Nan-Core

Title: Nan-Core
Japanese Title: ユリゴコロ (Yurigokoro)
Author: Mahokaru Numata (沼田まほかる)
Translator: Jonathan Lloyd-Davies
Publication Year: 2011 (Japan); 2015 (United States)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 253

As his father is dying of pancreatic cancer, a young(ish) man named Ryosuke discovers a set of notebooks hidden in a box in his father’s study. The handwritten confession contained in the notebooks is shocking, and Ryosuke begins to suspect that the woman who raised him may not be his biological mother. Then again, a part of him has always known that something was strange ever since he was four years old, when his family moved from Tokyo to Nara while he was in the hospital. It may well be that Misako, the person he was told to call mother when he was brought home, replaced his real mother, especially if the woman who gave birth to him is the same person who has written something resembling a “murder diary” in the notebooks he’s found.

The woman who has admitted her darkest secrets in these notebooks knows that something is wrong with her. She has trouble empathizing with other people, and nothing in life brings her joy. When she discovers that witnessing death makes her feel human, she can’t stop thinking about it, and she takes indirect action that results in the death of a young boy and one of her female classmates. Killing, she realizes, is her “Nan-Core,” something a doctor once told her parents that she was lacking and whose pronunciation she misremembered as a child. Her “Nan-Core” is what makes her feel alive, and she continues to search for opportunities to trigger it as she grows up, goes to college, and starts working at an office.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Misako, the woman who wrote the confessions in the notebooks, is indeed Ryosuke’s biological mother, and that the woman who called herself Misako as she raised him and his brother is a surrogate. Ryosuke wants to find out how and why this happened, and most readers will quickly come to the obvious conclusions, which are later confirmed by Ryosuke’s father. The most intriguing element of this family drama is what happened to the original Misako, whose fate remains a mystery until the very end of the novel.

As Ryosuke steals time during his father’s hospital visits to read Misako’s notebooks, a disturbing series of events plays out in his own life. Ryosuke runs a mountainside dog café called Shaggy Head, and he’s fallen in love with one of his employees, Chie. Chie was once a bar hostess, and she’s on the run from her abusive husband, who himself seems to be on the run from the yakuza. When Chie disappears into thin air, another of Ryosuke’s employees, Ms. Hosoya, takes it on herself to find the missing woman, a decision that results in dangerous complications for everyone involved.

Despite all the murder and spousal abuse, Nan-Core tells a surprisingly gentle story. The novel’s focus is not on mystery or violence, but rather the evolution of the relationships between the members of Ryosuke’s family as Ryosuke and his brother learn more about their parents and begin to see them as people. Ryosuke also starts to create his own new family as he develops stronger bonds with Chie and Ms. Hosoya. The secrets hidden deep within these relationships stem not from malice and neglect, but rather from attempts to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. Even Misako was able to grow and change because of the kindness of the people who adopted her into their family (although her story does take some surprising turns along the way). Misako’s homicidal tendencies can easily be read as an attempt to form connections with other people despite extreme alienation, and some of her murders are even a bit gratifying. For example, why continue to deal with sexual harassment at work when you can just murder the creep who keeps bothering all the female employees? In the end, the gentle Ryosuke ends up borrowing strength from his mother’s confessions; and, when his story finally intersects with hers, the result is extremely satisfying.

Nan-Core at first seems to be a thin mystery propelled by a cast of one-dimensional stereotypes, but the plot slowly thickens as layers are added to each character. The story can be melodramatic at times, and the lack of any real consequences resulting from the characters’ actions is a bit fanciful, but none of this detracts from the charm of the novel. My only real complaint is that, given that Ryosuke manages a dog café, Nan-Core has an unfortunate lack of canine characters. Judging from its trailer (link), the 2017 cinematic adaptation of the book (link) doesn’t have any dogs either. This is a shame, because I really think the story’s odd but intriguing blend of horror and romance could have been enhanced by more puppies. Honestly, probably everything could be enhanced by more puppies, but at least Nan-Core offers its readers a batch of warm and cuddly murderers. My rating: 13/10, would be an honor to be murdered be these cutie pies.

