Under the Midnight Sun

under-the-midnight-sun

Title: Under the Midnight Sun
Japanese Title: 白夜行 (Byakuyakō)
Author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder
Publisher: Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin’s Press)
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Pages: 560

This guest review is written by Tyran Grillo (@TyranGrillo on Twitter).

Although Naoko was the first novel by Keigo Higashino to appear in English, it wasn’t until The Devotion of Suspect X that an energetic following of the author grew among Anglophone readers. Subsequent novels by Japan’s salaryman-turned-mystery writer, however, left fans hungry for something different, as the clothes of his popular Detective Galileo were beginning to wear thin. Enter the gruffer Sasagaki, whose investigation of a 1973 murder in Osaka starts him on a 20-year chase after the truth. The circumstances surrounding said murder play on the classic locked room scenario, as the body of a man is discovered by children playing in an abandoned building.

Our body of interest was once the property of Yosuke Kirihara. The owner of a pawn shop, the unfortunate Yosuke has left behind a son, Ryo, and a wife, Yaeko. Sasagaki immediately suspects the latter, due to a seeming lack of emotion toward her spouse’s death. Ryo, for his part, is broken by the loss, and offers little in the way of helpful information. Even as Sasagaki fears for the boy’s future, he cannot help but marvel at Yaeko’s performance. As he watches her late husband’s funeral procession from a respectable distance, he thinks to himself, “The strange attraction of a woman in mourning…. If she’s trying to play the part of the beautiful young widow, she’s doing a knockout job.” Such statements may be common hardboiled fare but here set the tone for an unnecessarily chauvinistic slog of a novel. Sasagaki’s suspicions turn to Fumiyo Nishimoto, the last person to have seen Yosuke alive, and her daughter Yukiho is described in such perverse terms that it’s all this reader could do not to gag on their persistence.

Yukiho and Ryo, in the wake of a tragedy that has affected them both, become our main protagonists. We follow their diverging paths out of the nostalgic ignorance of the 1970s into adulthood. Along the way, Higashino introduces us to a chain of new characters, some of whom feel unnecessary as false witnesses. Each subsequent chapter throws new names into the mix to throw us off the scent. Ryo goes on to become a bootleg video game manufacturer, while Yukiho goes on to become a male fantasy of femininity.

Therein lies a fundamental problem of the narrative. Like all of the women in Higashino’s testosterone zone, she is little more than the sum of her apparently siren-esque charms, which Yukiho hones in service of being what she is called from the start: a “perfect lady.” On the surface, one might read this as a noble critique of the ways in which women are expected to live up to idealized images of beauty, but assertions of this point reach a level of absurdity that make the story nearly impossible to finish. For while Yukiho’s beauty is doubtless the very epitome of feminine perfection, she is also described as having “thorns in her eyes,” and, as our omniscient narrator so dutifully explains, a “true lady would never have eyes like that.” In other words, a “true lady” cannot be prone to dark thoughts or ever have an off day; she must maintain a perfect and consistent exterior, if only to please the men around her.

Higashino’s descriptions of the mature Yukiho are striking in their blatant vacillation between praise and condemnation, not to mention their occasional slip into racial stereotypes. To give an example: “Yukiho looked down at the table. She had long eyelashes. Some of the people in the club said she looked like one of those French porcelain dolls. The comparison was admittedly apt, with the exception of her Asian eyes.” When a younger detective by the name of Imaeda picks up where Sasagaki left off years ago, his first look at Yukiho reminds him of the “women he’d seen in old foreign films” and makes him wonder “where she got her seemingly natural elegance and grace. What had polished her to gleam so brightly?” More than overstating Yukiho’s beauty, such language elevates it to farce, so that the woman herself no longer functions as a human character.

When Yukiho finally marries, her husband Makoto cheats on her by falling for a temp who works at his company. Not only does this downplay Yukiho’s tireless attempts to live up to perfection, it undermines her intelligence in choosing a suitable life partner, a point further stressed when we learn that Makoto, who admits to having an inferiority complex around his savvy wife, has beaten her in a drunken rage that he conveniently forgets. In addition to being entirely out of her husband’s character, this disclosure comes across as a desperate attempt to elicit pity for a woman of whom by this point we have no idea what to think.

Anytime a female character is described, the reader can be sure to learn a lot about her body, and Yukiho is no exception. Rather than add to knowledge of her character, as his visualizations of men do, Higashino indulges in details that have no bearing on her psychological profile. In an awkward scene of lovemaking between Yukiho and her husband, for instance, we get this: “Her breasts were soft and bigger than you might think to look at them.” Does this detail matter? Only to a voyeuristic narrator who takes pleasure in it.

