The Summer of the Ubume

Title: The Summer of the Ubume
Japanese Title: 姑獲鳥の夏 (Ubume no natsu)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極夏彦)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 320

Reading The Summer of the Ubume was like being in a trance. Honestly, it feels weird to not be reading the book right now, but I imagine that I’m going to be reading it again soon. I haven’t been this engrossed in a book since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Which is not to say that Summer of the Ubume is in any way like the Harry Potter series, aside from its sheer literary addiction quotient. On the surface, the book presents a simple “sealed room” murder mystery. Underneath, however, is mystery upon mystery upon mystery. Running through these mysteries is a current of Japanese folklore, especially folklore concerning spirit possession. The “ubume” of the title is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth and carries out her grudge against still-living mothers by stealing their infant children. This trope is connected to the household of a family that is just about as gothic as they come, with frail maidens and hereditary curses and hidden murders set on the stage of an almost abandoned hospital, which was designed by an insane architect and almost destroyed during the wartime firebombing of Tokyo.

The Summer of the Ubume is set in 1952 in the Nakano area, which used to be a residential district on the northwest periphery of Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from the prisons, insane asylums, and black markets of Ikebukuro. Its narrator is a man in his early thirties named Sekiguchi, a freelance writer who specializes in essays on supernatural incidents. Sekiguchi is friends with the brilliant yet antisocial proprietor of the Kyōgokudō used bookstore (which is the name his friends use to refer to him). Sekiguchi is the Watson to Kyōgokudō’s Holmes, and a great deal of the book is devoted to their conversations concerning metaphysical matters, which end up having a great deal to do with the mystery at hand.

In the course of his work (which borders on yellow journalism), Sekiguchi has stumbled upon a rumor of a woman who, having been mysteriously deserted by her husband, has been pregnant for eighteen months. After asking several magazine editors about the source of the rumor, Sekiguchi becomes more intrigued. Due to a strange series of coincidences, the writer has the opportunity to meet the woman’s family, which is deeply dysfunctional in every possible way. As Sekiguchi learns more about these people, it turns out that his ties to them are deeper than he initially suspected.

The first chapter of the novel is a forty-page discussion of the supernatural between Kyōgokudō and Sekiguchi. Each page is dense with ideas and metaphysical language (not to mention text – the book’s margins are practically nonexistent), and neither Sekiguchi nor Kyōgokudō is presented in a particularly sympathetic light – Sekiguchi comes off as rather dense while Kyōgokudō is supremely abrasive. If the reader can weather this initial chapter, however, he or she will be rewarded with a deliciously convoluted mystery populated by a genuinely fascinating cast of characters. The action of the story reaches its climax 230 pages into the novel, which leaves 90 pages for the explanation of the mystery. Although this may seem like poor pacing, the explication is well-plotted, engrossing, and bizarre, reaching its own climax at the end of the novel.

The Summer of Ubume is Kyōgoku’s debut novel, and at times it does feel unpolished. The momentum of the story more than makes up for any flaws in the narrative’s structure, however. The occasional clichés implicit in the mystery (such as the uncertainty that is inevitably created when there are two almost identical sisters in a fictional family) are balanced by the writer’s unique take on the gothic genre. The novel’s setting in 1950’s Tokyo is fully taken advantage of by Kyōgoku, who skillfully renders the city as a sinister gothic landscape.

Although, as I mentioned, there is a greater emphasis on talking heads in this novel than is strictly necessary, the characters and setting are superbly handled, and the mystery is just about as addictive as they come. I can only hope that more of Kyōgoku’s work is translated into English as soon as possible.

Masks

masks

Title: Masks
Japanese Title: 女面 (Onnamen)
Author: Enchi Fumiko (円地 文子)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 1983 (America); 1958 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 141

Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translator of Enchi Fumiko’s novel Masks, is one of the most eloquent translators of Japanese literature alive today. Carpenter has translated everything from Tawara Machi’s groundbreaking collection of tanka poetry, Salad Anniversary (Sarada kinenbi, 1987) to Asa Nonami’s hard-boiled police thriller The Hunter (Kohoeru kiba, 1996). My advice to all lovers of Japanese literature would be: if Juliet Winters Carpenter has translated it, you need to read it!

Enchi Fumiko is one of the most highly regarded writers of literary fiction in Japan. Her father was a scholar of classical Japanese literature, and Enchi grew up devouring the books in his library, from the medieval Tales of Moonlight and Rain to the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Her pen name, Fumiko, means “child of letters” or “child of literature.” When she grew up, she undertook the translation of the monumental eleventh-century novel The Tale of Genji. She is famous for incorporating allusions to classical literature into her own fiction, which was highly praised by writers like Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Mishima Yukio.

Enchi’s work is known for its tightly woven plots, subtle writing, strong visual imagery, and masterful use of symbolism. An Enchi novel is like a structuralist literary critic’s dream come true. There is an incredible amount of information packed within each paragraph, and her novels and stories have inspired a wealth of interpretations. Enchi is an intellectual of the highest magnitude yet also possesses the ability to imbue her fiction with great emotional weight.

Although Enchi is primarily known in Japan for her novel The Waiting Years (Onnazaka, 1939), for which she won the prestigious Noma Literary Prize, Masks has its own spooky charms. Although the work’s title refers to the masks of Noh drama, particularly the “madwoman” masks that lend their names to the chapter titles, the novel draws many of its themes and allusions from the Tale of Genji. The parallels Enchi draws between The Tale of Genji and the cultural climate of postwar Japan are fascinating. Not only does the author create distinct connections between her characters and the characters of the Heian romance, but she also makes use of themes such as spirit possession and romantic substitution to subvert the gendered expectations of the patriarchal and misogynistic societies that hold sway in both The Tale of Genji and postwar Japan.

Although Masks is primarily narrated from the point of view of a male college professor named Ibuki, who is cast in the role of Genji, its true hero is an older woman named Mieko, a powerful Rokujō-like figure with a painful past and veiled intentions. As Mieko’s daughter-in-law and protégée, Yasuko, explains to Ibuki,

Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.

Masks centers around Mieko’s attempt to use this “secret charm” of hers in order to set into motion a deep and complex scheme of revenge, creation, and rebirth. What Mieko is able to accomplish by the end of the novel is both terrible and beautiful. If nothing else, the events that occur during the final dramatic quickening of the work are thought-provoking and will force the reader to consider multiple ethical questions.

Masks is perhaps one of the best introductions to Japanese literature, and more specifically Japanese women’s literature, ever published in translation. No matter where your literary interests lie, this is a novel you need to experience.