Tokyo, 1952. Out of the ashes of war, a new society has sprouted: democratically inclined, scientifically rigorous, and socially progressive (or so it likes to think). But like Rome, this modern Japan is built directly on top of the ruins of the old—both physically and psychically. The supernatural and all of its trappings still exude great gravity thanks to their centuries of accumulated weight, and so an exorcist in this world can find himself just as gainfully employed as any private detective.
The Summer of the Ubume gives us just such an exorcist—Akihiko Chuzenji, or “Kyogokudo” to his friends. Diviner, bookworm, jack-of-all-subjects, professional grouch, he’s a Shintoist Sherlock Holmes for an age split between skepticism and superstition. “There is nothing that is strange in this world,” he declares. “There is only that which should be, and only that which should happen does.” In short, there is no supernatural—just things we don’t yet understand in a systematic way. Scratch a mythos and you’ll find a sociological motive; crack open a demon and you’ll see the gears of plain old human fear and avarice grinding away inside.
Ubume is a peculiarly Japanese example of the sorts of hybrid thrillers that have become popular fare on this side of the Pacific as well. It’s not just Japanese in its folklore and setting, but in its social attitudes and insights, too. That becomes apparent right from the first chapter, where the narrator—Kyogokudo’s friend Tatsumi Sekiguichi—comes to the detective-skeptic with a most bizarre case involving a woman who has apparently been pregnant for a year and change, and not yet given birth. Most of this chapter actually has nothing to do with the case in question; instead, it’s a rambling, elliptical, back-and-forth dialogue between the increasingly bewildered and self-doubting Sekiguchi and the know-it-all Kyogokudo. It’s all setup, and it’s also very sempai / kohei, master and student, one-up and one-down, with Kyogokudo having all the answers and not giving them away only because most of them are too mundane by his own standards to bother with.
This exact dynamic’s not new. Watson and Holmes batted these same shuttlecocks back and forth decades before. What is new is how it supports a mystery that develops from the old-growth jungle of Japan’s indigenous beliefs—many of which were, Kyogokudo argues, used for social ostracism as a way to defend the community as a whole from perceived enemies. If such fears persist in the modern day, they can be torn down as they were built up … but not always before they cause terrible damage. As Sekiguchi and Kyogokudo delve into the mystery of the perennially-pregnant woman, they find a whole rat’s nest of family skeletons, shame, guilt, trauma and self-deception—and it doesn’t help that Sekiguchi finds that a piece of his own past is also linked peripherally to all this, too.
There’s a lot of native Japanese folklore in Ubume, much of it revolving around the bizarre array of monsters or yōkai that are invoked there. Call it cryptozoologic mythology: the ubume herself is the incarnate spirit of a woman’s grief at losing her child, and there’s a lot of discussion of how such things appear to different groups. Kyogoku demonstrates how said creatures can serve as signifiers, totemic incarnations of a society’s fear or desire. It’s fascinating stuff, especially when woven into and out of the knotty thriller/horror plot he’s constructed. Unfortunately the fascinating stuff comes in fits and starts—Kyogoku’s writing is long on discussion and exposition, so stuff that works better in small doses is handed to us at interminable length.
What’s far less forgivable is the way Kyogoku edges over into using these conceits as climactic plot twists. His speculative theories about human perception go from Phil K. Dick-ian skepticism to ludicrous pseudoscience no thanks to this. The very worst offense involves having a dead body appear out of nowhere by taking the old Unreliable Narrator(s) gimmick to new and stupefying heights. The explanation may be consistent with the rest of the story’s logic, especially if you accept the “explanation” for one character’s “mind-reading” ability. But it’s still handled like a dodge, and Ubume at its dodgiest is dodgy enough to make Hitchcock churn butter in his coffin.
Kyogokudo’s genius also goes from intriguing to infuriating in short order, and not just because he eventually turns into a kind of mail slot through which the author can shove answers as needed. It’s his attitude: he sees right through all this weirdness and out the other side, so it’s all just a terrible pain in the ass and an imposition on his time. He’s a man in search of a real challenge, but after everything thrown at him in this volume, it’s hard to see what he would see as a real challenge. The few times he’s shown as scratching his head are just leaveners for the next big revelation from the master. Good thing, then, that Ubume focuses more on Sekiguichi and his attempts to not only cobble together facts from chaos but try to untangle his own progressively-tangled head. It’s all the tougher for him—and interesting for us—when he realizes a) he may be as much of a damage case as any of the people he’s investigating and b) he’s the only one who can undo his own damage.
Most of my mixed feelings arise from seeing the central premise (“there’s nothing ‘supernatural’”) devolve into a way to use pseudoscientific theorizing as a selective plot-pusher. I blame something Kyogoku and many other authors fall into: a reliance on what amounts to pop-science conceits about things like quantum mechanics, a state of mind where one “theory” is as good as another as long as it sounds right. But scientific theories work because they’re testable, not because they have the ring of truth about them. I’m reminded of Charles Fort, he who tossed over his shoulder any number of crazy theories about alien life or abundant weirdness, but then was confronted with a news item about a dog that allegedly said hello to a policeman and then vanished in a puff of smoke. Only there did he put his foot down. “You can’t fool me with that talking dog story,” he grumbled. Yeah, Charlie, but they sure got you coming and going the rest of the time, didn’t they?
Ubume is far from being the worst such offender, though. Kyogoku has written several other novels to follow Ubume, and despite the problems I have with this story I know I’d like to see the others. Perhaps in those volumes he will be paired with an editor whose zeal for consistency and brevity matches Kyogoku’s fascination with the (un)natural.
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Other Lives Of The Mind