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.

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.

Last Winter, We Parted

Last Winter We Parted

Title: Last Winter, We Parted
Japanese Title: 去年の冬、きみと別れ (Kyonen no fuyu, kimi to wakare)
Author: Nakamura Fuminori (中村 文則)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2013 (Japan)
Publisher: Soho Press
Pages: 216

A 35-year-old photographer named Kiharazaka Yūdai is charged with the murder of two young women who acted as his models. Although his work was highly regarded, he had lived mainly off the inheritance from his maternal grandfather, who had distanced himself from his daughter to such an extent that Yūdai and his sister Akari ended up growing up in an orphanage after being abandoned by their parents. He is currently being held in prison in solitary confinement, where he’s waiting to appeal his death sentence.

The narrator, an unnamed writer who is working with his editor to put out a book about Kiharazaka, visits him in prison and then begins exchanging letters. He also meets with Akari and a salaryman named Katani, who had been Kiharazaka’s only friend. Both of them believe he’s innocent, and both want to know why the narrator cares so much about him.

It turns out that both Kiharazaka and the narrator were involved with a group that had formed around a man named Suzuki, a creator of full-size silicon sex dolls. When the narrator approaches Suzuki about Kiharazaka, the craftsman talks at length about his clients and the uncanniness of his art. He also discusses the similarities between his work and Kiharazaka’s photography, bringing up Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s short story Hell Screen as a means of explaining the relationship between beauty and suffering. Suzuki doesn’t doubt that Kiharazaka murdered his photographic subjects by setting them and his studios on fire, but he suspects that there was something that drove the man’s madness other than the desire to lift himself out of an artistic slump.

There is in fact more going on, but it’s the reader who has to play detective. Interspersed between the short passages charting the narrator’s descent into an unhealthy relationship with the Kiharazaka siblings are various documents presented as numbered “archives.” Some are letters from Kiharazaka to his sister and to the narrator, while others are diary entries and Twitter feeds, and some are more difficult to classify. The relationships between the characters are not what they initially seem, with names being nothing more than empty signifiers of fractured identities, and the reader is forced to fit all of the clues together herself if she wants to understand what really happened between this small group of irreparably damaged people.

Last Winter, We Parted is misogynistic in that female characters seem to only be there to be photographed and/or fucked before being burned alive, but that comes with the territory. Let’s be real here, this is a crime novel written by a man who won the Ōe Prize, what were you expecting.

Standard literary sexism aside, Last Winter, We Parted is a small book of eerie beauty. Despite its gory subject matter, the prose is as light as falling ash. Allison Markin Powell’s translation is, as always, wonderful. This is the first book by Nakamura Fuminori I’ve read, but I’m definitely hooked on his writing.

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.