My introduction to Natsuhiko Kyogoku was the anime adaptation of his second novel of the Kyogokudou series, Mouryou no Hako. Then there was the sci-fi-themed Loups Garous. The first novel of his Kyogokudou series, The Summer of the Ubume, has in contrast been available in English for some time, but I daresay it’s slipped under most people’s radar…which is a bit of a shame. It’s perhaps understandable though since it’s a bit of an acquired taste: it gives an experience akin to a Mamoru Oshii story, building an intellectual ‘wall’ around itself, for want of a better term, that it expects the reader to climb over. The effort is worth your while but I can understand why some people wouldn’t bother.
There are a couple of segments in particular that go off at quite demanding tangents, which is fine for those of us with a passing interest in philosophy, psychology and Japanese folklore, but to most it would come across as self-indulgent on the author’s part (Kyogoku is a youkai enthusiast and boy, does it show up in his writing). Getting through these – and seeing how they are relevant to the story – is the main reservation I’d have in recommending this novel, but overall I loved it.
The character of Kyogokudou as the intellectual sceptic with a sizeable reference library and endless list of smart-arse put-downs works on more than one level too: he’s the Sherlock-ian genius who sheds light on the mystery but throws in a fascinating dynamic into the flow of the story. The premise sounds supernatural at first but Kyogokudo doesn’t believe in anything supernatural at all; because of this, Ubume, Mouryou and, I’m assuming the rest of this series, are in fact mystery stories with elements of SF in the guise of supernatural fantasy.
The realism of Ubume, or any Kyogoku story for that matter, is always a shock at first because you expect it to be a supernatural story, but the ghost or monster of the title is instead a metaphor for a very ‘real’ physical phenemenon. Using youkai in this way is a clever trick, but considering when these stories are set it takes on even greater significance.
The early Showa period was a mixture of Twentieth Century and traditional Japan, so the mechanics of the mystery involve the new-fangled contempory science that is mistaken for the traditional folklore and superstition. It’s an under-represented timeframe I think, because most Japanese fiction that isn’t set in the present or future is set way back in feudal times. And yet the Showa era was a really historically important, and (to me at least) interesting time when you’re trying to understand how the country’s society of the present day came to be the way it is.
I’m no expert in this area and I’m not suggesting that you need to be one in order to appreciate this story, but I believe it resonates more when you remember that two very different philosophies – Western science and medicine and traditional folklore respectively – existed side-by-side in everyday life during this period. Kyogoku takes this historical observation and creates two very different, and unsettling, horror/chiller themes: one grounded in traditional folklore but beneath the surface there’s a scientific/technological one that is, in its own way, just as unsettling.
It reminds me of the old/new contrast in aesthetics and technology that makes steampunk so cool and imaginative, but the period setting adds a social commentary aspect that takes advantage of how the beliefs and values of the people of the time were in a state of flux. If it were set any earlier, the technology would be too advanced to be convincing; any closer to the present and the majority of the characters wouldn’t still believe in the folklore any more and that plot device wouldn’t have worked either. In that sense, the story could only have happened in that strange post-WW2 era.
Another element that Kyougoku throws into the mix is the film noir aspect. During the 1940s the likes of Raymond Chandler were publishing hugely influential mystery thrillers in the US, and I suspect that there is a slight element of homage to that genre – albeit taking place in Japan with a strong local folklore theme – set around the same time, featuring a private investigator as one of the main protagonists, no less. Other common tropes of the ‘hard boiled’ detective story, such as depicting the destructive after-effects of lies and obsessions, and of course the enigmatic and alluring femme fatale character archetype who crosses paths with the hero, also feature strongly.
An interesting footnote to The Summer of the Ubume is that Kinoko Nasu claimed that he’s a huge admirer of Kyogoku’s writing. Mindful of this as I read through …Ubume, I started to notice a lot of similarities to the Kara no Kyoukai novel; from the walls of text in the dialogue, through the convoluted mechanisms that created the mysteries to be solved, and even character names. It’s one of those “once you think you see it you can’t unsee it” things. Looking at it that way, a lot of the idiosyncracies of Nasu’s own writing make a bit more sense, to me at least.
I’d like to think that more of Kyogoku’s novels will be published in English like this one has, but I doubt it. Despite Type Moon works sharing quite a few quirks, the supernatural aspect is real in their stories’ universe (which means you don’t have to explain at length what the story actually *is* like I’ve done here for Kyougoku’s) and they’re packaged in a more otaku-friendly way that makes them more accessible…even if the target market is a bit of a niche one. By that pessimistic logic, if we’re still waiting for an English KnK edition to hit the shelves, more of Kyogoku’s writing would be an even harder thing to sell to the general public.
Again, it’s a shame. All the more reason to savour this one, really.