The Cat in the Coffin

Japanese Title: 柩の中の猫 (Hitsugi no naka no neko)
Author: Mariko Koike (小池 真理子)
Translator: Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publication Year: 1990 (Japan); 2009 (United States)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 190

According to the back cover copy, The Cat in the Coffin is “a gem of a modern update on the governess genre immortalized by Jane Eyre and ‘The Turn of the Screw’ [and a] hypnotic thriller that lures the reader into the darkness of the human heart,” which is as good of a description as any. The Cat in the Coffin is a story about family, desire, love, malice, and a cat at the center of a chilling murder.

Masayo, an aspiring artist from Hokkaido who has just turned twenty, moves to Tokyo to be a live-in housekeeper and caretaker for Momoko, the eight-year-old daughter of a semi-famous artist and college professor named Goro Kawakubo. The year is 1955, and Goro has embraced a modern American lifestyle of cocktails and garden parties after the tragic death of his wife. Masayo cares little for fashion or the glamor of high society, but she is enchanted by Momoko, who speaks to no one except her white cat Lala. Masayo bonds with Momoko through their shared love of Lala, and they become fast friends.

Everything goes well until a startlingly beautiful woman named Chinatsu shows up at one of Goro’s parties. Chinatsu worked as a translator and lived with her husband in America before becoming a widow and returning to Japan. Despite her air of cosmopolitan sophistication, Chinatsu is thoughtful and kind. Goro is clearly in love with her, but both Masayo and Momoko are ambivalent. After all, if Goro marries Chinatsu, there will be no need for Masayo to remain in the house as Momoko’s caretaker.

All of the characters in The Cat in the Coffin are good people, but they’re imperfect in small but significant ways. Goro takes his relationship with Chinatsu slowly so that his daughter will be comfortable with the woman who will replace her mother, but he is perhaps a little too willing to leave his daughter entirely to Masayo’s care. Momoko understandably misses her mother and craves her father’s affection, but her grief has caused her to become isolated and antisocial. Masayo tries her hardest to do what’s best for Momoko, but her crush on Goro causes her to give Chinatsu a cold shoulder.

The comparisons to Jane Eyre and “The Turn of the Screw” are apt, as Masayo’s idealized longing for Goro and Momoko’s aggressive strangeness create a difficult situation for Chinatsu, whose only flaw is that she isn’t able to conceal her dislike of Lala. Chinatsu gradually succumbs to a delusion that everything will work out if she no longer has to compete for Momoko’s affection with a cat, and she ends up taking drastic action in secret. Masayo witnesses her terrible act, which creates a terrible psychological burden she is unable to bear. The suspense of The Cat in the Coffin thus lies in witnessing a modestly happy household’s slow dissolution in a boiling pot of misdirected passion and ice-cold rage.

The Cat in the Coffin can also be read as a sustained exploration of Masayo’s fear of growing up as she longs for independence but still clings to childhood, sinking herself into a codependent relationship with Momoko and Lala instead of building a working friendship with Chinatsu, who represents her anxiety of adult sexuality. Meanwhile, although Chinatsu is only a secondary character from Masayo’s perspective, her life history is fascinating, and its eventual revelation is quite dramatic. Chinatsu’s story is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in her ambition and failed pursuit of the American dream, and it’s precisely because of her progressive American approach to Momoko that their relationship is so disastrous.  

The Cat in the Coffin begins at a somewhat leisurely pace, but the suspense is slowly amplified throughout the novel, which is neatly structured and short enough to be read in one or two sittings. The ending is highly satisfying, as is the frame narrative, in which Masayo, now a famous artist, relates the story of Momoko, Chinatsu, and Lala to her own housekeeper. The well-edited and well-executed translation keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, making The Cat in the Coffin an enjoyable book to binge. This psychological thriller is lean and sharp and almost painfully insightful, and I especially recommend it to fans of Japanese cat novels who are interested in something domestic that still has its claws.   

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. )