by Taichi Yamada
‘With lips locked, we fell to the tatami and quickly forgot the arietta. Later that same evening, everything came to an end.’
Strangers is a teasing, creepy ghost story from Japan. I think the original title means something like ‘the summer of the strange people’ – I do hope I’ve got the kanji right!
The narrator is Harada, like the author himself a writer for television. He is forty-eight years old, newly divorced and lives and works in a seventh floor apartment overlooking one of the busiest streets in Tokyo. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll know that’s very busy indeed. In the daytime, the building is full of workers earning their living. At night, there are only a handful of people. One evening, Harada is working on a script when a woman comes to his door bringing a bottle of champagne. Because he is busy and tired, he dismisses her, but meets her again a few days later and offers to have a drink with her sometime.
A month goes by. Harada pays a visit to the Asakusa district where he grew up and meets a sushi chef who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead father. He is invited to the man’s home. He discovers that the man’s wife is the spitting image of his mother, also dead for thirty-six years. Not only do this couple resemble his parents but they actually seem to BE his parents.
‘A mother and father in their thirties with a 48-year-old son could not be of the real world, of course, but if an imagined world could allow such a relationship to exist, then I was ready to embrace that world.’
As he goes on more visits to the couple, something very strange begins to happen to Harado, obvious to his friends, yet unrealised by himself. [Think The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, if you know that story, and you’ll get an inkling of the scenario.] However, when Harada looks at his reflection in a mirror he sees nothing out of the ordinary, until . . . .
‘A knot of terror throbbed to life in the pit of my stomach. If the image I saw in the mirror was not my true reflection, then I had no way to diagnose my true condition.’
Meantime, Harada has also formed a relationship with the woman in his apartment block. Her name is Kei and they have become lovers. Kei pleads with him not to go back to Asakusa, insisting that the ghostly parents are an evil influence. But Harada doesn’t listen. The real world continues to merge with the unreal until his perceptions are blurred and he has difficulty distinguishing between them. We may look for a twist or two in the plot before the end, yet when the dénouement comes it isn’t quite what we expect. It isn’t Dorian Gray.
Strangers is a short novel, readable in one or two sessions The Japanese flavour is unmistakable This isn’t the sort of fantasy writing in which Murakami excels, yet it isn’t without its own touch of the comedic. Nevertheless, the hairs on the neck do occasionally stand on end, while the finale leaves one with a distinct chill in the bones.