Book Review: Strangers by Taichi Yamada

strangersSet in the great human maelstrom of Tokyo, Strangers is a thinking man’s ghost story. Middle-aged, jaded and divorced, TV scriptwriter  Hideo Harada is forced to set up home in his office, situated in a high-rise apartment block overlooking Tokyo’s busy Route 8. One night, nostalgic for his lost childhood, he decides to visit the entertainment district of Asakusa, the city’s dilapidated old downtown area, and there, at the theatre, he meets a man who looks exactly like his long-dead father. So begins Harada’s ordeal, as he’s thrust into a reality where his parents appear to be alive at the exact age they had been when they died so many years before. Although they may be apparitions, he takes solace in seeing them, in spite of the damage it seems to do to his health. Can Kei, the mysteriously fragile neighbour with whom Harada begins a tentative relationship, save him from the ghosts of his past?

From my TBR pile. Published by Faber and Faber.

We find the narrator Hideo Harada, 47, soon to be 48, and recently divorced. Having become emotionally distant from his wife it was he who asked for the divorce, only to be hit hard on two levels – Akayo gets most of the money; mere weeks after the divorce, Mamiya, a producer colleague, informs him that he is going to start dating Akayo.

Hideo lives on the top floor of a building that has slowly been converted from apartments to offices and it’s where he both lives and works as a writer. He twigs early on that despite the highway thundering past directly outside, the building is preternaturally quiet. He works out that apart from one place on the third floor, he is the only person to be in the building after hours.

One day, to escape another night on his own and feeling a tad nostalgic, he takes the train out to where he gew up and ends up in a theatre. The performer on stage gets heckled and it’s this point that everything changes…..the heckler is the spitting image of his father, who died aged 39 when Hideo was 12…..

The two men strike up a conversation, and the two men end up going for a beer….and finds the man married to a woman who appears to be his dead mother.

Over the next few weeks Hideo is torn between two sets of people…the couple who admit to being his dead parents, which makes no sense but he still can’t stay away, and Kei, the woman in room 305 with whom he has started a sexual relationship.

The ghosts are having a detrimental effect however, which Hideo can’t see, even when he looks in the mirror when people tell him how sick he looks.  Finally it takes an intervention from his old colleague Mamiya, for him to make the necessary breaks and work on his health.

Narrated by Hideo, this is a fairly short book at 200 pages. There is a lot of self reflection as to why his parents seem to have returned now, what their departure when he was 12 really meant for him and his intimacy with other people, especially his now ex wife.  Visiting his parents now, even though 10 years older than them, allows his to get some comfort in doing the things he never got to do as a child such as eating ice cold watermelon, playing catch in the street etc

There doesn’t seem to be the consideration that this is a man heading into depression and a mental breakdown….it seems to be a straight ghost story. As you can tell from the names this book is set in Japan, and written by a Japanese author. I don’t know if this is a standard Japanese ghost story or not. The translated text is rather sparse and clean but there’s the occasional word that seems at odds with the rest of the narrative…. Mamiya uses a rosary near the end which has a different connotation for western Christian readers than what the author probably meant. The father figure,whist traditionally formal the first few meetings, starts using some slangy type words later on, possibly to denote how informal things had become,but it does jar the reader a little.  Akayo and Shigeki (the son) are one dimensional, with one token “it was your idea” style conversation with Akayo and a rather jilted contact with Shigeki after everything had happen. Not sure what these scenes were meant to add to the story.

In Summary

A story of loss and second chances, with a few plot twists and surprises (Spoilers!). A Ghost story that is rarely threatening but which is enjoyable distraction none the less.

About the author

Taichi Yamada is one of the most famous and highly respected writers in Japan. Winner of many awards for literary excellence from private organizations and from the Japanese government, he is best known for his scripts for TV dramas, but has also written many novels and plays. He was born in Tokyo in 1934, and graduated from Waseda University in 1958 after having studied japanese Language and Literature in the Department of Education. That same year he entered the Shochiku Film Company and began to work at the Ofuna Studio Production Department. In 1965, he left Shochiku and established himself as an independent scenario writer.

 

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