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.

Now You’re One of Us

now-youre-one-of-us

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.

Tokyo Decadence

Tokyo Decadence

Title: Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories by Ryu Murakami
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Publication Year: 2016
Pages: 280

Tokyo Decadence contains fifteen stories drawn from five of Murakami Ryū’s collections published between 1986 and 2003. As translator Ralph McCarthy explains in his acknowledgments, he has been translating his favorite Murakami stories since the late 1980s, and now he’s finally able to publish them thanks to the blessing of the author and the encouragement of Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press.

The first story in Tokyo Decadence, “Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This,” has a passage at the beginning that reads as follows:

It’s probably safe to say that everyone sitting here is looking for some sort of sin tonight. The circumstances are different for each, of course, but everyone has the same general destination in mind. No one gets drunk in order to raise their moral standards.

It’s probably safe to say that no one opens a collection of Murakami Ryū’s short fiction in order to raise their moral standards. If you’re looking for some sort of sin, you’ve found yourself the right book. All of the stories in Tokyo Decadence are surprising and unique, but they all move toward the same general destination – sex and drugs and blood and tears.

This first story takes the form of an elaborate fetch quest across the seedy underbelly of Shinjuku in which the protagonist must exchange promises for favors. His goal is to get one of his former lovers to testify in court that they were sleeping together so that another of his former lovers doesn’t claim common law marriage and sue him for divorce. The point seems to be that people are terrible and selfish creatures, but it’s a lot more fun arriving at this conclusion than you’d expect.

The second story, “I Am a Novelist,” involves another strange situation in which a man posing as a bestselling writer gets a girl at a hostess club pregnant. When her manager insists that he meet the young woman, she quickly admits he’s not the person she slept with, but the writer still takes her out to dinner. She tells the writer that she’s a fan of his work, so he tries to get her to fall in love with him instead of his impersonator. It doesn’t work (obviously), and the novelist ends up finding out that he was just a minor character in someone else’s story.

In other stories, a trucker loses his wife and his job and becomes a host at a gay club, a guy with no self-esteem invades a woman’s home and smashes her television, and a young prostitute buys herself a topaz ring to remind herself of a musician whose world she can never enter. In “Penlight,” a call girl with serious issues talks about her imaginary friend to a guy she meets at a bar, who is interested in her body, but in the way you think (unless you happen to be thinking of horrific murder and cannibalism). A few of these stories are drawn from Murakami’s 1988 collection Topaz, which became the basis for the 1992 film Tokyo Decadence, which was directed by the author and banned in a handful of countries precisely because it’s the sort of movie you’d expect to have been directed by the author.

If you’ve read Murakami’s work before, you know what to expect. Since all of these stories are twenty pages or less, however, there’s no slow buildup to the carnage. That being said, the violence is tempered with irony, black humor, and intriguing characterizations that elevate the stories above simple splatterfests.

In contrast, the three stories drawn from the 1995 collection Ryu’s Cinematheque are vaguely autobiographical.

In “The Last Picture Show,” the 18-year-old narrator is living in Kichijōji and trying to make it big with his blues band. His upstairs neighbor, who is obviously a yakuza, wants to pay him to pick hydrangea leaves in Inokashira Park to dry and then sell as marijuana to American soldiers. In “The Wild Angels,” the 18-year-old narrator has started a relationship with a woman who works as a hostess, which makes him feel like less of a man, so he starts shooting heroin. In “La Dolce Vita,” the college student narrator hooks up with an older woman who lives in Yokosuka and gets her drugs from the American army base, which doesn’t end well.

