A Small Charred Face

Title: A Small Charred Face
Japanese Title: ほんとうの花を見せにきた (Hontō no hana o mise ni kita)
Author: Kazuki Sakuraba (桜庭 一樹)
Translator: Jocelyn Allen
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 239

A Small Charred Face is a collection of three interconnected stories about vampires and the humans who love them. These vampires sleep during the day, fly by night, feed on human blood, can’t see their reflections, and never age during their 120-year lifespan. They also smell like grass and burst into bloom at the end of their lives, and they are called Bamboo. Their laws forbid them from befriending humans, but sometimes an outsider, alone and destitute on the margins of society, manages to catch the attention and the heart of a Bamboo.

The first and longest story, which frames the other two stories in the book, is “A Small Charred Face.” The story begins with horrific violence, with the narrator, a boy named Kyo, trying to escape a criminal organization that has just raped and killed his mother and sister. A Bamboo appears, hoping to feed on the bodies, but it ends up rescuing Kyo instead. The Bamboo, a young man named Mustah, takes him home to a seaside cottage where he lives with his partner Yoji. Kyo, who has grown up in wealth and privilege, is forced to adapt to life in the impoverished community, and Mushtah and Yoji convince him to disguise himself as a girl so that the people who killed his family won’t find him. Growing up as a girl in a household with two vampire fathers in a neighborhood ravaged by economic inequality, Kyo actually manages to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, but problems arise when a period of adolescent rebellion brings him to the attention of other Bamboo, who will not tolerate their existence becoming known to humans.

The second story (and the title story of the original Japanese publication), “I Came to Show You Real Flowers,” follows Marika, a female Bamboo from “A Small Charred Face,” several decades after her life intersects with Kyo’s story. Marika was transformed into a Bamboo when she was a teenager, so her mind and body remain those of a young woman. Marika adopts a human girl named Momo who has nowhere else to go, and together the two of them enact revenge on the men who prey on the weak and defenseless, which Momo luring them into a secluded spot so that Marika can swoop down, break their necks, and eat them. As Momo grows older, however, she begins to grow weary of being constantly on the run and surrounded by violence.

The third story, “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” is the origin story of Ruirui, who will go on to lead a group of Bamboo immigrants from China to Japan. This story is narrated from the perspective of Ruirui’s older sister, the fifth child of the Bamboo royal family. This nameless young woman describes how the Bamboo are respected and revered in the small and isolated rural community that surrounds their castle in the mountains, and how the princes and princesses are carefully brought up according to Confucian tradition. All of this changes with the Cultural Revolution, however, which brings outsiders to the village and spreads distrust among the villagers. Anyone who deviates from the narrow ideology of the Communist Party must be struck down for the good of the people, so even the seemingly invincible Bamboo find themselves is terrible danger.

Kazuki Sakuraba began her career by writing light novels; and, although A Small Charred Face contains scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault, it still feels like young adult fiction in many ways. The narrators are children (or have the minds of children), and their worldview is correspondingly myopic. Although the third story occurs during the Cultural Revolution, it’s difficult to ascertain when the first two stories are set. They might be set in the present, or in the near future, or at the end of the twenty-first century. Technology is never mentioned, nor are any events that would have led to the circumstances under which Kyo and Marika lost their families. What is “the Organization” that goes around murdering and raping women and children, and why doesn’t anyone have a cellphone? Is the story set in an alternate universe in which Japan descended into chaos at some point during the twentieth century; and, if so, what happened? Unfortunately, the narrators are not interested in anything other than their own teenage emotional drama, so they don’t even hint at the state of the society outside of their own circle of acquaintances. Meanwhile, they simply take it for granted that the people around them are routinely raped and murdered as a matter of course. The stories also decline to explore the nature and culture of the Bamboo, and there’s only a bare minimum of worldbuilding and trope exploration.

