There’s no shortage of writers who have picked up literary awards for their debut novels. Far rarer are the ones who have had a new prize created because of them. Such was the case with Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s The Summer of the Ubume. When it was first released in 1994, the book was deemed too long to be eligible for any Rookie of the Year awards (which have maximum allowable page counts), inspiring publisher Kodansha to create a new accolade, the Mephisto Prize, for unpublished writers with a tendency to ramble.
Kyogoku has since established himself as one of Japan’s preeminent mystery authors. The self-proclaimed yokai researcher is an expert on the spooks and preternatural creatures that populate Japanese folklore, using them as inspiration for his numerous doorstop-sized tomes. He has little appetite for mystical hokum; rather, he seeks to explain fantastical phenomena by situating them in a precise social and historical context—an affectionate form of debunking, if you will.
The blurb on the back of Ubume describes Kyogoku as “the Neil Gaiman of Japanese mystery fiction,” and it’s a fair comparison. Gaiman’s best-known novel, American Gods, was about deities whose modern-day existence depended on people still believing in them. Kyogoku’s pitch isn’t entirely dissimilar: he sees supernatural phenomena as being the result of shared ideas and limits to human knowledge. They exist, in other words, because we think they do.
The Summer of the Ubume is the first of nine volumes in the Hyakka Yako (One Hundred Ghosts) series, all of which center on Akihiko “Kyogokudo” Chuzenji, a used book seller and part-time onmyoji—a sort of Shinto exorcist. Gruff and impeccably rational, Chuzenji spends his days reading in the shop from which he takes his nickname (“Kyogokudo” also, not coincidentally, shares its first two characters with the author’s surname). When a pulp journalist friend approaches him about a woman who has been pregnant for 20 months and whose husband has mysteriously vanished, he is reluctantly drawn into
What follows is an odd, and oddly paced, read. As a writer, Kyogoku displays the same tendencies as philosophers who try to do fiction, often seeming far more interested in pushing ideas than advancing the story. Ubume opens with a 40-page discussion of paranormal phenomena, which lays the groundwork for much of what’s to come, but doesn’t exactly get the pulse racing. Things pick up later on, though the final revelation comes as a slight disappointment: why deny the supernatural so assiduously if you’re going to supply such a hokey alternative?
One wonders what the next book in the series is like—whether, with all the exposition and explanations out of the way, Kyogoku can get down to the job of crafting a compelling mystery. Considering that it took no fewer than three translators to produce the English version of Ubume, we might have to wait a while to find out.