from the November 2009 issueNatsuhiko Kyogoku’s “Summer of the Ubume”Reviewed byChris Carroll

Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith và Elye J. AlexanderVertical, Inc, 2009

There is a Japanese folktale about a village that was once plagued by a detháng. Each night the villagers hear its cries emanating from deep within the surrounding woods and shut themselves in their homes, paralyzed by fear. Crops wither, trade halts, và society begins lớn unravel at the seams. Unable to rid themselves of the demon, the villagers sover for a renowned warrior, who ventures deep inlớn the forest & follows the shrieks khổng lồ their source. Finally he reaches the fiend's cave & pushes aside the overgrowth only to lớn find a noisy xanh heron.

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The tale is a tribute to the power of the mind, và its undercurrents run strongly through Natsuhiko Kyogoku's horror-tinged mystery, The Summer of the Ubume

. Set in 1950s nhật bản, The Summer of the Ubume unfolds in a country trying desperately khổng lồ put its past behind it. Change is everywhere—rising glass towers, new democratic institutions, & for the first time in years a very fragile sense of optimism. Yet amidst all this flux & renewal, Ubume's characters continue khổng lồ suffer from distinctly ancient và decidedly supernatural problems—curses and possessions và inexplicable ailments. The supernatural, it seems, has not yet lost all of its potency.

Ubume tells a story of modern-day witchcraft. In a hospital deep in the woods, a family of doctors practicing medicine since Japan's feudal ages has been suffering bizarre incidents—babies born with frogs' heads, a husband spontaneously combusted, his wife pregnant for nearly two years, và infants disappearing from the neo-natal ward.Rumor spreads, & in the novel's first few pages we find narrator (và tabloid writer) Sekigubỏ ra on the way to visit his old friend, Akihiko "Kyogokudo" Chuzenji, an antiquarian bookseller và occult enthusiast, hoping khổng lồ suss out a few choice morsels about the family that might give his lademo piece a creative sầu edge over the competition.

Unfortunately for Sekigubỏ ra, Chuzenji is no blithe mythology enthusiast. In fact, he is, rather surprisingly, strictly rational & almost atheistic. This presents a bit of a paradox, as Chuzenji is also an exorcist, và when Sekiguđưa ra comes lớn hlặng hoping khổng lồ find some fabulous explanation for the twenty-month pregnancy that shows no signs of ending, Chuzenji gently chides hyên in response, "There is nothing that is strange in this world . . . The ghost stories people bandied about in the hill villages of the Evì Period meant something fundamentally different than today's urban myths. To the modern man, the supernatural is merely something he cannot underst&. It'd be fine if people just left it at that, but no, they have sầu khổng lồ go misinterpreting everything, coming up with fantastical rationales in order lớn make sense of it all."

Chuzenji is the novel's true protagonist. And though he may not believe sầu in the existence of possessing spirits, he realizes, like the villagers in the myth of the heron, that even a figment can possess very real power if someone believes it can. As the novel continues, we follow Chuzenji's reluctant involvement in the unnaturally extended pregnancy and see his exorcisms in action. He works by pandering to lớn the beliefs of the afflicted, his rationality masquerading as mysticism, in order khổng lồ convince them that they've been cured. The technique comes in handy as Sekiguchi và Chuzenji gradually wade deeper inlớn the mire surrounding the twenty-month pregnancy. The further they progress and the more they encounter—split personalities, amnesiacs, and even people who find their vision censored by an overprotective sầu brain—the clearer it becomes just how powerful the human mind's predilection for self-deception can be.

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The Summer of the Ubume, Kyogoku's literary debut, was a runaway success when published in nhật bản in 1994 và has since spawned hosts of sequels và spin-offs và even a literary award. As a first effort Ubume both enjoys the advantages & suffers from the drawbacks that often accompany maiden voyages. Among muốn its greathử nghiệm strengths is its peculiarity—the novel is a pastiche of the western detective story, the philosophical essay, & the traditional Japanese folk tale. Kyogoku is a self-avowed yokai researcher—the word "yokai" is a sort of catchall term for Japanese demons và spirits—& with each novel in his series fixates on a mythical creature, from which he fashions an unabashedly modern thriller. In this case, the myth is that of the ubume, a wraithlike female figure clutching a child lớn her chest, said lớn be the manifested regret of a woman who died while pregnant.

The unlikely combination of detective sầu novel, folktale & philosophic tract makes for great reading at times —listening to lớn Chuzenji unravel a crime through exegesis of a myth is fascinating—& the tension between pulp, myth, & the intellectual often keeps the novel from stagnating. Sadly, it is also the source of Ubume's greakiểm tra frustrations. Kyogoku's attempt lớn marry mythology with a strictly aspiritual modern world means that any crimes pinned on spirits và demons throughout the book must ultimately be explained away by cold, hard ngắn gọn xúc tích, a feat he accomplishes through a series of punishingly long philosophical dialogues. These dialogues recur too often for Ubume lớn sustain any momentum, and worse still, most of the harebrained logic they peddle is ultimately thrown out the window as each increasingly knotty plotline is resolved with a pseudo-scientific deus ex machimãng cầu.

But these failings are forgivable & do not keep Ubume from entertaining or provoking thought. In one scene, a character who fought in World War II speaks with sheepishness và a sense of awe of his wartime actions. As he looks back on those years, it is as though he had been in some sort of self-induced trance, that he wasn't himself. "Look at me…I was one of those people who thought the war was right . . . But now that I've had time khổng lồ cool off, I underst& that we were a little crazy baông chồng then. And I think that the democratic thing we're doing now is the right way. So maybe justice isn't anything more than a ghost of an idea." As we listen lớn him, we wonder whether Kyogoku is connecting the power of the mind at the root of Ubume's supernatural activities khổng lồ the mass delusions of 1930s & 40s Japan, brought by propagandomain authority khổng lồ the fever pitch of world war not long before the novel begins.

Though witches no longer walk the woods of Kyogoku's modern Japan, the minds that created them certainly bởi. The Summer of the Ubume is an entertaining reminder of how far we haven't come, that the real progress to be made is in getting to know ourselves. To Natsuhiko Kyogoku, there is no better way khổng lồ vì this than through our myths, và though marred by clumsy pacing & the liberal application of pseudo-science, his debut novel succeeds in making the reader wonder about the hidden truths myths these ancient stories can unearth.