As frustrating as these limitations may be, I think they’re fair. The reader can only speculate about what happened to Japan in this fictional universe, but the Cultural Revolution was very real, and there’s no reason a fourteen-year-old who survived something like that would be able to understand the larger geopolitical currents that resulted in everyone around them being suddenly being dragged out into the street and killed. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched to think that something like this could happen in Japan – or that it could happen anywhere, for that matter.

What A Small Charred Face does – and what it does very well – is to allow the reader to share the experience of living on the absolute margins of society as an outsider. The vampires in these stories are a metaphor for difference, of course, but this metaphor is far from abstract. The Bamboo are openly in same-sex relationships, and they are openly immigrants, openly working awful night-shift jobs, and openly in economically precarious positions. Mustah is Brazilian, Yoji is Chinese, and Ruirui is a political refugee. Although these characters live in hand-to-mouth circumstances, none of them threatens Japanese society. On the contrary, they provide the love, hope, and comfort that Japanese society is not able to offer to its own children. Yes, the Bamboo are literal vampires who feed on the blood of humans, but the majority of them obtain the blood they need by working in healthcare-related industries, especially those that force people to work awful hours and don’t pay well. Given Japan’s aging population and the severity of its healthcare crisis, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I’m not generally a fan of young adult fiction, especially when it intersects the genre of supernatural romance, and I was not expecting to be as deeply moved by A Small Charred Face as I was. Sakuraba stages a trenchant social critique within the dystopian environment she has created for her vampires, but her characters are beautifully realized and full of heart. Their flaws are relatable, their kindness is believable, and their unhappy endings are a consequence of the profound injustices of our own world. If you believe in the transformative potential of young adult novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent, then I cannot recommend A Small Charred Face highly enough. And if you love monsters and see their difference as a reflection of your own, please rest assured that the gay romance in these stories is treated with sensitivity, as are feminist politics and gender fluidity.

Apparitions

Title: Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Daniel Huddleston
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2000 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 265

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo is a collection of nine supernatural stories set in the Edo period (1600-1868), a historical era of relative peace that preceded Japan’s modernization. The author, Miyabe Miyuki, is known outside of Japan for her fantasy and suspense novels, but she also writes historical fiction informed by her love of the city of Tokyo.

Apparitions is a difficult book to break into, especially for someone who doesn’t have a great deal of background knowledge about Japan. Although the six-page thematic introductory essay by Higashi Masao attempts to situate Miyabe’s historical fiction within the tradition of Western horror, each of the stories in this collection is thoroughly suffused with what might be termed Japanese cultural odor. While this is far from a bad thing, the jumble of geographic and personal names that Miyabe employs to add color to her stories won’t carry the same narrative weight for most readers of this translation as it would for someone more familiar with the cultural and historical context she references.

The opening story, “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū,” provides a good example of how these references work to create a sense of atmosphere – or, for many readers, may simply be strange and confusing. After the end of the Kyōhō era, in the fourth year of Bunka, a boy named Ginji is “sent off to work at a cotton wholesaler called the Daikoku’ya, in Tōri Setomono-chō” by an older man at the Mannen’ya, an employment agency “located in Ōdenma-chō Block 1” that places apprentices in the wholesale businesses “that dotted the way from Ōdenma-chō and the surrounding area on through Muromachi, Takara-chō, Suruga-chō, and Nihonbashitōri-chō” (18). Miyabe uses the names of these emperor reigns, businesses, and neighborhoods as a shorthand to create a sense of time and place. Unfortunately for those of us not already well versed in Edo Period historical fiction, this sort of highly specific allusion is largely unaccompanied by any sort of explanation. As a result, to someone who isn’t a specialist in the Edo Period, the stories in Apparitions can seem rather dry.

Even the broader cultural allusions that Miyabe uses to add flavor to her stories are only mentioned in passing without any sort of elaboration. To return to “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū,” the premise of the story is that the fourteen-year-old protagonist Ginji is employed by Tōichirō, the son of the prosperous cotton wholesale business Daikoku’ya, to run errands, some of which involve carrying messages to Tōichirō’s various ladyfriends. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Tōichirō wants his family’s business to start selling tea towels printed with monogatari moyō, or scenes from literary romances such as The Tale of Genji. His father tells him that this is a bad idea, as such items have come to be associated with real-world cases of shinjū, or double suicide, in which several pairs of lovers tied their hands together with these towels so that they would have a greater likelihood of drowning when they jumped into a river.

