Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2010
One of the more frustrating aspects of reviewing translated Japanese literature is the waiting. While Haruki Murakami is hampered only by the length of time it takes Jay Rubin to bang out a decent translation, most modern writers will wait a decade or two before seeing their work appear in English, by which point it’s been robbed of much of its resonance.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. In the introduction to Lonely Hearts Killer, Adrienne Carey Hurley bemoans the unwillingness of most publishers to release “contemporary Japanese fiction that challenges stereotypes or demands serious self-reflection.” After much shopping around, she eventually found a home for her translation of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s 2004 novel at PM Press, an independent publisher that specializes in radical and anarchist literature. It’s baffling that nobody else would be willing to release a work that speaks so directly to Japan’s present fears—the declining birthrate, environmental problems, rising nationalism, and public and national security—and does so in a layered, complex narrative.
“I have no real sense of participating in society,” declares the story’s first narrator, a young—and largely unemployed—filmmaker and blogger called Shoji Inoue. When Japan’s emperor dies at the age of 46, only three years after acceding to the throne, it leaves the nation in a daze that’s compounded by the fact that the only heir is a woman. Many young people, hitherto unconcerned by the complexities of the imperial line, are “spirited away” into outright catatonia—something that Shoji surveys with bemused detachment, wondering why he isn’t affected.
He finds a certain amount of solace in Iroha, a fellow filmmaker who shares his impassivity: as she describes it, both of them are “nothing without something to reflect, just an empty screen.” Her boyfriend Mikoto was among those felled by narcolepsy, and when he and Shoji finally meet, the latter suddenly finds new meaning in the emperor’s demise, leading him to start a wave of so-called “love suicides.”
Iroha picks up the narrative from here, recalling her escape to a mountaintop retreat run by an old friend, Mokuren, where she obsesses over secondhand reports on the gradual unraveling of society down below. The wave of suicides becomes indiscriminate, leading in turn to acts of “justifiable self-defense” that are reported/distorted by a hysterical mass media. In a touch of mordant humor, a student who preemptively kills his friend goes on to publish a bestseller entitled The Value of Survival; when Mokuren publically affirms her refusal to kill anyone, she and the retreat’s residents are hounded for shirking responsibility.
Though society ultimately draws back from the brink, Iroha finds herself frustrated with what she sees as the illusionary calm that replaces the madness. “The holes in this screen we call society get filled with cheap pride whenever they become visible, and the projector starts back up,” she writes. Yet when she attempts to make a grand gesture of her own, it falls flat—to the cynical delight of the book’s third narrator.
“She was actually doing okay and hanging in there, but then she got carried away by those big ideas,” Mokuren writes of her friend. But even this cool pragmatist starts to waver in the final pages of the story.
This is a demanding, messy piece of work, ripe with narrative ambiguities. Subsequent events such as the 2008 Akihabara massacre and the demented media blather over Noriko Sakai have lent it added prescience, resulting in a novel that—let’s not beat around the bush—is more compelling than anything I’ve reviewed in the past year.