The Great Passage

Title: The Great Passage
Japanese Title: Fune o amu (船を編む)
Author: Shion Miura (三浦 しをん)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 2017 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 217

The Great Passage is one of the kindest and most gentle books I’ve read during the past year. Despite the fact that it tells the story of a seemingly tedious enterprise, namely, the compellation of a dictionary, I found myself blazing through the novel because I had to find out whether or not the editors would manage to get their dictionary published. I then went back and read the book again so that I could take my time enjoying the quality of the writing and the translation.

The novel’s story is centered around Mitsuya Majime, a man who loves words but has trouble communicating with other people. Majime is initially placed into the Sales Department of Gembu Books, a large publisher based in Tokyo, but he flounders there like a fish out of water. His ineptitude comes to the attention of Masashi Nishioka, an extroverted and smooth-talking young man who, through a strange twist of fate, has been assigned to the Dictionary Editorial Department. Nishioka brings Majime to the attention of Kohei Araki, the editorial section chief, who immediately heads over to the Sales Department, notices Majime as soon as he steps into the room, and hires him on the spot.

By the end of the first chapter of The Great Passage, a dream team has been assembled. Majime is a philologist who is more than happy to check and double-check words and definitions, Nishioka recruits experts to write definitions for specialist words and placates the egos of grumpy professors, and Araki oversees the minutiae of editorial operations while running interference with the corporate bosses. Also on the team are Professor Matsumoto, an elderly academic who has devoted his life to the creation of a new dictionary, and Mrs. Sasaki, who is nominally an administrative assistant but pulls her weight around the office by picking up the slack of her male colleagues.

As Majime and his new coworkers deal with the mundane work and bureaucratic challenges involved in the compilation of a dictionary, a love story unfolds between Majime and a young chef named Kaguya, who lives in the same communal boarding house where Majime has rented a small room since college. Both Majime and Kaguya are shy and serious people, but they’re able to bond with each other through the auspices of Také, their chatty landlady, and Tora, the large tomcat that roams through the building at night. The couple is well-suited to one another, and their romance progresses quietly and without incident – with one major exception.

Majime, unsure of how to confess his feelings to Kaguya, decides to write her a love letter. As might be expected of the sort of person whose life’s passion is dictionary editing, his love letter is a garbled mess of rare words and convoluted literary allusions. Majime allows his extroverted colleague Nishioka to read the letter; and, although he tells Majime that the letter is perfect as it is, it causes Nishioka no small amount of amusement. It’s partially because of this ridiculous letter that Nishioka begins to feel a protective affection for Majime and resolves to do everything in his power to aid the budding dictionary editor in his goals. Later on in the story, when Nishioka is transferred to another department, he leaves a copy of the letter hidden in the dictionary editorial office so that his successor, a stylish young woman named Kishibe, will be better able to understand and appreciate Majime’s quirky but earnest personality. At the end of The Great Passage, after the main story concludes, there is a nine-page abbreviated excerpt of this letter with humorous annotations from Nishioka and Kishibe that are overflowing with silly jokes and heartfelt goodwill.

The dictionary itself, titled Daitōkai (translated as “The Great Passage”), eventually emerges as its own unique character in the story. The editorial staff regularly meets to discuss what sort of material belongs in an effective dictionary, as well as how an ideal definition should be structured. Unlike the numerous Japanese dictionaries that will have proceeded Daitōkai, Majime and his colleagues want their work to accurately reflect the concerns and interests of the people who live in contemporary Japan. To give an example…

“Dictionaries do tend to be written from the male perspective,” Professor Matsumoto said mildly. “They’re mostly put together by men, so they often lack words having to do with fashion and housework, for example. But that approach won’t work anymore. The ideal dictionary is one that everyone can join in using together, men and women of all ages, interested in all matters of life.” (34)