One thing leads to another, and when Tōichirō gets married he moves his mistress O-Haru to the neighborhood of Ōshima-mura, which “was on the other side of the Ōkawa River, on past Fukagawa” (34). On being sent to O-haru’s villa one afternoon, Ginji arrives to find it empty, and as he dozes off in the foyer he dreams that he sees the lifeless bodies of Tōichirō and O-haru deeper inside the house, their wrists bound with a monogatari moyō tea towel.

To anyone familiar with Japanese drama, “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū” is redolent of numerous other stories involving the ghosts of star-crossed lovers appearing in forgotten and out-of-the-way places. It’s precisely because Miyabe is confident in her reader’s familiarity with such ghost stories in the Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatrical traditions, however, that she doesn’t go out of her way to deepen the eerie atmosphere by means of other literary devices. Perhaps a Western equivalent of this might be naming a character Horatio and thereby expecting the reader to associate him with chilly Scandinavian sea winds and the sun setting early in the day without otherwise supplying the character with any personality traits. Unfortunately, Miybe’s allusions may pass entirely over the heads of unfamiliar readers.

Although two or three of the stories in Apparitions are strong enough to stand on their own, the book isn’t so much a collection of accounts of individual people and the ghosts they leave behind as it is a cumulatively growing narrative about the city of Edo itself. If the reader can tough out their initial sense of disorientation, however, the geography of the city and the character of its people gradually begin to take shape with each successive story.

That being said, the best stories need no contextualization. In my favorite story, “The Oni in the Autumn Rain,” an older woman offers sound and canny advice to a younger woman that transcends time and place. Moreover, the cleverness of the surprise ending to the story, in which it is revealed that the circumstances of this conversation were not what they seemed, needs no cultural background knowledge to be appreciated.

I use another of the stand-out stories in the collection, “Cage of Shadows,” as one of the readings in my upper-level “Tokyo Stories in Japanese Fiction” seminar. It serves as an excellent starting point for a discussion of Edo period fiction in that it evokes the themes and tone of popular stories from the eighteenth century while still employing conventions relating to psychologically astute characterization and linear plot progression that contemporary readers have come to take for granted. As an added bonus, the imagery of the story is deliciously grotesque, and the way it ends is downright creepy.

Overall, it’s difficult to recommend Apparitions to a casual thrill seeker; but, to a patient reader, allowing the stories enough time to build a gradual atmosphere of strangeness on the margins of human activity is akin to watching twilight deepen into darkness as an evening fog rises from the ground. Again, many readers may find themselves lost in the maze of foreign words and names, but if you’re interested in Japanese ghost stories and looking for a nice collection of original and historically grounded horror fiction with lovely Gothic undertones then Miyabe Miyuki has you covered.

Dendera

Title: Dendera
Japanese Title: デンデラ (Dendera)
Author: Satō Yūya (佐藤 友哉)
Translators: Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 360

Dendera is not an easy book to read. Although the cover copy describes the story as being set in “a utopian community” of old women, this is no tale of feminist empowerment. Rather, every page practically bleeds with suffering and human misery, and the only salvation for any of the characters lies in death.

In the Village, there is a strictly enforced rule that everyone must Climb the Mountain when they reach the age of seventy. Men and women who reach this age are carried on the back of their oldest child, who leaves them in the wilderness so that they may ascend to Paradise. That time has come for Kayu Saitoh, and she is ready – all she wants is to lie down and rest. As the snow falls around her on the Mountain, she embraces the sensation of her body becoming cold, knowing that when she sleeps, she will not wake in this world.

