Brain Diving On The Right Corpse
by Brian Ruh, Mar 8th 2011
I don't know what the weather is like where you live, but frankly it's been pretty freakin’ nice here in Austin. Sunny, 70 degrees, the whole works. It's really been getting me in the mood for summer. And, as many of you know, summer is the season for horror in Japan. Apparently, the mental shivers you get from a good scare help to cool your body down. Or something like that.
In any case, because of our fantastic weather here, I decided to pick up a copy of Otsuichi's Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, which came out last year from Haikasoru. (It also lets me brag a bit to those regions of the world still in the throes of winter.) However, I'm not usually a big horror fan; it's just never particularly interested me as a genre. I think part of it can be attributed to my preference for science fiction over fantasy – many horror stories often have a supernatural element to them, which doesn't usually do anything for me. Maybe I'm just too much of a realist. At the same time, though, I love art that can subvert the way we look at the world, so I'm simultaneously fascinated by the fantastic elements used in many horror stories. It's complicated, I know.
While I've seen my share of horror films, I prefer my frights coming at me via the printed word. It seems to me that a lot of horror cinema is all about making the audience jump, which is a pretty cheap way of getting your audience to react. Any hack can pull off this kind of a response. However, you don't really have that option with written horror – you can't use the same sorts of lame trickery that you can resort to in a horror film. (Not to say that all horror films are like this, mind you.) So you need to be more skillful about how you structure your story and work to build up tension and dread before unleashing the horror on your readers. That's the kind of horror that tends to stick with you. I still have strong recollections of The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, which I read as a kid. In spite of its seemingly innocuous title, it really quite creeped me out, particularly the book's use of the Hand of Glory, a candle fashioned from the hand of a dead man.
Another reason I picked up Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is that Otsuichi is one of those authors I'd been meaning to read but hadn't gotten around to yet. His story collections Calling you and Goth were released a few years ago by Tokyopop, as were the manga adaptations of each. The stories “F-sensei's Pocket” and “Where the Wind Blows” were published in the two volumes of the anime- and manga-influenced Faust anthology we got over here. (Both were illustrated by Takeshi Obata of Hikaru no Go, Death Note, and Bakuman. fame.) Otsuichi has written a novelization of the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure manga and is married to Tomoe Oshii, daughter of famed anime director Mamoru Oshii. Otsuichi has been involved in film as well; in addition to some of his stories getting the cinematic treatment, he has also directed a few films and wrote the screenplay for Production I.G's Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror.
One of the first things I noticed while reading Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse was that the stories (of which there were three in this volume) all had the strong flavor of rural Japan. As far as a setting for Japanese horror goes, this fits the bill nicely. Rural locations in Japan can be both romanticized and feared. For example, in the early twentieth century, folklorist Kunio Yanagita wrote a book called Tales of Tono (which was not, in fact, a precursor to Namco Bandai's Tales of… series) that collected a myriad of folktales from an area in northern Japan. The goal of this collection of stories was to let the people of the countryside speak for themselves, since Yanagita felt that it was these people who were the “true” Japanese untainted by the modern world. Yanagita would be acclaimed as the founder of folklore studies in Japan, and his book reinforced the thinking that rural Japan was the hotspot for monsters, spirits, and other sorts of odd goings-on.
This is something that persists today, even in something like My Neighbor Totoro. In this film about two girls coming to grips with their mother's illness and the problems this causes for their family, the forest spirits they encounter are intimately tied to the rural area they're living in. One of the tag lines used in the trailer for the film reads something like, “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Probably.” It is the countryside that provides the power for the spirit of the Totoros, and without it their existence is called into question. In a similar vein, although much less congenial, the visual novel / anime / manga series When They Cry also shows the connection between spirits and the countryside. However, the franchise often depicts the supernatural powers that are lurking in rural areas as being potentially deadly, as the characters keep running into horrifically bloody ends. This isn't to say that Japan has cornered the market on associating rural landscapes with horror; it's a fairly common trope in American entertainment, too, from Night of the Living Dead to The Last Exorcism. We seem to be comfortable in cities since we know more or less what to expect. It's in the countryside, far away from the great masses of people, where truly strange things can happen.
Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse by Otsuichi
The first thing I noticed about the book is its striking cover. The image of the single sandal left on the moss-covered steps really draws the reader in with its sense of mystery and promise of loss. The concept seems to be based on the original Japanese cover design, which was in turn taken from events in the story, but I think it's executed more effectively in Haikasoru's version. I know people often complain about not getting the original Japanese artwork when books and manga are translated into English, so I felt that I should point out that new art in a case like this can actually be an improvement.
Although the cover is taken from the story “Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse,” the book contains two other stories as well – “Yuko” and “Black Fairy Tale.” I thought it was a little odd that the book would be titled after the first story, since it's actually “Black Fairy Tale” that takes up the majority of the book's pages. I am glad, though, that as was the case with Mardock Scramble, Haikasoru is publishing books with more content than the Japanese originals. Even though “Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse” and “Black Fairy Tale” were published separately (and years apart) in Japan, I don't think either is substantial enough to be published alone for an English-speaking audience.
