The name Natsuhiko Kyogoku is probably unfamiliar to most anime fans, but the novelist has already had one of his works adapted – Madhouse’s 2008 series Mōryō no Hako – with a second, Loups-Garous, being adapted into a movie by Production IG and due for release in 2010. An expert in Japanese folklore tales and yōkai, the supernatural creatures that inhabit them, Kyogoku-san is best known in Japan for his award winning mystery novels. Unfamiliar with his work myself until now, I was intrigued when US publisher Vertical Inc sent me a review copy of his debut novel – and the first to be translated into English – The Summer of The Ubume.
Ubume is the first in his long running series of novels about Akihiko ‘Kyōgokudō’ Chuzenji, a bookshop owner and yōkai exorcist, and a character seemingly based in part on Kyogoku himself. However, reading Ubume for the first time it never feels like Kyogoku ever envisioned Kyōgokudō as the main protagonist, or perhaps never foresaw a series when writing it. The story is instead told, in first person, through the eyes of Sekiguchi, a hack journalist who comes to his old friend Kyogoku for advice on a story he is working on. It’s a bizzare and horrific tale of a local medical clinic run by the Kuonji family, and of missing children, a doctor that has apparently vanished into thin air and a woman that has been pregnant for over 20 months. It is Sekiguchi that investigates the mystery, and until the novel’s chilling climax Kyōgokudō plays little role beyond discussing the case and the alleged involvement of a yōkai known as a ubume with his friend. It’s here that we see how Kyōgokudō becomes an avatar in the book’s world for the author – despite their expert knowledge on the subject, both openly state that they do not believe in the existence of yōkai, instead seeing them as a metaphorical manifestation of societies desires, values and fears.
And it’s here that Ubume’s main themes come to the surface. This theory of folklore seems almost like common sense now, but in Japan in 1951 – when the novel is set – this would have been almost revolutionary thinking to the average citizen. In many ways Ubume is about Japan in the grip of post-war identity crisis, as it attempts to forcefully separate from it’s feudal, Imperial past and embrace a more western form of democracy and modernity. It is world full of tabloid newspapers and trashy magazines, screaming lurid tales of demonic women and yōkai possession, while elsewhere characters embrace medicine and quest for scientific discovery. Memories of war linger in the background at all times, while individuals talk of their struggle to come to terms with realising what they fought for was wrong. It’s here that Ubume’s yōkai metaphor comes to the fore, as Kyōgokudō repeats his mantra ‘there is nothing strange’, and we realise that we are watching a Japan that is undergoing a subtle yet monumental shift in it’s psychological, philosophical and intellectual make up. Whether an exploration of this time was Kyogoku’s original intent, or whether it just provided a convenient setting to tell his stories and illustrate his yōkai theories is never made clear. Either way it’s inconsequential; as readers we are given a valuable and fascinating insight and snapshot of a period in Japan’s social history that makes the book a fascinating read on it’s own.
It also, paradoxically, leads me to my single, very minor note of concern about Ubume. Much of this exposition is presented in the form of lengthy, deep discussion between Kyōgokudō and Sekiguchi – and while I found it a fascinating read others may find it a little impenetrable at first, especially as it begins in the first dozen pages of the book. For the first half of the book the plot moves very slowly as a result, but as a fan of this typically Japanese style of philosophical musing – and the works of anime filmmakers like Mamoru Oshii – I found it immensely enjoyable. And in the end, as with all intelligent literature, its worth putting in the attention it demands, as watching the mystery unravel and reach it’s startling, dark climax is another joy altogether. The Summer of the Ubume is yet more proof, if it was needed, that Vertical’s eye for spotting the more unusual and captivating work that Japan has to offer makes it a publishing force not to be ignored. Here’s hoping that Ubume is enough of a success to allow them to bring us more of Kyogoku’s novels. I know I can’t wait to read more.