Right before she passes out, however, Kayu Saitoh is rescued and taken to Dendera, a settlement formed on the Mountain by all the women who were abandoned by their families and left to die of exposure. Dendera is little more than a collection of flimsy huts, but the community of fifty women has supported itself for more than three decades. These women don’t want to die, and so they rescue each other, eking out a meager living from the harsh environment.

The leader of Dendera is a woman named Mei Mitsuya, who founded the settlement because, as she says herself, “I had no intention of dying.” Mei Mitsuya hates the Village, but simply staying alive is not revenge enough for her. Her ultimate goal is therefore to accumulate enough resources to attack and destroy the Village. This is easier said than done, however, as life is not easy on the Mountain, especially for a small group of older women. They barely have enough to eat, and it is only by monitoring the community’s food supply that Mei Mitsuya is able to maintain her control over the other women.

Kayu Saitoh, who is resents being robbed of the opportunity to die a “pure” death, feels no gratitude toward Mei Mitsuya or any feeling of investment in Dendera. This sense of detachment allows her to see the power dynamics of the community, especially the tension between the “hawks,” which is what Mei Mitsuya’s faction calls itself, and the minority group of “doves,” who seem to want nothing more than for the village to prosper. This conflict is subtle, however, as the main concern of the Dendera inhabitants is feeding themselves. After all, no one has much energy to spare for anything besides hunting, scavenging, and rudimentary farming, not to mention the care of those too senescent to care for themselves.

Unfortunately, the old women aren’t the only ones going hungry, as this particular winter has been especially fierce. A large bear who has established her territory on the Mountain is starving, as is her cub. She eventually becomes desperate enough at attack the human settlement, which throws the tiny society into complete disarray. As Kayu Saitoh watches everything fall apart around her, she begins to catch glimpses of Dendera’s dark secrets. The bear is a terrible enemy, but this creature is far from the most frightening threat besieging the community.

If you want to read about old women being evil to each other in a wilderness setting, Dendera is your book. I found myself fascinated by this story, especially when it became clear that there was a deeper mystery underlying the basic struggle for survival. I appreciate just how unapologetically mean and selfish each of the women is, and this darkness of characterization served to render their rare moments of kindness and cooperation shine all the brighter. I also enjoyed the interludes of narration from the bear’s perspective, which don’t attempt to attribute her with human characteristics but still engender a strong sense of sympathy for her own struggle to survive.

Although the story isn’t set in any particular time or place, it might be possible to read Dendera as an allegory for the precarity faced by a rising number of older people in Japan, especially in the context of the plethora of (relatively) recent news media stories about people who fall out of touch with their families and effectively “disappear” only to then be found in their houses or apartments weeks after they die. That being said, the story has a certain quality of timelessness that allows it to function as a study of human character that transcends any specific social or historical context. I could easily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys highbrow horror fiction, regardless of whether they know or care anything about Japan.

Dendera is gritty and compelling human drama. The story takes a number of interesting turns before moving in a surprising direction as it builds up to an ending that is magnificently transcendent. The unrelenting unpleasantness of its subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste; but, if your stomach is strong enough, Dendera is a thoroughly satisfying novel.

The Graveyard Apartment

the-graveyard-apartment

Title: The Graveyard Apartment
Japanese Title: 墓地を見おろす家 (Bochi o miorosu ie)
Author: Koike Mariko (小池 真理子)
Translator: Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Pages: 325

Kano Misao and her husband Teppei have found the perfect apartment. It’s quiet and spacious with southern exposure, and it’s in a new, modern building. Sure, this building happens to be right next door to a graveyard, but it’s the 1980s, and the pleasant proximity to an open green space outweighs any sort of silly superstitious stigma. The only problem is that strange things always seem to be happening in the basement. It might be that the building is haunted, but why? And what would the ghosts want from Misao and Teppei?