Part of the reason why “Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse” takes center stage in this collection could be that it was Otsuichi's debut work, which won the Sixth Jump Short Fiction/Nonfiction Prize in 1996 when he was just seventeen. Having never read any of Otsuichi's stories before, I was curious to see where he had come from and how he had developed as a writer. The story of “Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse” is remarkably simple – Satsuki, Yayoi, and Ken were young kids who often played together in their small village. Satsuki and Yayoi were the same age and Ken was Yayoi's brother. Since he was the oldest, Ken often took the lead in their games, and both girls looked up to him. He even helped the trio to find a perfect tree for climbing, which they would perch on top of as their own private hangout away from the world below. However, one day when Satsuki and Yayoi are sitting in the tree waiting for Ken, Yayoi confesses that she wishes Ken weren't her brother so she could marry him someday. Satsuki in turn confides in Yayoi that she has a crush on Ken as well. A few seconds later, as she leans over to get a better view of Ken walking toward them, Satsuki feels Yayoi's hand on her back, pushing her off the high branch and onto the rocks below. The fall kills Satsuki, and the two siblings spend the rest of the story trying to hide her corpse.
I'm probably willing to cut “Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse” some slack since it was Otsuichi's first published work and he was just a teenager at the time. However, a few things still stick out to me. The first is that the actual basis for hiding Satsuki's corpse, which drives the entire story that comes afterward, is unconvincing. When Ken asks the sobbing Yayoi what happened, she says that Satsuki slipped. This is a believable enough lie, as things like that happen all the time. However, they don't want to tell their family or the people in the village because it might make them upset. So they hide the body and pretend as if they have no idea what happened to Satsuki. There's just something about this part that doesn't quite seem right. They can't hide the fact that Satsuki has gone missing, although a rash of kidnappings in neighboring prefectures provides a convenient explanation for what might have happened. They end up causing more stress and work for themselves by having to move Satsuki's body around to keep it from being discovered than if they had simply said it was an accident. And the fact that they have to keep transporting the body is almost comical, which was another problem I had with the story. It seems as if Otsuichi is setting these situations up precisely to always put the kids on the edge of being discovered. It just kept pushing the boundaries of credulity. However, the story did wrap up with a nicely unsettling ending, although the coda spells things out a bit too cleanly for my tastes.
At fewer than 40 pages, “Yuko” is the shortest story in the book. Kiyone is a young woman working as a housemaid for an established writer named Masayoshi. She enjoys her work and is thankful to Masayoshi for taking her in after her father died. But she is troubled by Yuko, Masayoshi's invalid wife. The married woman spends all of her time in a bed in Masayoshi's room, which Kiyone is prohibited from entering. Kiyone discovers evidence that leads her to what she thinks is Yuko's true nature, and takes action in order to free him from the delusion which she feels he is suffering. I found the story interesting, certainly, but I wasn't drawn into it as I was the other two stories in the book. I think it relies too heavily on the final chapter to reveal what actually took place, and Masayoshi's emotions at the end were far from convincing.
The final story in this collection, “Black Fairy Tale,” is where the book really shines. It's also the longest piece by far, taking up over two thirds of the book. A young girl named Nami loses her left eyeball in a freak accident when it is poked out by the tip of an umbrella. The shock of the loss causes her to lose her memory as well, and when she gets out of the hospital she seems like an entirely different person. She finds it incredibly difficult to reconnect with her family and classmates and gradually becomes more withdrawn. Her grandfather arranges for her to have a new eye transplanted, hoping this will lift Nami's spirits and help her to regain her memory. In fact, it makes her life worse because she now looks almost exactly the same as she did before her accident, and everyone around her begins to get frustrated that she is not the Nami they knew and loved. However, she discovers that the eye will sometimes show her visions of a world in which she is someone else. She begins keeping a diary of what she sees and acquires a wealth of knowledge about the person whose vision she momentarily shares. Nami realizes that these are not hallucinations or her memories returning, but are rather genuine visual memories of the young man who donated her eye. One vision in particular disturbs her – the man is looking into the window of a house and sees a young teen girl in a sack from the neck down. However, the sack is far too small to contain a full human body with arms and legs. He tries to break in to save her, but is chased by an unseen figure, runs into traffic, and is hit by a car. Nami realizes that she had previously seen the girl on a television program about missing people, and decides that she needs to try to save this girl who is being held captive somewhere near the young man's rural hometown.
After “Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse” and “Yuko,” “Black Fairy Tale” was a delight because it was well crafted and did a good job of detailing Nami's emotional state in response to the people around her. The characters were compelling and the story was quite enjoyable. I've been going back and forth on what I thought of the ending, which made me want to go back and re-read the story to make sure that all of the pieces really do fall into place. I'm trying not to give too much away here, but Otsuichi plays with the reader's expectations about how a book like this would be structured. I think it works, though. Also, squeamish readers should be warned – there are some pretty intense scenes of body mutilation in the story, although they are far from the main focus.
Overall, I was quite impressed with Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, particularly as someone who isn't usually a horror fan. As mentioned above, there are quite a few other examples of Otsuichi's work that have been translated into English (including his collection Zoo, also from Haikasoru), so I'm seriously thinking of checking those out. It's always a good feeling to find a new author who interests you, and I think I've found one with Otsuichi.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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