To me, these coming-of-age stories were nowhere near as interesting or amusing as the murder stories, but they provide an interesting picture of the 1970s that serves as a counterpoint to the stories of the other Murakami; these stories forgo nostalgia in favor of an emphasis on the grittiness and despair and self-indulgent navel gazing of fringe counterculture.

The last third of Tokyo Decadence eases up on the drug use but maintains its focus on sex and emotional violence. Some of the stories reference each, and I got the sense that I was only being glimpses into a larger narrative. I dearly wish we lived in a world in which Ralph McCarthy was able to publish his translations of entire Murakami collections instead of selected stories, but each piece included in Tokyo Decadence shines brightly enough on its own merits that the reader is not disappointed by the relative lack of context.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tokyo Decadence. The collection portrays the Japan of the bubble and postbubble decades as a place where anything in your wildest dreams and darkest nightmares could happen. Murakami’s fiction is a love letter to the infinite possibilities of urban life delivered with style and panache. Just be warned – Tokyo Decadence is not for the faint of heart.

Tokyo Decadence will be released on March 15, 2016. A complete table of contents can be found on its page on the Kurodahan Press website.

Review copy provided by the noble and selfless people at Kurodahan Press.

Revenge

Revenge

Title: Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Japanese Title: 寡黙な死骸 みだらな弔い
(Kamoku na shigai, midara no tomurai)
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 162

Ogawa Yōko is a writer of the fantastic who spins softly glittering tales of quiet desperation. In Japan, she’s known for her magical realism, which is so subtle as to be almost Todorovian in the uncertainty it generates. Nevertheless, her first novel to appear in English translation, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is about kind-hearted people behaving nobly in the face of senescence and overcoming emotional adversity by opening their hearts to one another. It’s a good book even despite its clinging miasma of Hallmark-style sentimentality, but the way the novel was marketed made it feel as if its publisher were trying to pass Ogawa off as the next Yoshimoto Banana, which she most decidedly is not. Messages of hope and moral fortitude are few and far between in Ogawa’s work, and her next novel to appear in translation, Hotel Iris, is about ephebophilia and sadomasochism in a decaying seaside town. The novel is quite short and, given its subject matter, an odd choice for translation, but perhaps its publishers saw a faint connection to Yoshimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi, which explores similar themes (albeit in an infinitely more upbeat and chipper manner).

I am therefore interested in the way in which Ogawa’s newest work to appear in translation, Revenge, is pitched to potential readers. Short blurbs from Junot Díaz and Hilary Mantel appear on the back cover, but the writer who bears the honor of having his praise appear right in the middle of the front cover is Joe Hill. Joe Hill is the author of several novels, comic books, and Kindle singles, and he’s known as a writer of grisly and violent mystery fiction. Hill’s debut work, 20th Century Ghosts, is a collection of stories that contain more subtle disquiet than they do splattered blood. My favorite is “Voluntary Committal,” in which a seriously disturbed man builds an elaborate crawl-through maze of cardboard boxes in his basement, which eventually becomes a portal to another dimension. 20th Century Ghosts has won all sorts of awards, from the Bram Stoker Award to the British Fantasy Award, but Hill is still considered a horror writer; and, by association, Ogawa is positioned as a horror writer as well. As if Hill’s name alone were not enough to convey the message, the cover of the North American edition of Revenge is designed to resemble dead skin stitched with rotting thread.

Despite the implications of its cover, Revenge is less about hideous creepy crawlies lurking at the foot of cellar stairs than it is about the small disturbances in daily routine that hint at the madness waiting patiently on the edges of human civilization. For example, the first story in collection, “Afternoon at the Bakery,” opens with a scene of a peaceful town on a Sunday afternoon:

Families and tourists strolled through the square, enjoying the weekend. Squeaky sounds could be heard from a man off the corner, who was twisting balloon animals. A circle of children watched him, enthralled. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench knitting. Somewhere a horn sounded. A flock of pigeons burst into the air, and startled a baby who began to cry. The mother hurried over to gather the child in her arms.