There is also some light discussion regarding the constructed nature of gender and sexuality implicit in certain words, and the staff ultimately takes a progressive view on many issues. They conclude, for example, that “love” need not be defined as the romantic attraction between a “man” and a “woman.” Kishibe, who initially worked in the editorial department of a women’s lifestyle magazine, is surprised to have been transferred to the staff of a dictionary, but she quickly realizes that what she considered to be common knowledge for a young professional woman serves as a valuable area of expertise to a staff largely comprised of middle-aged men. As she begins to devote herself to the project, Kishibe gains a mounting sense of appreciation for the endeavor…

Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago – a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart… Words gave things form so that they could rise out of the dark sea. (164)

Special mention must also be made of the fine work of the translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter. The conversations surrounding Japanese words, their synonyms, and their cultural contexts never feel awkward or forced, and even a reader with no familiarity of Japanese language and culture will be able to enjoy the linguistic play and fine distinctions of meaning. Moreover, the oddities of Japanese corporate culture are glossed over masterfully so that the reader is able to understand the relationships and tensions between professionals without getting bogged down in a mire of titles and hierarchies and formal modes of address.

Although The Great Passage may seem like a novel that will only be of interest to a niche audience, its appeal is far more expansive. This is a book for people who love words. It’s a book for people who love reading. It’s a book for people who love translation. And, in the end, The Great Passage is a celebration of people who love books.

Oh, and also! The novel was adapted into an anime, which is available in the United States through Amazon’s streaming service.

Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.

Ms Ice Sandwich

Title: Ms Ice Sandwich
Japanese Title: ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Misu Aisu Sandoicchi)
Author: Mieko Kawakami (川上 未映子)
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 92

Ms Ice Sandwich is a novella that gradually opens a door into the interior world of its protagonist, a boy living with his mother and grandmother in a commuter suburb. This boy is fascinated by a woman who sells sandwiches at the grocery store outside the train station, whom he calls “Ms Ice Sandwich” because of the ice-blue eyeshadow she always wears. Her makeup emphasizes her eyes, which she has had surgically altered to appear larger. The narrator, who is a strange little kid, becomes preoccupied with trying to capture Ms Ice Sandwich in art, obsessively drawing her facial features line by line and eyelash by eyelash.

The boy also gravitates toward Tutti, a girl in his class who was given this nickname (by the narrator himself, no less) after she once farted in class. Like the boy, Tutti is a bit strange, and she’s obsessed with gunfights. The boy learns that she lives alone with her father, who has filled their apartment with shelves of DVDs and makes time to sit down and watch a movie with her every week. Tutti’s love of gunfights stems from her interest in cinematic choreography, and the boy appreciates her ability to mimic calmness in the face of danger in the same way that he’s awed by the no-nonsense attitude of Ms Ice Sandwich in the face of customer rudeness.

Meanwhile, the boy’s mother is a weird one herself. Although the boy isn’t entirely sure what she does, she seems to be a self-employed spiritualist and fortune teller, and she’s recently had part of their house remodeled to resemble a caricature of a Western palace complete with a red carpet, foreign furniture, heavy curtains, and statues of angels. While the boy’s grandmother is bedridden in the back of the house, his mother spends an inordinate amount of time online, typing on her phone even when she’s out shopping. Like Tutti and Ms Ice Sandwich, however, the boy’s mother isn’t actually a bad person, and she loves her son in her own way.

The boy is perhaps ten or eleven years old, and Kawakami’s first-person narration skillfully captures his close attention to small and seemingly insignificant details, which are contrasted against a larger cluelessness concerning how the world works. The narrator doesn’t really know what’s going on with his mom, or his grandmother, or Tutti’s dad, or even Ms Ice Sandwich, but he nevertheless observes them with care and compassion. He is content to observe the movements of the people in his life until Tutti startles him out of his passivity, saying,

“When you say see you tomorrow to someone, it’s because you’re going to keep seeing them. It’s like at school you see everybody because they go to school every day. But when you graduate and you don’t go to school anymore, it stops and you don’t see everybody any more. If you want to see somebody, you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them any more. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.” (75)

Ms Ice Sandwich has no real plot or denouement, but Tutti’s words spark a small but significant shift in the narrator’s worldview that allows him to more fully appreciate the fact that his mother, his grandmother, and Ms Ice Sandwich all have lives that exist independently of his presence. Judging from the cover copy it might seem as if this is a novella about a boy’s sexual awakening, but the story actually hinges on a far more subtle emotional revelation. Thankfully, the narrator’s perspective is so singular and well-crafted that Ms Ice Sandwich‘s message about the ephemerality of human connection is never in any danger of becoming trite and sentimental.

