The Summer of the Ubume
By Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Originally published in Japanese as Ubume no natsu by Kodansha, 1994
When Sekiguchi, a hack writer, becomes embroiled in a bizarre dead-end mystery, he turns to an old school friend, Akihiko “Kyogokudo” Chuzenji, for assistance. Kyogokudo is a proprietor of a used bookstore, but occasionally moonlights as an exorcist. And the case certainly seems to call for some supernatural insight: Makio Kuonji has vanished from a locked room, and his wife, Kyoko, has been pregnant for the entire twenty months since his disappearance. But Kyogokudo doesn’t actually believe in ghosts; rather, he sees the supernatural as an expression of or metaphor for human emotions and mental states.
Set post-World War II Japan, The Summer of the Ubume is the first in a series of nine award-winning novels by Natsuhiko Kyogoku. Two have been adapted into live-action films; one was made into an anime. In fact, I first heard about the series when the movie and anime versions of the second book in the series, Mouryou no Hakou [Box of Goblins], were released in 2008. I was intrigued, but I mentally filed the books themselves under “those will never be licensed!” Luckily, Vertical came around to prove me wrong.
I read a lot of mystery novels, and I roughly sort them into two categories. The first type of mysteries are concerned primarily with the whodunit; their narratives are focused on plot and action. The second type of mysteries are more interested in psychology and motivation; their narratives are as concerned with characterization and atmosphere as they are with plot. I wouldn’t argue that one category of mystery is inherently better than the other (execution always counts for a lot, and Sturgeon’s law applies here as it does elsewhere), but a reader who gets a psychological mystery when they want a whodunit is going to be unhappy. And the reverse, of course, is also true.
The Summer of the Ubume falls squarely into the second category. The external action is often slow, and a whole lot of the book involves people talking at each other or about each other. If you don’t have the patience for that kind of storytelling, this is not the book for you! What this novel does offer is some very complex characterization of the detectives and suspects alike, and a very haunting atmosphere. At the very beginning of the book, Kyogokudo explains to Sekiguchi why he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but as the mystery unfolds, it’s increasingly easy to believe in them even though the smartest character in the story has already told us not to do so.
Sekiguchi, by the way, is the perfect narrator for this story. The story is told through his unreliable first-person perspective. He’s very impressionable, and he often reacts strongly to the other characters. The atmosphere of the story is that much more effective because Sekiguchi himself is caught up in it. And of course, Sekiguchi’s confusion and exasperation is often a stand-in for the reader’s, especially when Kyogokudo starts lecturing. The rest of the main cast is also interesting. It includes Enokizu, a private detective who is also one of Sekiguchi and Kyogokudo’s old schoolmates; Kiba, a police officer who served in Sekiguchi’s unit during the war; and Atsuko, Kyogokudo’s sister. Enokizu, in particular, is a hoot, and he manages to be a scene-stealer every time he shows up.
I ended up figuring out some of the main twists in the story before our hapless Sekiguchi, but that didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the denouement. Again, this is not that sort of book. The revelation of what really happened and why was still very satisfactory and suitably unsettling.
If you enjoy psychological mysteries, I highly recommend buying this book or asking your local public library to buy it for you. It is one of the best mysteries I’ve read all year. (And selfishly, I’d love to see more of Kyogoku’s work translated for US audiences in the future, but obviously that will depend on how successful this one is. So go forth and buy!)
And if any Powers That Be are reading this, I wouldn’t mind seeing subtitled versions of the movies and anime either! (Hint, hint.)