Like many other haunted house stories, The Graveyard Apartment is, at its heart, a family drama. Misao and Teppei are happy together with their five-year-old daughter Tamao and their dog Cookie, but the bright little family is trailed by the dark shadow of Teppei’s first wife Reiko, who was driven to suicide by her husband’s affair with Misao. When the stress of the paranormal activity in their new apartment places stress on Misao and Teppei’s relationship, the fault lines of their marriage begin to crack. The novel opens inauspiciously with the death of Tamao’s pet bird Pyoko, who the girl claims now visits her in dreams. Misao and Teppei’s disagreement over how to handle their daughter’s insistence on the reality of the supernatural is the first of many arguments, which gradually escalate over the course of the story.

The Graveyard Apartment is not The Shining, however, and the ghosts troubling the family are not manifestations of buried psychosexual traumas – they are, most assuredly, actual vengeful spirits. The horror of the novel derives from the fact that, despite the lingering guilt over Reiko’s suicide, the malice of the building’s ghosts could not be directed at a more normal and easygoing family. If a sweet young mother and fledgling illustrator like Misao can find herself trapped in a claustrophobic basement while unknown things approach unseen in the darkness, it could happen to anyone.

It turns out that the apartment building is a remnant of a failed development project from the 1960s that would have resulted in an underground shopping plaza connecting the basements of several office and residence buildings to the local train station. The neighborhood temple resisted this development and refused to sell or subdivide its land, however, and so the tunnel under the graveyard was left unfinished, with the Kanos’ building the only part of the project that came to fruition. The link between the temple graveyard and the ghosts in the basement is extremely tenuous (especially since the point of Buddhist funerary rites is to pacify angry spirits), but the haunting can be more easily understood as the consequences of the era high economic growth, which has finally started to claim victims as the bubble economy begins to collapse in on itself.
The Kanos were led to believe that they could have it all – Teppei could divorce his old-fashioned wife and marry for love, Misao could have both a child and a freelance career in a creative field, and they could find a reasonably priced apartment in a convenient location to house their happy family. It had to be too good to be true, right?

Originally published in 1988, The Graveyard Apartment is a reflection of the anxieties concerning the optimistic consumerism of the 1980s, in which an ideal middle-class lifestyle was widely considered to be glossy and attainable as the magazines Misao illustrates. Although the real threat to families ended up being overinflated property values, Koike’s ghosts are creepy enough on their own even without any sort of economic allegory, and the end of the novel is genuinely disturbing. The Graveyard Apartment is a satisfying slow burn of a haunted house story perfectly suited to its setting in Tokyo, and I highly recommend it to my fellow fans of horror fiction.

( Review copy provided by Thomas Dunne Books. )

The Black Cat Takes A Stroll

the-black-cat-takes-a-stroll

Title: The Black Cat Takes a Stroll: The Edgar Allan Poe Lectures
Japanese Title: 黒猫の遊歩あるいは美学講義 (Kuroneko no yūho arui wa bigaku kōgi)
Author: 森 晶麿 (Mori Akimaro)
Translator: Ian M. MacDonald
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Bento Books
Pages: 146

Let me preface my review of The Black Cat Takes a Stroll by saying that this book is misogynistic pseudo-intellectual garbage.

I’ve tried to keep my tone sane and reasonable, but I don’t want to mislead anyone into wasting their time reading about something that celebrates notions of male dominance and superiority. If you know this sort of thing won’t appeal to you, it’s probably best to skip this review.

The Black Cat Takes a Stroll is a collection of short horror-themed mystery stories centered around “the Black Cat,” a genius 24-year-old professor. The narrator is a first-year PhD student specializing in Western literature. She became friends with the Black Cat when the two were undergraduates together, but now the narrator is the Black Cat’s personal assistant, or “sidekick,” as she calls herself. She has decided to write her dissertation on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and the book opens with the Black Cat mansplaining the narrator’s research to her.

This is how each of the six stories in the book plays out: something strange happens within the narrator’s circle of friends and acquaintances, she doesn’t understand what’s going on, and so she goes to the Black Cat, who delivers a condescending lecture about literature and philosophy. The mysteries are bizarre and absurd, and they tend to be more reminiscent of the “erotic grotesque nonsense” of the Shōwa-era dark fantasist Edogawa Ranpō than they are of the dark yet largely linear logic of Edgar Allan Poe, yet the Black Cat still draws on his knowledge of European intellectual traditions to explicate the psychology of the people involved.