Yukiho is animalized, as when she is compared to a cat for her “feline eyes.” When she later becomes a suspect, she is variously likened to a “black rose,” an “evil flower,” and ultimately an “artificial flower,” as if the combination of intelligence and femininity were a surefire recipe for malice. Although one might argue that Higashino is simply playing with the femme fatale trope like so many before him, it is far too convenient that Yukiho’s beauty, which for most of the novel has been seen as a divine gift inherent to her every fiber, suddenly ceases to be real once it’s revealed as a mask hiding an actual human being. Such classical sexism precludes any progressive tendencies that might be attributed to Under the Midnight Sun.

The issue of its depictions of female characters aside, problems abound in the novel’s structure and pacing. Aside from being too long for its own good – there is, for example, a full page of unnecessary dialogue between Yukiho’s college classmate and a future boyfriend about how wet one gets by either walking or running in the rain – it pads out a foreseeable conclusion with unrealistic conceits. The result is a novel whose flaws are, like Yukiho’s much-discussed features, bigger than you might think to look at them.

In addition, Detective Sasagaki is a rather uninteresting lighthouse decorating a coastline of possible perpetrators. We understand that he is skillful at his job, but his obsessive interest in this case feels somewhat out of place, given what we know about him. Then again, mistakes have been made on both sides of the equals sign that would have brought his suspicions to a verdict much sooner, and perhaps subconscious awareness of this drives him to overcompensate for the embarrassment of what ends up being a simple explanation. As in any mystery of this length, it’s the actions of investigators who unwittingly build a complex wall around the truth that allow murderers to get away with what they do for so long. As the story progresses, the plot becomes so unbelievable that it feels like a letdown when one reaches the tail end of its denouement.

Ironically, the novel’s meandering tendency is also its greatest strength, and the clearest justification of its author’s fame. Higashino makes it easy to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters – almost to a fault, because many revelations, at least to this reader, were clear from many pages away. Above all, the book provides a fascinating cross-section of late twentieth-century Japan, tracing trends in manga, television shows, video games, and other popular arenas of technological production through a key transitional period in the nation’s history. Higashino juggles multiple arcs and implications with ease, and the reverse engineering required to put them all together will satisfy even some avid mystery fans, to be sure.

As a published translator of Japanese fiction myself, I feel compelled to note that none of my criticisms are the fault of Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder, who have done an admirable job rendering Higashino’s often-terse and idiomatic prose into fluent English. The novel reads smoothly, handles cultural differences with tact, and evokes the original’s grittiness with clarity. If anything, it was the quality of their work that kept me engaged.

In the end, Under the Midnight Sun is a lackluster story with little payoff. As for the back cover copy’s comparisons of this book to Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment, I can only say these constitute a deception as criminal as the novel they are describing.

Under the Midnight Sun will be released on November 8, 2016. Review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press.

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Tyran Grillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, where his research focuses on the (mis)representation of animals in contemporary Japanese literature. He has translated nine books from Japanese into English, five of which have been published. The most recent of these is the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku. Tyran is also an avid blogger, having to date written over one million words of criticism on music, books, and film at ecmreviews.com.

Is It Sexist?

Yes It's Sexist

The term “sexism” refers to:

(a) the idea that each sex has a set of related characteristics that are common to all members of that sex, and

(b) the discrimination that inevitably results from this idea.

“Is it sexist?” can be a tricky question with multiple gray areas that are open to interpretation, but it’s not rocket science.

If it’s a work of fiction, are sexist statements such as “Like all women, she was a poor driver” made not by characters (who are allowed to have stupid opinions, just like real people) but by omniscient third-person narrators or obvious author stand-in devices? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of fiction, are 80% to 100% of the writers represented male? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a work of nonfiction, does it rely on sexist statements such as “there are no lesbians in Japanese history” as evidence to support its arguments? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an anthology of academic nonfiction, do none of the scholars acknowledge the existence or influence of real (as opposed to fictional) women within the scope of their studies? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s an encyclopedia or other reference work, are fewer than 20% of the entries about real (as opposed to fictional) women? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a man, does it attribute every negative thing that happened in that man’s life to a woman? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a biography of a woman, does the author undermine her personal agency and criticize her decisions as not being appropriate to her gender? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a series of interviews, does the interviewer ask a different set of questions based on the sex of the person being interviewed, such as asking women about their families while asking men about their careers? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

If it’s a publisher, is more than 80% of the company’s output the work of male writers and artists? Yes? THEN IT’S SEXIST.

OH NO, SOMEONE CALLED MY WORK SEXIST. WHAT NOW?????

Again, this can get complicated, but you’re not trying to land a rover on Mars here. You have two options:

(1) Flip out and starting delivering tirades against all the nasty mean people who don’t know anything and are ruining your fun with their trite and ignorant libel. You may want to use the term “feminazi,” because someone pointing out that women are people is just like Hitler invading Poland. Obviously.

(2) Take a break and eat a sandwich or something. Once you’ve calmed down, recognize that your accuser may have a point. If you’re an author or a press, meditate on the statistics concerning how much money women spend on books, and take some time to think about how many choices people have in terms of where they get their reading material.

In conclusion, books are for smart people, but sexism is stupid. The end.

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.