When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.
“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.
It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.
Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.
Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.
When the news of his beloved sister’s death reaches Ren, he hurries to the small town of Akakawa where she had been worked as a teacher for the last couple of years. The police do not have many cues about the young woman’s crucial death, she fell victim to a merciless murderer and was heavily mutilated. Ren starts to ask questions himself, first the landlord where his sister had stayed and with whom she seemed to have had quite a delicate agreement. But also at her work place, there are interesting people who might know more than they would admit at first. In his dreams, Ren is haunted by a young girl with pigtails who obviously wants to tell him something, but he needs time to understand the girl’s message.
Clarissa Goenawan’s novel is set in 1990s in rural Japan and thus the atmosphere is far from the Tokyo rush that you might have in mind when thinking about young people on the Asian island. The plot moves at a moderate pace; modern media simply does not exist so people need to talk to each other to get information or to – very conventionally – send letters. Even though the motive that drives the action is an unsolved murder case, the novel is far from being a real crime novel. It is much more about the brother’s loss, a rather dysfunctional family (or rather: families since none of the families presented can be considered functional in any way) and in a way also about love or different kinds of love. It is a quite melancholy book with some rather dark and even mystical aspects.
I felt sorry for the young protagonist most of the time. He is quite lonely and now with his beloved sister gone, he got nobody to rely on anymore. His childhood memories were quite depressing and it is a wonder that from what he and his sister experienced they didn’t develop any serious mental illness. There is something intriguing about the other characters, too, albeit I assume that this is also stemming from the fact that they are portrayed in a fairly typical Japanese way, eccentric to some extent, which is rather unknown or unusual for Europeans. What I found quite interesting is the fact that the writer herself isn’t Japanese, but for me, her novel is thoroughly Japanese concerning the atmosphere and the characters.
Taro lives alone in one of Tokyo’s anonymous block of flats. His family is far away and they are hardly in contact, his father died already ten years ago, yet the memories of him are still alive. His neighbours, he only knows the names that were given to the flats they inhabit, but not who is living close to him. Since the flats are going to be destroyed soon, they will have to leave anyway. One day, he observes a woman walking around the sky-blue house neighbouring their block. She seems to try to look into it through the window. When she realises that she is spotted, they make contact and Nishi explains Taro why she is behaving this strangely: the house is actually quite famous, she even possesses a book about its interior and her greatest wish is to enter and have a look herself. A singular friendship forms between the two neighbours, centred around a building close but far away for them.
Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel “Spring Garden” has many typical features of what I expect from Japanese literature. First of all, the characters. We have two protagonists who seem to live a life without close connection to other people, loneliness and isolation are reoccurring themes in Japan’s novels and from the news I read about the country this really seems to be a major topic. Yet, it is not the suffering from being alone that is central, they seem to have accepted that this is just how it is for them. When they finally bond with somebody – even if it is just a weak connection like the one of neighbours – there are many societal rules which prevent an honest friendship in my opinion. E.g. when Taro is given a present he does not like, it is not easy for him and he nevertheless feels obliged to behave in a certain manner. Even to eat things he doesn’t like in order not to appear impolite.
Some aspects I found really strange and I do not know if this is the case because the character of Taro is a bit bizarre or if this is just a cultural matter which is quite far from the world I life in. Taro keeps the mortar and pestle in his kitchen cupboard with which he turned the remains of his father’s bones into powder to distribute them. They remind him of the father and he frequently thinks about him when he comes across the two utensils. Both, first the idea of working on a deceased’s bones and keeping the utensils close to pots and pans is very astonishing to me to put it politely.
The most interesting part of the novel for me was the house that Taro and Nishi go to explore, first through the book and the outside, later also from the inside. It is not only the poetical language, especially about the lighting of the colourful windows, which makes it quite impressive, but also how human boing have an impact on the outer world. Even though the walls and windows are the same, with the change of the inhabitants, the whole ambiance can change and everybody leaves his mark on his surroundings.