In the first story, “To the Moon and Back,” the narrator has come into possession of a hand-drawn map that doesn’t seem to correspond to the neighborhood it purports to represent. Although the provenance of this map clearly suggests the circumstances of its creation (the narrator found it carefully preserved and tucked away in her mother’s dresser drawer, which would lead most people to the immediate conclusion that it was given to her by a former lover), the Black Cat is more interested in discussing abstractions relating to mapmaking. His mental process is explained by the narrator as follows: “Applying Bergsonian aesthetics to literary criticism is the Black Cat’s specialty. Upon returning from Paris, he published a paper titled, Dynamic Schema and the Poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé that caused a sensation” (12). Through a series of complicated mental gymnastics, the Black Cat is able to apply a diluted mishmash of schema theory to arrive at the obvious conclusion, ie, the secret letter in the narrator’s mom’s underwear drawer is from the narrator’s mom’s secret lover. Good job, son! Handshakes all around.

The more intriguing story underneath the plot of “To the Moon and Back” concerns why the narrator’s mother had a secret lover to begin with. According to the narrator, her mother is a successful academic specializing in Japanese literature, a job that has not been easy for her. As the narrator says, “Japanese universities are feudal institutions. To succeed in the ivory tower of academe, a woman has to work at least twice as hard as her male colleagues – which only makes my mom seem that much more amazing” (15). Because the narrator has entered graduate school because of her respect and admiration for her mother, I wanted to know more about this woman and her relationship to her daughter, but the author never allows the narrative focus on the Black Cat to waiver for more than a few paragraphs.

This is a major shortcoming in all of the stories in the collection, in which female characters function solely as plot devices and abstract concepts for the Black Cat to play with. To add insult to injury, the Black Cat loves to cite real-life Western scholars and theorists, but never in the entire book does he mention an actual female writer.

I mean listen, we’ve all read Sherlock Holmes and watched the Iron Man movies, and we all love narcissistic yet brilliant male characters, but the misogyny underlying The Black Cat Takes a Stroll frequently results in awkward and uncomfortable situations that serve to underscore the author’s disdain for women. To give a representative example, in the fourth story, “The Hidden Flower,” the Black Cat manipulates the narrator into a situation in which she will be raped by his uncle so that he can prove a point to her. His uncle doesn’t take the bait, and so the Black Cat brings the narrator home with him and hypnotizes her so that she won’t remember what happened. He can’t stop himself from bragging about the incident after the fact, however, because he still wants the narrator to understand the point he’s trying to make. Instead of being like, “Wow, it’s super not cool that you set me up to be sexually assaulted for the sake of winning an argument and then tried to gaslight me,” the narrator is comforted by the level of control the Black Cat is capable of exerting over her. At the end of the story, she says, “My head slumps onto the Black Cat’s shoulder. Safe and secure, I feel I could sleep forever” (96-7).

It’s entirely possible that I could be misreading or overreacting to “The Hidden Flower,” but honestly, I’m not too terribly interested in going through it again. In any case, this is merely one of the many examples of the Black Cat’s patronizing attitude regarding the narrator and her subsequent worship of him. Here’s another example from the first page of the story…

This stuff crumbles the moment I touch it with my chopsticks. Sesame tofu isn’t meant to crumble. It’s supposed to be gooey. I’m baffled.

“A bit like the paper you just presented,” observes the Black Cat seated beside me. He’s alluding to the fiasco that I’ve just succeeded in putting out of my mind. The guy is a fiend – a genius, true, but nonetheless a fiend. Then again, maybe that’s the nature of geniuses. (73)

No, no it’s not. This guy is nothing more than a garden-variety asshole, and it’s painful to see the narrator fawn over him.