According to the colophon, “This piece was published in the literary journal Shincho first in 2013, and in 2014 it was included in the novel Akogare, which is a combination of two stories: ‘Miss Ice Sandwich’ and ‘Strawberry Jam Minus Strawberry.'” At roughly ninety pages, Ms Ice Sandwich is short enough to read in one sitting, but it’s still substantial enough to feel like a self-contained world. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and I’m impressed by the fantastic work that Pushkin Press has put into its ongoing series of translations of quirky Japanese novellas.

your name.

Content warning: discussion of body swapping, gender dysmorphia, and social dysmorphia

Title: your name.
Japanese Title: 君の名は。(Kimi no na wa.)
Author: Makoto Shinkai (新海誠)
Translator: Taylor Engel
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 192

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

your name. is a novelization of director Makoto Shinkai’s your name., an animated film that tells the story of Mitsuha, a high school girl from rural Gifu prefecture who wishes she could be a boy in Tokyo in her next life. After an incredibly vivid dream in which she wakes up as “Taki,” a high school boy living in downtown Tokyo, she discovers it’s not a dream at all – and Taki is also switching bodies with her. As the two teenagers try to navigate each other’s lives and relationships, only able to communicate with each other only by writing notes in each other’s cell phones when they switch, they begin to unravel a mystery involving Mitsuha’s town.

First, a note about the style of the book: the film was not created for an unfinished book series, nor was it a post-release novelization. Rather, the novel was written in the late stages of the film’s production but released before the film debuted in Japan. In his Afterword, Shinkai writes,

In other words, it’s a novelization of the movie, but actually, as I’m writing this afterword, the movie hasn’t been finished yet. They tell me it will take another three months or so to complete. That means the novel will go out into the world first, so if you asked me which is the original work, the movie or the novel, I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” (Kindle location 2177)

As a result, the novel doesn’t have to backfill the character’s internal monologue, nor does the film have to focus on getting the characters’ internal dialogue to come across visually; both works fill in gaps in the other.

The film’s biggest strength is, by and large, bringing the imagery and emotions of the characters to life. In a film, narrative exposition can get in the way of acting and using visual cues to explain emotions of the characters. While the movie is heavily visual and expresses the subtlety of its characters’ emotions by showing instead of telling, the novel (as well as the translation) gets off to a rough start because the writing style is overly descriptive in light novel/YA novel fashion. Shinkai’s attempts to describe physical reactions and facial expressions while simultaneously describing the characters’ underlying emotions sometimes make the opening chapters seem clunky. However, the novella really hits its stride after the third chapter. With the difficulty of the exposition out of the way and the setting and characters established, Shinkai’s writing shines and the pace picks up.

What I really love about the book, in addition to the mystery of why Taki and Mitsuha start and stop switching bodies, is how both characters come to experience themselves differently because of swapping bodies. Mitsuha gets to explore her sexuality – she, not Taki, is the one that sets up the date with his coworker Okudera-sempai in the hopes that she herself will get to go on it as Taki. This is a contrast to a common plot line in body-swap fiction: that one of the two swapped people has a datemate and is scared of being expected to kiss or have sex with the other person’s partner for a variety of reasons, chiefly the consent of all three parties.

