“ Paperback: 320 pages / Publisher: VERTICAL / Published: 7 May 2009 „
I first came across Natsuhiko Kyogoku's work after watching a film adaption of one of his novels, Mouryou no Hako (translates to Box of Goblins - you can see why they chose to keep the romanised title). Mouryou no Hako is the second (and most famous) of Natsuhiko Kyogoku's book series focusing on the exorcist Akihiko Chuzenji and his ability to solve puzzling - often shocking - mysteries through knowledge of esoteric Shinto, psychology, philosophy and science. Summer of the Ubume is the first novel in the so-called Kyogokudo series, and to date the only one available in English.
So - what is an ubume, and why is there a long hot summer surrounding it? Like the ambiguous nature of the book's mystery, this is not always so clear-cut: ubume seems to be a distinctly Japanese folk-tale of a crone by the roadside, who implores passers-by to take the child in her arms and then disappears - and the legend has it the weight of the child increases until it is revealed that it is only a rock or boulder; other scholars think that is more along the lines of the ghost of a pregnant woman covered in blood from the waist down crying to her unborn infant; and there are even those who attribute it to ancient legends of human sacrifice, where a mother and her child were buried alive under one of the pillars of a newly-built bridge to invoke the blessings of the gods.
To name a book after such folk-lore could give the impression that Summer of the Ubume is a supernatural or fantastical novel, or one preoccupied with the classical Japanese literature format of "rocks fall, everyone dies". This impression is erroneous. The concepts of demons and legends from folklore are instead used as a framing device for the bizarre situations our characters are compelled to solve - even the exorcist in the novel doesn't believe in ghosts.
The setting is 1952; the place, Tokyo. Japan's society is still ruptured from WWII and the dust has yet to settle. Many cults have sprung up, as people yearn for something tangible to believe in after the impossible loss of the war. Ancient superstitions co-exist with contemporary science in the public mindset. For society it is a time of forced transitions: many famous buildings are still in ruins, the black market has been outlawed, and suddenly sleazy tabloid journalism is all the rage.
Summer of the Ubume is told in first-person by a man called Sekiguchi, a bit of an unlucky soul who had to give up his unprofitable slime-mold research to write trashy articles in order to pay the bills. This causes him to be teased somewhat by his friends and his old war buddies: a P.I., Reijiro Enokizu, whose failing eyesight means he can see, according to him, residue of memories and prophetic visions; Kiba Shutaro, a Tokyo Metropolitan police detective; and Akihiko Chuzenji, bookstore proprietor and trained exorcist. It is these friends he wishes to consult after being charged with writing about a creepy, but surely unbelievable, urban legend. A member of the family who set up the formerly nationally-renowned medical institution, Kyoko Kyonji of Kyonji Clinic, has been deserted by her husband while pregnant. But there is is more to this than simple scandal sheet fodder: Kyoko has been pregnant for over 20 months, and her husband has not run off with a mistress or returned to live with family - he has disappeared from the face of the earth.
Sekiguchi is an easy protagonist to like, as he is delightfully clueless. His opinion of the case fluctuates with every new piece of information presented, much like mine did when I was reading. Other characters, such as Enoziku, the half-blind P.I., inject a surprising amount of humour into the otherwise dark proceedings, and exorcist Chuzenji is always enigmatic, clever and quick to quip. Even so, Sekiguchi isn't simply a proxy set of eyes for the audience to see through, and his past experiences are a vital component to the mystery as a whole. When Sekiguchi meets Ryoko Kyonji (the sister of the pregnant woman and sister in law to the missing man) it starts him down a vertigo-inducing path of recurring nightmares and repressed memories, as his perceptions of reality bend and distort, creating a very tense and cryptic atmosphere as a backdrop to the deepening mystery surrounding the "ubume".
For anyone used to crime novels or mysteries, Summer of the Ubume is a refreshing exercise in suspended disbelief. Conclusions are come to after lengthy discourses of tangentially related topics, such as quantum mechanics and collective delusions, which could put many casual readers off, but the finale is undoubtedly incredibly clever (if extremely strange).
Alexander O. Smith's translation holds water by being faithful to the original Japanese while being easy to digest for the English reader. This is especially apparent in certain untranslatable words, such as the names of demons or legends, which are translated into roman script and then elaborated upon (e.g. ubume, yokai). While some people could argue this ruins the flow of the original sentences, it's absolutely paramount in importance that the reader knows what is going on, at least without consulting the Internet for clarification. Plus - the pacing was still one of the most compelling aspects of the novel, even with certain edits for clarity. Simply - this book was impossible to put down.
At 320 pages, Summer of the Ubume may be average in length, but the level of written detail is astounding, especially as it never takes away from the vitals of the plot. Details are also carried over in the design of the book: it is striking with the frankly unnerving black motif on the white cover, and I was surprised that the pages were also bleached white. The formatting of every page is readable with plenty of space in the margins so the text doesn't seem cramped. I am not usually so meticulous about paperback formats, but I did feel that Vertical put a lot of effort into presentation, which paid off in the stylish yet minimal book design. Sadly, due to lack of demand, Vertical have chosen not to continue translating and publishing the rest of the novels in the series.
Still, even as a stand-alone book, Summer of the Ubume has a stylish and intelligent story, but most of all - a mystery with an unforgettable solution.
Price (ATOR): £8.27
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: VERTICAL; FICTH edition (7 May 2009)