You could gaze at this perfect picture all day – an afternoon bathed in light and comfort – and perhaps never notice a single detail out of place, or missing.

What you might notice, however, is the author’s focus on children and families. The detail out of place in this scene is a solitary mother who enters a quiet bakery to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday. The catch is that her son is dead and has been for many years. He died when he was six years old, and his mother responded to the tragedy by piecing together a scrapbook of newspaper articles about other children who died in similarly upsetting circumstances, which she describes in loving detail for the benefit of the reader. The physical deterioration of the cakes she continues to buy for her son’s birthday serves as an analogy for her own decaying sanity, something that used to be as fresh and wholesome as a young boy but now resembles nothing so much as rotting flesh:

Long after I had realized my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, straining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, and finally a layer of mold appeared.

“Mold can be quite beautiful,” I told my husband. The spots multiplied, covering the shortcake in delicate splotches of color.

“Get rid of it,” my husband said.

I could tell he was angry. But I did not know why he would speak so harshly about our son’s birthday cake. So I threw it in his face. Mold and crumbs covered his hair and his cheeks, and a terrible smell filled the room. It was like breathing in death.

The above passage is the dramatic high point of the story, which is otherwise sedated and subdued. The horror Ogawa offers her reader is not the terrified panic of a boy clawing vainly for air as he suffocates in the dark or the emotional turmoil of a distraught mother sobbing wildly in her grief, but rather the unsettling certainty that people who are irreparably damaged walk among us within a world that is constantly growing as filthy and old as we will one day become.

The eleven stories in Revenge are very loosely connected, with each almost fitting into the next like a section of a puzzle box that has been warped by humidity. The major theme connecting the stories is ultimate futility of the attempt to outlast the relentless march of time through creative endeavors or the preservation of a material legacy, and the collection is filled with unremarkable deaths, lonely rooms stuffed with junk, and putrefying fruit and vegetables. It’s dark stuff, to be sure, but Ogawa’s language and narrative skill, rendered beautifully in Stephen Synder’s translation, allow the reader to experience the horror of the stories in Revenge as so mundane as to be almost comforting.

NPR listed Snyder’s translation of Revenge as one of the best books released in 2013, and it’s in good company. Despite Picador’s gruesome cover, Ogawa’s stories have much more in common with her listmate Karen Russell’s debut collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves than any of the recent work by Joe Hill or Peter Straub – or any of the recent work of Murakami Haruki, to whom many reviewers feel compelled to compare Ogawa for some inexplicable reason. Ogawa has her own style of haunting and meticulously crafted fiction, and I can only hope that more of her short stories find their way into English translation, the sooner the better.

Ring

Ring

Title: Ring
Japanese Title: リング (Ringu)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2004 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 282

In Nakata Hideo’s 1998 film adaptation of Ring, the point-of-view character for most of the story is female. This is an effective casting choice, as cinematic audiences are primed to experience danger and vulnerability through female protagonists in horror films. Suzuki Kōji’s original novel is less about thrills and chills than it is about hardcore investigative journalism, however, and its hero, Asakawa Kazuyuki, is male. The female lead in the Ring film’s husband, Takayama Ryūji, is Asakawa’s friend in the novel, which sees the two men travel across Japan in an attempt to save Asakawa’s wife and child from a deadly curse apparently connected to a mysterious bootleg videotape.

In the opening pages of the book, two creepy things happen: a teenage girl dies suddenly in her family’s apartment in Yokohama, and a boy on a motorcycle falls down dead on the road in front of a taxi. A month later, the taxi driver reports the latter incident to a random passenger, who happens to be the journalist Asakawa, whose niece happens to be the teenage girl involved in the former incident. Asakawa, upon realizing that these deaths, as well as two others, all happened at the exact same time on the exact same day, tracks down the connection between the teenagers to a cabin in the woods near the seaside resort of Atami, which is a two-hour train ride southwest of Tokyo. It is there that he encounters an unmarked videotape upon which a surreal series of images has been recorded. White letters at the end of the sequence warn that the viewer will die in a week unless a certain “charm” is performed, but the four dead teenagers recorded over the actions needed to perform this charm as a prank.

