"Nothing strange occurs in this world, Sekiguchi"
"The Summer of the Ubume"
Still alive, still alive. Just really slow at both reading and writing (reviews) lately...
ubume (a youkai /Japanese ghost/demon born from the regret of a mother dying in childbirth). Kyougokudou, who also works as an exorcist, however answers that there is nothing strange in this world and proceeds to remove the mysterious veil that seems to cover this case in Kyougoku Natsuhihiko's Ubume no Natsu ("The Summer of the Ubume").
Oh, and let me make it clear at the start of this review: The Summer of the Ubume is available in English, so no "but it's in Japanese, so I can't read it anyway"!
A long time ago, I reviewed the audio dramas of Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Ame and Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro - Kaze, which were about the (mis)adventures of private detective Enokizu Reijirou (who has the power to read people's memories). Both dramas were based on two short story collections that are part of Kyougoku Natsuhiko's Hyakki Yakou ("Night Parade of a Hundred Demons") series. Ubume no Satsu is the first novel in the series (and Kyougoku's debut novel), introducing all the main characters and elements of the series. Not only do we meet bookshop-owner/exorcist/detective Kyougokudou and private detective Enokizu for the first time, but also other series regulars like narrator Sekiguchi, the policeman Kiba and Kyougokudou's sister Atsuko. And more importantly, we are shown our first glimpse of the wonderful world of youkai ('ghosts', 'demons').
The use of youkai in this series might be a bit different from what you'd expect if I said this was a detective series about ghosts/demons. Unlike series like Scooby-Doo! or novels with impossible murders that seemingly only could have been commited with help of supernatural powers, youkai are treated as a highly scientific and rational device. By which I don't mean that youkai actually exist as supernatural beings, but that the cultural construct of youkai is actually real. Youkai are treated as a cultural and social construct, a device invented by the people of yore to explain certain circumstances and happenings. The existence of a youkai itself might be irrational (is it?), but the ideas, the background of a youkai can all be examined rationally. In Ubume no Natsu, Kyougokudou explains a lot about the history of youkai (and in particular the ubume) from sociological and folkloric points of view and this is absolutely a treat for those into Japanese folklore. For those into mythology and urban legends, this is fantastic stuff and I enjoyed these parts enormously. The way Ubume no Natsu connects to youkai folklore isn't really by suggesting an ubume did it, but by mirroring the history and cultural functions of the ubume to the events in the story. And this is done really well.
I personally love detective stories where you learn more about the history of 'supernatural' beings / urban legends and where the folkloric/sociological functions are actually of importance to the plot. Gyakuten Saiban 5 / Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies has an interesting story for example, and the game Hayarigami - Keishichou Kaii Jiken Files ("Hayarigami - The Metropolitan Police Department's Strange Case Files") also features scenarios where you learn more about urban legends themselves (the contents), as well as the folkloric functions they have in society.
But writer Kyougoku obviously really, really likes writing about these kind of things and even more fields of science, like philosophy and it can be hard for those who 1) just want to read a mystery and 2) aren't interested in folklore. The first 100 pages of the story for example consist of a long discussion between narrator Sekiguchi and Kyougokudou about conciousness, the mind and perception, and while the topic does relate back to the main story, one can't deny that 100 pages is a bit long. This isn't a short story, and it's also not always a focused story and the somewhat pedantric tone of the story (mostly Kyougokudou who acts as a surrogate for writer Kyougoku) isn't for everybody.
The main problem of the story, the disappearance of Kyouko's husband from an observed locked room twenty months ago is... not really fair, though it does fit the atmosphere of the story, as well as the hints laid out throughout the narrative. There are also some more twists and turns to baffle the reader besides the locked room (though to be honest, I got most of the story except for the locked room). I am definitely not fan of the trick as is, but it does work in conjunction with the themes of the story and while I might really hate if it had been done by another writer, I'd say that Kyougoku does pull it off (the trick in the sequel, Mouryou no Hako ("Box of Mouryou") is similarly a bit disappointing as is, but great as a thematic device).
Ubume no Natsu, together with Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider, forms the start of the so-called second wave of the Japanese New Orthodox/Authentic detective novel school by the way (Note: I normally use the term "orthodox" here, but because I mainly used "authentic" in my MA thesis, I might use both terms here at times). The New Orthodox school is both a revival, and reconstruction of the classic detective novel. Ayatsuji Yukito's debut work Jukkakukan no Satsujin is seen as the start of the New Orthodox movement and novels of the early writers in the movement like Abiko Takemaru, Norizuki Rintarou and Arisugawa Alice all showed strong influences from classic novels, but also deconstructive and reconstructive elements to the genre (thus making it "New" Orthodox, as opposed to just a copy). The second stage of this movement however, as envisioned by genre critic/scholar Kasai Kiyoshi, represented by novels like Ubume no Natsu and Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider on the other hand, while still more-or-less classic puzzle plots, tend to be 1) very long novels and 2) 'a bit' more pedantric, which explains the different fields of sciences and more information being jammed between the pages.
The New Orthodox school is by the way most often seen in terms of the history of the Japanese detective novel. Kasai Kiyoshi for example looks strongly at it as a development stage for the detective novel, while writer/critic Shimada Souji also looks at it as a culturally specific movement in the history of the genre. Actually, in general, most of the genre critics/scholars (including bloggers) seem to be very focused on genre history (if it isn't that, than it's using detective novels as an object to discuss other discourses, like gender studies / political /religious fields etc.). Personally, I am not that interested in genre history an sich. Longtime readers will have noticed that I often write about the use of tropes in novels, so it shouldn't be surprising when I say that when I wrote my MA thesis on the Japanese New Orthodox school, I focused on the tropes that made up the school, rather than placing it in a genre history / comparing it to English genre history. Anyway, this is the reason you'll seldom see 1) publishing years in my reviews, 2) the term 'Golden Age' (as it historizes things) and discussions when/if it died/revived/etcetera here. I have considered writing a short history of Japanese detective fiction for this blog several times actually (to help contextualize things for readers), but as I am not a fan of that, and as I figured that as long as I focus more on tropes, a history isn't really needed...
Ah. I got distracted. Ubume no Natsu. Yes. A wordy mystery, with deep conversations on a wide variety of topics and a somewhat strange locked room mystery. If you're into Japanese folklore, go for it. If not... go read it anway because it's one of those rare cases that it's actually available in English.
Original Japanese title(s): 京極夏彦 『姑獲鳥の夏』