Another body-swap trope that Shinkai averts is that Taki doesn’t learn to be more emotional just by being in Mitsuha’s body. Instead, he learns from her actions, especially how she treats Okudera-sempai while in his body. Eventually, he says, he’s given up on pretending to be her and just acts like himself when he’s in her body, though he notices that he has her memories and that he experiences emotional and visceral reactions to people in her life, such as feeling comforted by seeing her grandmother and friends and angry when meeting her father.

The book also deals with a number of existential questions. For example, what is consciousness and how tied to ones body is it? Does the spirit live on apart from the body? Related, but not explicitly spelled out, is to what degree sexuality and gender identity are consciousness or a physical body. As a queer nonbinary person who experiences social dysphoria (being read as the wrong gender in social contexts) but not usually body dysmorphia (the feeling that something about your body is wrong), the book and film versions of your name. raised a lot of questions for me. Would I experience body dysmorphia if my body looked differently than it does? Would I experience body dysmorphia if I woke up in someone else’s body? Would I experience social dysphoria to be called by the wrong pronouns but not the ones I was assigned at birth? Would it matter if the other person were built similarly to me or if they had a very different body shape? If I were in a binary person’s body, would it be weird to be called by the wrong pronouns? For cisgender people, who have the luxury of knowing their own gender and rarely have their gender questioned, would swapping bodies seem awkward but not dysmorphic or dysphoric?

Moreover, Taki and Mitsuha are two thin, conventionally attractive, and able-bodied cisgender teenagers. How would the narrative vary if one of them had a disability, or if one were trans or openly queer, or much younger or older? (For example, what if Taki and Mitsuha’s grandmother switched places?) your name. doesn’t answer Taki’s questions about memory or mine about gender, but the gentle manner in which it raises these questions is less of an existential crisis and more of a catalyst for self-reflection.

Along with the human characters, Mitsuha’s hometown Itomori is practically a character itself. Itomori is based on the city of Hida in Gifu prefecture, which is one of my favorite vacation spots. The descriptions of the town in the book and the visualization of the town in the film are vivid and gorgeously rendered, taking me right back to traveling to Hida-Takayama in the fall. While Mitsuha hates Itomori and dreams of moving to Tokyo, Shinkai avoids both painting rural Japan as either superior or inferior to urban Japan. Mitsuha’s complaints are ones many young people have: there are not many jobs, there are no cafes or places to hang out, and everyone knows your business, especially when your family is visibly and heavily involved in town politics (her estranged father is the mayor) and religious life (she and her sister are shrine maidens at her grandmother’s family shrine). However, there is merit in the traditions of the town, which preserve not just history for history’s sake, but important cultural and historical information.

Mitsuha’s grandmother, who is the head of the town shrine, repeatedly tells Mitsuha and her younger sister Yotsuha that the meaning underlying the shrine dances, braided cords, and festival rituals were lost when the original shrine and all its old records were lost in a fire two hundred years ago. What Taki realizes when he drinks ritual sake at a sacred location deeper in the mountains is that the braided cords and dances all told the story of how a meteorite created the crater lake in Itomori and destroyed the town a thousand years ago. With the records gone, the rituals survived without meaning, and this lacuna between history and folklore becomes crucial to the plot of Mitsuha and Taki’s story. As Shinkai’s focus expands beyond the two teenagers out into the larger environment they inhabit, I thought about not just the local dances of the places I had lived in and visited but also about the tsunami markers on Aneyoshi.

your name., while not perfect, is easy fantasy read that deals with open-ended questions of gender, memory, and rural depopulation. If possible, I recommend reading the novel as well as watching the movie, as Shinkai’s prose exploration of Mitsuha and Taki’s interiority complements and deepens the impact of the gorgeous artistry of his film.


L.M. Zoller is a nonbinary writer and former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. All zir favorite manga and anime seem to involve gender fluidity and sword fighting. Ze blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

The Nakano Thrift Shop

Title: The Nakano Thrift Shop
Japanese Title: 古道具 中野商店 (Furudōgu Nakano Shoten)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 260

Hitomi works at the Nakano Thrift Shop, which is run by a middle-aged man named, unsurprisingly, Mr. Nakano. While she watches the store and works the till, a young man around her age, Takeo, accompanies Mr. Nakano on buying trips. The trio is occasionally visited by Mr. Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist of independent means. The twelve loosely connected stories in The Nakano Thrift Shop are about the strange and silly things that happen to this odd group of characters, whose small dramas for the most part seem to exist outside of the specifics of time and place.