In order to figure out the charm before his time is up, Asakawa enlists his college professor friend Ryūji to help him figure out as much information concerning the origins of the tape as possible. What follows is a surprisingly unsuspenseful series of adventures in which the two men eat things, drink things, and leisurely chat with all manner of people as they gradually puzzle out the life story of Yamamura Sadako, the beautiful young woman whom they believe to be responsible for the cursed videotape. Although Ring is structured around a quest for Sadako, the novel, unlike the film adaptation, is a man’s world. The primary female characters are offstage and only glimpsed through the recollections of various male characters, who are far more interested in localized histories of science and medicine than they are in the supernatural.

The reviews excerpted on the back of the novel promise that it is “very frightening” and “an engine of disquiet” and “shocking” and “so creepy your hair will literally stand on end;” but, to be honest, I don’t think the book is that scary, and the fright factor is only a marginal portion of what it has to offer a reader. Instead, Ring unfolds as a mystery in which clues must be painstakingly tracked down one at a time as the principal players struggle to draw connections between them. It’s the search for these bits of information, as well as the thrill of hard-won eureka moments, that will keep the reader entertained, and the paranormal elements are for the most part examined in a rational and pseudo-scientific manner. The true horror of Ring does not lie in its ghosts or shocking imagery, but rather in the absolute inability of human beings to comprehend the vast and menacing world that lies outside the realm of our control.

Ring is set in the same decade in which it was written, and the condominium high-rises, mass media publications, and corporate culture of the late 1980s saturate the background of the novel. The primitive fear of disease still haunts the advanced society that provides the backdrop of Ring, however; and, although the science and technology of the age strive to contain natural forces, some things cannot be controlled. The author is able to accentuate this anxiety by continually linking the actions of Sadako’s curse with images of the natural world at its most hostile and overwhelming. For example, one of the greatest of natural forces, the sea, is a constant presence in Ring, and it only appears under the cover of darkness and in contrast to human constructions, a juxtaposition which creates an impression of a dark, brooding malice lurking beyond the boundaries of civilization. The novel opens with an image of the highly developed industrial area which lines the bay fronting the city of Yokohama:

Off to the south the oily surface of the ocean reflected the glittering lights of a factory. A maze of pipes and conduits crawled along the factory walls like blood vessels on muscle tissue. Countless lights played over the front wall of the factory like insects that glow in the dark… The factory cast a wordless shadow on the black sea beyond.

Suzuki equates the factory with humanity as he compares its bulk to a human body, endowing it with “blood vessels” and “muscle tissue.” The multitudinous lights of Yokohama at night also metaphorically dot the surface of the factory, but none of this light has any effect on the “black sea beyond.” Instead, the factory as a symbol of humanity and its ingenuity merely “cast[s] a wordless shadow” over the silent ocean, which almost seems to mock its presence.

Even with our incredible advances in technology, contemporary societies still have trouble coping with the facets of existence that lie beyond the explanations offered by science and ordinary experience. We are all insignificant and ephemeral points of light flickering on and off somewhere in a dark, callous, and unfathomably large universe. While the film and graphic novel adaptations of Ring delight in the uncanny horror of the female demonic, the horror of the original novel is more Lovecraftian. The protagonists of Ring are ultimately punished by the narrative not because they don’t strive tirelessly for information, but rather because they believe the achievement of knowledge has the capacity to help them in any way.

A reader should not come to Ring expecting the same sort of jump-horror at which its cinematic adaptations excel; there are no creepy little girls stuffed in closets or climbing out of television sets. Suzuki’s novel instead rewards intellectual engagement and curiosity, which it subtly mocks and discredits in the most terrifying of ways.