Monday, 19 August 2013

'Lonely Hearts Killer' by Tomoyuki Hoshino (Review)

After the previous success of Tomoyuki Hoshino's short-story collection, We, the Children of Cats (from PM Press), I was eager to try another of the writer's books.  Today's choice is a novel, which makes a nice contrast, allowing me to see which genre suits him better.  So, how does Hoshino fare in the longer form?

Lonely Hearts Killer (translated by Adrienne Carey Hurley, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novel which could almost be called dystopian in a detached, literary way.  After the death of the young Emperor (called Majesty throughout the novel), the 'Island Nation' nosedives into a communal depression, with many people unable to even get out of bed.  While many of those 'spirited away' had no strong feelings about the royal family, it seems that the event has acted as a catalyst, causing people all over the country to collapse under the stress of their everyday lives.

Although Shoji Inoue, a young unemployed filmmaker, wasn't affected by the event, he becomes fascinated by the reasons behind the nationwide downward spiral.  He gets to know one of the 'spirited away', his friend's partner, Miko, and becomes obsessed with his thoughts on the phenomenon.  It's a phase which may simply have passed away into history, if only Inoue hadn't made sure that nobody would be moving on with their lives in a hurry...

Lonely Hearts Killer is told in three parts and voices.  In the first,we learn about the death of his young Majesty, and the aftermath of the traumatic event, through Shoji's eyes.  In the middle section, his friend Iroha continues the story, trying to come to terms with Shoji and Miko's deaths and the chaotic situation Japan finds itself in as a result.  Finally, Mokuren, Iroha's friend, finishes off the story after Iroha does something foolish.  Both Iroha and Mokuren comment on the actions and thoughts of the previous part; in his introduction, Hoshino invites the reader to speculate in turn about Mokuren...

It's a frightening story, but one which is eminently believable.  A depressing event triggers mass depression and soul-searching in a country which is already in the grip of a downward spiral.  With an ageing population and a depressed economy, there is little hope for the future - and in a society where suicide is not as stigmatised as it is in Christian countries, death is always an enticing option.  Even the weather joins in, cherry blossoms blasted off the trees by giant dust storms  (perhaps symbolic of Hoshino's rejection of 'typical' J-lit conventions), and the reader is treated to the eery sight of Tokyo as a ghost town, with the streets emptied of people.

In deciding to take their lives, Inoue and Miko spark a revolution.  Death suddenly seems preferable to hanging around in a grey country waiting to die - and if you're going to go, why not take someone else with you?  Suddenly, everyone needs to be careful out on the streets:
"People were overreacting if someone just brushed up against their shoulder or arm on the train.  They would shove or even brandish a weapon at whoever had inadvertently done the touching, and the number of such cases resulting in bloody brawls had increased.  And sometimes simply walking in the same direction as another person even in a residential neighborhood would end in trouble.  The upshot of all this was a widespread aversion to other people and rampant paranoid hostility in crowded places."
p.128 (PM press, 2009)
All of a sudden, it seems that nowhere is safe, and no-one can be trusted.

A major theme involves films, with Shoji and Iroha obsessed with reproducing what they see on camera, putting layer upon layer, copy upon copy until the original is distorted, unrecognisable (an irony in a country where the traditional idea of reproduction has virtually come to a halt).  Shoji's existence has, fairly literally, been a life on film, a fact which doesn't always please him:
"Accompanying the growth of my catalogue of filmed images are occasional moments when I feel very sad at the thought that the substance of my worth, what matters about me is contained in the volume of a disc." (p.13)
Iroha is also obsessed with filming wherever she goes, and it is her film of Miko, films of films, an endless hall of digital mirrors, which causes the initial cracks in Shoji's facade.
And what are the 'love suicides' plaguing the country if not a series of copies...

Of course, this copy-cat culture is a distorted one, and the people need a strong leader to stand up and tell them to get on with their lives and stop worrying about death.  Initially, however, the royal successor (Her Majesty) is unable to do so.  In a worrying power vacuum, the gap is then filled by a politician - one who has shown himself to be a bit of an opportunist and, perhaps, morally suspect.  Just like real life then...

What's it all about?  Good question :)  It's certainly, in part at least, a stand against ultra-nationalism (something which is always a concern in Japan - I remember the men in black vans with loudspeakers distinctly...).  It's also a reflection (no pun intended) of a real sense of depression in Japan.  The Land of the Rising Sun has been eclipsed by close-to-zero economic growth and a rapidly ageing population.  In the book, few children are being born - the 'one child' policy which is introduced is meant to *stimulate* the birth rate, not control it!  The novel also highlights the danger of group-think, showing that there are risks in marginalising minorities in a culture of nationalistic homogenisation.  Then again, it might be about something else entirely :)

Once you've finished the novel (as in We, the Children of Cats), there are some added extras.  There's a great Q & A between the author and the translator, and a translator's introduction which provides background information about the novel.  This contains some useful analysis of the book (which certainly makes it easier to write a convincing review!).  Now, if only more publishers could find the time to do this...

Lonely Hearts Killer is a fascinating story with a good translation, and it's a book that is well worth checking out.  It's not always easy to get your head around what Hoshino is trying to say, but it's certainly a welcome change to some of the cherry-blossom-tinted (or blood-soaked) J-Lit around at the moment.  Do try it :)