Hitomi is short-tempered and cagey, Takeo is passive and uncommunicative, and Masayo is chatty and expansive, but it is the stubborn and befuddled Mr. Nakano whose mishaps and shenanigans serve as the focal point or punchline of each story. In the second story, “Paperweight,” Mr. Nakano bribes Hitomi to go visit Masayo and get gossip about her new lover, which sparks a friendship between the two women. In the third story, “Bus,” Mr. Nakano travels to Hokkaido on a buying trip and becomes involved in a one-sided love affair, amusing Hitomi with the messages he sends back to the shop. In other stories, an unusual customer provides a break from the store’s daily routine. For example, in the ninth story, “Bowl,” a young man tries to get rid of a valuable antique bowl, which he believes has been cursed by an ex-girlfriend. The Nakano Thrift Shop is more of a downmarket store, so Masayo forces Mr. Nakano to pass the bowl over to a specialist ceramics dealer with whom he happens to be in the process of breaking off a romantic relationship.

Over the course of the book, Hitomi enters into a romantic relationship of her own with Takeo. This romance never makes much progress, however, as Hitomi demands action and attention while Takeo doesn’t like talking on the phone and is content simply to allow life to happen to him. Like everything in The Nakano Thrift Shop, their relationship is lowkey and laidback, and it ebbs and flows without any sort of drama.

For the reader, the pleasure of these stories lies in peeking into the lives of these characters as they drift through the changing seasons while comfortable in the stability of their friendships. Even though unusual things occasionally happen, no one is ever strongly affected by these events. For instance, in the first story, “Rectangular #2,” an odd man named Takadokoro comes into the store to sell artistic nude photos. Masayo tells Hitomi that the pictures are of Takadoroko’s former student. Takadokoro has the potential to be a truly creepy (or pathetic) character, but the warm narrative tone of The Nakano Thrift Shop treats him as just another person in the neighborhood. He doesn’t bother anyone, and no one is bothered by him. After all, everyone is a little weird once you get to know them.

In the final story, “Punch Ball,” the Nakano shop has closed, and the characters have all gone their separate ways. Hitomi takes various office jobs as a temp worker while she studies for her bookkeeping certification exam. Her current distance from the carefree atmosphere that suffused the earlier stories puts them into perspective, and her former freedom from the pressures of the corporate world now seems much more meaningful. Now that she spends her days sitting at a desk in front of a computer, social interactions are no longer improvised and unique, and friendships are no longer so easily formed. There’s a playful innocence to Hitomi’s time in the Nakano shop that only becomes apparent in retrospect.

The Nakano Thrift Shop is a short and pleasant book that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed The Briefcase (which was published as Strange Weather in Tokyo in the UK). Although it’s a wide leap removed from the darker themes and imagery of some of Kawakami’s other work that has appeared in translation, it’s mercifully free of the sentimentality and melodrama of Yoshimoto Banana novels. As Hitomi seems to be in her mid to late twenties, it’s up for debate whether The Nakano Thrift Shop can be classified as “girls’ literature” (shōjo shōsetsu), but reading these stories conveys a vicarious sense of what it feels like to be a young woman chilling out and having fun in a trendy Tokyo suburb.

Syndrome

Title: Syndrome
Japanese Title: シンドローム (Shindorōmu)
Author: Satō Tetsuya (佐藤 哲也)
Illustrator: Nishimura Tsuchika (西村ツチカ)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fukuinkan Shoten
Pages: 315

This guest review is written by Max Rivera (@makkusutl on Twitter).

