Death and the Flower

Death and the Flower

Title: Death and the Flower
Japanese Title: 死と生の幻想 (Sei to shi no gensō)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Maya Robinson and Camellia Nieh
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 1995 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 222

Death and the Flower is beautifully printed. Its paper is deliciously creamy, and its gorgeously designed book cover and dust jacket complement each other perfectly. Veritcal’s hardcover edition is one of those books that makes me happy that publishers still put time and effort into putting out physical books that you can hold in your hands and admire on your bookshelf.

But the stories themselves? They’re not really all that great.

In his Afterword, Suzuki writes:

I tried collecting six works with a common theme – a theme represented by the words “diapers and a race replica.” The softness and warmth of diapers, the speed and power of a racer’s motorbike – I wished to express a balance of the maternal and the paternal by placing symbols of femininity and masculinity side by side.

What this essentially means is that each story is about a father who undergoes various hardships for the direct or indirect benefit of his wife and/or daughter(s), who are nothing more than empty symbols vaguely characterized by emotional damage and blind need. In other words, men are capable of embodying “a balance of the maternal and the paternal,” and girls and women exist merely for the sake of helping men undergo character development in order to realize their full potential. These female characters don’t need to have names, or thoughts, or feelings, or any sort of identities save for their relation to the male heroes.

This in and of itself is not necessarily bad. However, if everything in piece of fiction is going to be diegetically subservient to the ego of the protagonist, then I would prefer for the protagonist to be interesting. Unfortunately, none of Suzuki’s characters really grabbed my attention or sympathy. Instead, just as the female characters of this collection are almost platonic embodiments of Object, each male character isn’t a great deal more than a Subject with a few shallow personality traits pathetically attached like a handful of cheap ornaments haphazardly stuck onto an otherwise bare Christmas tree.

The first story in the collection, “Disposable Diapers and a Race Replica,” can serve to illustrate my point.

The narrator, an obvious author stand-in character, quits his job to devote himself to his writing and the care of his infant daughter. To help his wife make ends meet, he moonlights as a private tutor. His current client is a delinquent high school student who has begun to skip out on tutoring sessions after the school system fails to reward him for his increased efforts, so the narrator tracks him down on his motorcycle and is driven off the road and nearly killed by the kid’s friends. The next day, the narrator shows up unexpectedly at the kid’s house and beats the crap out of him in order to figure out where the driver who almost killed him lives. He then proceeds to go to the other kid’s house and, finding him not at home, beats the crap out of the kid’s car. After he’s satisfied himself, the narrator encounters the driver and condescends to not beat the crap out of him because he, the narrator, is actually a good guy deep down inside. The only thing that saved him from dying when his bike crashed was the huge bag of diapers he had tethered to the back of the bike, you see, and this is some kind of message about how he needs to stop jumping headfirst into fights, even though he could totally win them if he did get into them, because of course he could – he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the narrator interacts with the other male characters by yelling and punching, his character development is guided by his interactions with the story’s two female characters, his student’s mother and his wife. The narrator tries to be kind to his student’s mother, even though privately he thinks she’s a weak and ineffectual parent. This must be because, being a woman, she isn’t clever enough to know that you need to threaten to beat the crap out of boys to make them respect you. As a mentor and role model, the narrator is thus defined by what he is not – female, and thus “stupid.” Meanwhile, the narrator’s wife is a delicate flower who must not be upset or disturbed under any circumstances, as she has some sort of nervous disorder. This disorder is typified by the anxiety she demonstrated when he effectively abandoned her during their engagement to go live on a tuna fishing boat for a year. Why was she so upset about this, and why is she concerned about his level of commitment to their relationship? It must be because of her nervous disorder, obviously. Women and their unreasonable hysteria, amirite? Anyway, as a father and caregiver, the narrator is again defined by what he is not – female, and thus “crazy.”

Character development through negative contrast does not make for good storytelling, especially when the primary conflicts of a story hinges on an internal crisis of its protagonist. In Death and the Flower, each such crisis is resolved by a realization of something along the lines of “I am a burly hairy dangerous manly alpha male, but I need to embrace my more ‘feminine’ side so that I can better protect the utterly helpless women in my life.” Maybe this is just me, but I don’t find that sort of resolution too terribly compelling. For a such a revelation to be truly interesting, there need to be more 1980s seinen manga style swords and/or psychic power attacks demonstrating how a small compromise in an otherwise unadulterated beefcake masculine identity can constitute a genuine sacrifice.

What Suzuki excels at in Death and the Flower are his descriptions of urban and natural landscapes. I was particularly impressed by the third story in the collection, “Key West,” in which a father leaves his young daughter in a rental car by the side of a highway in Florida to walk out to a small offshore island connected to the coast by a sandbar. On the island, the father encounters an abandoned settlement overgrown with jungle. Although his parenting skills leave much to be desired, the father’s accounts of the greenery and derelict buildings, the comparisons he makes to his home in Tokyo, and his detailed examination of the complicated feelings the island evokes in him are all magnificent. The simultaneously intense yet hazy quality of the fever dreams he experiences after being bitten by a sea snake is also expertly conveyed by the author. That being said, the father’s grief for his dead wife as expressed by his half-hearted desire to protect his daughter is largely undeveloped and feels out of place within the larger themes of the story, which mainly seem to involve the narrator’s fear of his own encroaching middle age.

To return to the collection’s Afterword, Suzuki writes:

“Only a peaceful and safe world is worth living in” – far too many people seem to think so.

Putting aside the tastelessness of such a statement, I think the author’s writing is indeed at its best when his characters have a worthy antagonist to battle. The major draw of Ring, for instance, is Sadako, the evil girl who spews her curses out into the world from inside a well. The longest story in Death and the Flower, “Beyond the Darkness,” is perhaps the strongest, as its father protagonist character is provided with a creepy stalker to serve as an acceptable outlet for his anger and tendency toward physical violence. As introspection-driven character pieces, however, the rest of the stories in the collection fall flat.

If you’re a Suzuki completionist, Death and the Flower is of interest for its prototypes of the author’s major themes and character archetypes. If you’re looking for good horror fiction or just some good short stories, though, it’s probably best to ignore the pretty cover and take a pass on this collection.

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.