with a strong mindset. Kaede kills two men in self-defense, learns how to fight from Shizuka and is depicted as incredibly courageous. Her courage and strong mind help her when she is faced with Iida Sadamu towards the end of the novel. She is able to hide her fear and think clearly, thus managing to kill the warlord all on her own after deceiving him. Kaede’s behavior is directly compared to Lady Maruyama, who succumbs to her fears and hence dies. Her actions alone at the end of the novel thus challenge every typical gender trope.