Thanks to a recommendation from a writer whose work I follow closely, I had the pleasure of reading this tiny monster of a book, whose story is comprised of elements widely regarded as “classic” or even “cliche” in Western science fiction films: a meteorite that crashes down onto a small town, a group of kids whose unquenchable curiosity leads them to a mysterious discovery, bicycle rides at night, and meta-references to prominent sci-fi cinematic works such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Super 8.

Syndrome‘s synopsis is as simple as it gets: a meteorite crashes down on an unnamed city, causing a lot of turmoil. As days pass, the city becomes ensnared in a spiral of surrealism, mystery, and suspicion. The unnamed protagonist is an average yet gloomy high school student who hates the fact that this happened, as his fragile peace of mind is disturbed by the clash of what is normal and what is not. At first glance, it would seem Syndrome is a rehash of a number of works its readers have seen or read in the past, but there are two unmistakable elements that place this book a cut above the rest: its technically accomplished prose and its depiction of the perspective of its protagonist.

Syndrome‘s story is divided into seven chapters that represent seven days. On Day One, when the meteorite lands, things are relatively calm, but the reader can already perceive a faint sense of eeriness stirring, as can the protagonist. The gradual transition from normal to bizarre is highlighted by the detached sentence structure used by the author. Descriptions of landscapes, occasional thoughts, and conversations often lack any human trait; they are intriguing but feel almost numb. The prose bears almost no emotion whatsoever, which lends it an addictive and breakneck pace.

As the protagonist and his ostensible friends Hiroiwa and Kuraishi investigate the crash site and attempt to unveil what’s going on, the characters become more self-aware of their situation. Kuraishi is particularly knowledgeable and also happens to be a die-hard cinephile. He doesn’t directly break the fourth wall, but he acknowledges that the meteorite scenario is a classic trope of Western science fiction movies. For example, Kuraishi mentions The Blob (1958) and its 1988 remake, discussing how it became Steve McQueen’s feature film debut. Later on, Kuraishi compares what’s happening in the town to H.G. Wells’s 1953 film The War of the Worlds and Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation. It’s amusing to the reader to watch Kuraishi ramble on about all this while the protagonist and Hiroiwa have no idea what he’s talking about, especially since he is stereotypically nerdy, which is perhaps a meta reference in itself. The author, a veteran at the renowned Hayakawa SF imprint, thus gives the reader a taste of his extensive cinematic knowledge.

All of these loose strands contextualize each other as days grow darker and reality begins to mirror fantasy. By then, the reader has already begun to tell that the protagonist’s state of mind is unique, to say the least. He becomes ever more suspicious of his surroundings, his so-called friends, and even his family. For him, anyone and anything outside what he considers “his mental zone,” namely, people who are outspoken and act based on their instincts, are “dangerous” people to be wary of. There’s a strong contrast between the protagonist’s standard narrative style and the narration that occurs when he gets lost in his obsessive thoughts, which are represented by longer sentences and textual stacks of repeated concepts. This type of prose achieves a dreamlike effect, and the two narrative styles intertwine in ways that portray a fascinating human dichotomy. As there is little recognizable emotion in the writing, which is close to a stream of consciousness, the impassive first-person perspective generates an illusion that the reader is being sucked into the black hole of the protagonist’s mind.

The ending of the novel is fitting, given how the story works: we don’t know what comes next, nor do we have a feeling that everything is over. In truth, Syndrome doesn’t have a beginning or an end, per se. Instead, it’s an epistolary account of a mentally-troubled teenager who watches everything around him fall apart.

Syndrome is a wormhole into the unknown. Once you start reading it, the book won’t let you go.

* * * * *

Max Rivera is a freelance writer from Mexico City. He is currently majoring in Translation & Interpretation and Literature. As a former resident of Japan and aficionado of Japanese fiction, the Japanese publishing world, and pop culture, he often publishes reviews and cutting-edge articles on these subjects through several outlets, such as his personal blog on Tumblr and the popular Japanese media blog Tanoshimi. He loves cold weather, books, and cats way too much.

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.