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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #20 (May 11, 2004), page 12.

Thinkerís ghost story: Horror with hint of hope


By Taichi Yamada

Translated by Wayne P. Lammers

Vertical Inc., 2003

Hardcover, 208 pages, $19.95

Paperback, 208 pages, $14.95

By Oscar Johnson

Special to the Asian Reporter

As down-to-earth as it is eerie, Strangers offers the English-reading world both a glimpse of why author Taichi Yamada has risen to fame in recent decades, and a taste of true Japanese horror. This translation of an award-winning novel-turned-movie touches an array of emotions. Not just fear.

Yamada mixes some of the best of Japanís folklore devices, such as characters and things being not what they seem and the inexplicable motives of the supernatural, with some of modern fictionís most reliable tenets. The result is a well-written novel that subtly raises perplexing questions like a laidback psychological thriller, then eggs on curious readers like a good mystery page turner.

Traditionally, Japanese ghost stories are told in the summer. Perspiration from suspense and fright, itís said, helps chill the body from the sunís stifling heat. No need to wait for warmer weather, however, when Strangers can also spark and warm the intellect of a cold rational mind.

Dubbed "the thinking manís ghost story," it takes readers into the vapid world of Harada, a recent divorcť and TV scriptwriter who is as apathetic as the drab Tokyo urbanity by which he is suffocated. Loneliness, isolation, tenderness, and awakening are woven seamlessly throughout this tale of a man who begins keeping company with his long-deceased parents.

His disbelief soon gives way to a self-doubt. As with other questions lurking in the storyís shadows, we are forced to ponder just how good or bad such doubt is. Against the depressing and often cynical backdrop of Haradaís existence is the blaring reality that self-doubt of psychoanalytical proportions may well be long overdue. There are "ghosts," indeed. But the question of where, if anywhere, the line is between the supernatural and Haradaís own personal ghosts also haunts the plot. By embracing chances to better know the parents that death robbed him of in his youth, he unwittingly begins to resurrect a faint taste for life. But is that in itself a sign that itís already too late?

"As I turned from the shop-lined street into the alley and began climbing the metal staircase as softly as I could, I felt a knot of terror forming in the pit of my stomach again Ö What exactly were those people in the end? Were they some kind of shape-shifting foxes or badgers of which old legends tell? ... When I so eagerly chose to embrace the unreal and rush back here by cab, was I in effect saying that I really didnít care about my life anymore?"

More sober self-analysis and surprise twists ensue. As in the ghost stories of Japanese folklore, thereís an indiscernible price to pay ó the kind that raises the hairs on the back of oneís neck. And leaves protagonist and reader alike with a chilling sense of bewilderment.

Author Yamada was once a scriptwriter himself. His works revolutionized TV drama in Japan during the 1970s, before he began penning novels that masterfully melded modern realism with unearthly fiction in the following decade. Strangers, which took the Yamamoto Shugoro award for best human interest novel, shows that such a transition was long overdue.

Similar to Hideo Nakataís 1998 classic horror film "(The) Ring," which took Japan by storm and last year got mixed reviews via its somewhat overly translated Hollywood remake, Strangers offers the States a glimpse of its own forgotten past: the art ó yes, art ó of horror from an age when a good story instead of kill counts and gore defined the genre.

The book consists of the stuff that makes for good horror: A Twilight-Zone-esque creepiness, with a protagonist whose character depth engages more than the adrenal glands, and artful intrigue and suspense that donít give way to the explicit. More than that, the novel points, albeit ambiguously, toward hope.

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