The Black Cat Takes A Stroll is an unironic romanticization of male misogyny within an academic context, and I hated every page. If you’re a woman who has seen male colleagues promoted ahead of you, and if you’re sick of being told your business by insufferable male douchebags, and if you’re frustrated by the societal assumption that men know more about your mind and body than you do, then the stories in this collection might hit a little too close to home. The gut punches this book delivers are frequent and unyielding, and I couldn’t read more than five pages at a time. Even if you’re not as sensitive to overt sexism as I am, I still don’t think the mysteries presented by the author (such as the mystery of the letter in the mother’s underwear drawer) are all that original or compelling.

I’m happy to see that a book like The Black Cat Takes a Stroll has been published in English translation – it’s good to see work coming out that isn’t associated with the current big names familiar to English-language readers. It’s also wonderful that novella-length genre fiction from Japan is finding its way into English, and I think that Bento Books is doing something interesting and important. Still, between misogynistic light novels and misogynistic suspense fiction, I feel that there’s a definite bias in the material that has come out in the past few years, and The Black Cat Takes a Stroll doesn’t add anything new to the landscape of contemporary Japanese fiction in translation.

Review copy provided by Bento Books.

Now You’re One of Us

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Title: Now You’re One of Us
Japanese Title: 暗鬼 (Anki)
Author: Nonami Asa (乃南 アサ)
Translators: Michael Volek and Mitsuko Volek
Publication Year: 2007 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 239

A few months ago, 26-year-old Noriko married into the Shito family, who operate a grocery and rice trading business in the Koganei suburb of Tokyo. Noriko’s husband Kazuhito, whom she became acquainted with through the auspices of a matchmaker, is handsome and loving, and his mother Kimie wants nothing more than for Noriko to be happy. The Shito house is large and surrounded by gardens, and the extended family of eight people all lives there comfortably. Noriko’s new life seems almost too good to be true.

It turns out that this perfect family is indeed too good to be true. The first indication that something is amiss appears three months into Noriko’s marriage, when one of the Shito family’s tenants tries to warn her about something but is immediately silenced by Kimie. When this man is killed in a mysterious explosion a week later, the Shito family denies any knowledge of the incident and sends Noriko to the funeral by herself.

Although she tries to suppress her gut instincts, Noriko finds herself bothered by the uncanniness of the Shito family. Everyone is too kind and too friendly, which renders it even more perturbing that the family never receives visitors or attends community events. In addition, the Shitos seem to have far too much money coming in from the family business, the Ichifuji Rice Mill, which primarily operates as a general store. Noriko isn’t allowed into certain areas of the manor, including the greenhouse, and she suspects that the family is meeting together late at night while she’s sleeping.

Noriko has no evidence to support her suspicions, however, and she’s hesitant to leave the comfortable household in the upscale suburb of Tokyo and return to her family in rural Yamanashi prefecture. After all, Noriko is well aware of just how lucky she is to have been given the opportunity to enter into such an advantageous marriage. When she meets her high school friend Tomomi in the city and hints at her concerns regarding the Shito family, Tomomi is thoroughly creeped out, but Noriko chalks up her friend’s response to jealousy.

Nevertheless, Noriko can’t shake her feeling that something is wrong with the Shito family. When she eventually confronts her husband Kazuhito, things become very strange very quickly, and the story shifts from a mystery centered around the death of the tenant to a terrifying account of gaslighting, a form of mental manipulation in which someone’s perception of reality is repeatedly denied while what they know to be true is replaced by false information. The members of the Shito family work together as a collective to destroy Noriko’s sense of identity, alternating between befuddlement that her memories do not align with theirs and outright bullying and abuse. By the end of the book, Noriko’s “pride was tattered, and all of her values smashed to bits. Everything – her confidence and will, and her reasons for being who she was – had vanished like dust into a breeze” (215).

Generally speaking, the accusation that a person not in a position of power has deliberately fabricated falsehoods serves to silence voices that offer contradictory evidence against a normative position, and it’s easy to read Noriko’s trials as an allegory of how the social institution of marriage is almost cult-like in the control it exerts over young women’s psyches and sense of self-worth. Moreover, the Suburban Gothic of the Shito family intersects with the repressed trauma of the Pacific War, and the bizarre history of the clan is braided into the strands of Japan’s history as a national polity.

Now You’re One of Us is a truly disturbing piece of feminist horror. The novel is also genuinely compelling, and it’s almost impossible for me to put down once I start reading, no matter how many times I return to it. Nonami Asa has been hailed as one of contemporary Japan’s finest writers of mystery and horror, and Now You’re One of Us showcases the author at the top of her game. By the time the reader understands what it means to be “one of us,” it’s too late to turn away, and the experience of surviving this book will stay with you long after its bone-chilling ending.

Strangers

Strangers

Title: Strangers
Japanese Title: 偉人たちとの夏 (Ijintachi to no natsu)
Author: Yamada Taichi (山田 太一)
Translator: Wayne P. Lammers
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1987 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 203

A 48-year-old television script writer named Harada is having a tough time of it. Having divorced his wife, he now lives by himself in a small apartment in a mostly empty building. A drama series he was supposed to work on has been canceled, and a friend and colleague has announced his intentions to pursue Harada’s ex-wife. After Harada’s friend informs him that they can no longer work together, he wanders in a haze until one day he decides to return to the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo where he grew up. On a whim he enters a rakugo performance, where he catches sight of a man who looks just like his late father. When the man goes out for a cigarette, Harada follows him and ends up being invited to the man’s home, where a woman who looks exactly like his late mother is waiting for them.

Around the same time, Harada has a strange encounter with a woman in her thirties whom he has nodded to a few times in the lobby of his building. Late one evening she shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne, remarking on how it’s eerie that the two of them are the only humans in the building. Because he’s still reeling from the emotional impact of his friend’s pronouncement regarding his wife, Harada tells her that he’s busy. When he calls her a week later, however, she gladly comes over. She makes romantic overtures and says she’ll sleep with him on the condition that he promises not to look at a mysterious wound on her chest. Is she just shy, or is something more sinister going on?

Harada’s ghost parents are charming and hospitable, so he continues visiting them. Harada’s father, a sushi chef, exhibits the charming gruffness and bluster of a stereotypical tradesman from the Shitamachi “old Tokyo” area in east Tokyo, and his mother is a sweet and gentle woman who loves her husband and son despite their flaws and amuses herself by playing old-fashioned games with hanafuda cards. Unlike Harada’s barren neighborhood in Shinjuku, Asakusa is full of warmth, and returning to his parents feels like stepping back into an idealized past in the postwar era.

Harada feels more alive than he has in years, but the people around him keep remarking on how terrible he looks. His new girlfriend seems especially concerned, and the intensity of her emotions is almost frightening. What does she want from him? What do his deceased parents want from him? Will he live long enough to find out?

Although Strangers plays with an interesting set of themes, the novel feels somewhat shallow. Harada is introspective but never arrives at any striking realizations about himself, and he’s too self-absorbed to make any serious attempts to understand the behavior of the people around him. Unfortunately, this Harada’s position as the point-of-view character renders the other characters as nothing more than stereotypes. Why do Harada’s parents return to the world of the living to see him? Because all parents love their children, of course. Why does Harada’s ex-wife pick fights with him? Because all women are crazy, of course. Why doesn’t Harada’s college-age son want to talk to him? Because all young people are ungrateful and temperamental, of course.

To me, Harada came off as an embodiment of male entitlement, and the books ends with his preconceptions justified and his place in the world reaffirmed. His seeming inability to change himself as the world changes around him is presented in a romantic light, as are the noble struggles of middle aged dudes everywhere. I didn’t find this story particularly engaging, but perhaps I’m simply not the intended audience.

Strangers is neither grisly nor subversive enough to inspire chills, but as a ghost story it offers an interesting theory on how different parts of Tokyo are haunted.