The Summer of the Ubume, by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (1994) E

Date read: 12.27.09
Book from: Personal collection, via Vertical, Inc.
Reviewer: Emera

Natsuhiko Kyogoku - The Summer of the Ubume

Translated 2009 by Alexander O. Smith & Elye J. Alexander. Original title Ubume no Natsu.

“Concerning the Ubume –
Of all the tales told, that of the ubume is the most confounding. It is said that when a woman who is with child passes away, her attachment to the babe takes physical form. She appears then as an apparition, drenched in blood from the waist down, and crying like a bird, saying “wobaryo, wobaryo.” Presented with stories of people transforming into such creatures after they die, how can we truly believe in Hell? It is beyond understanding.
Report on One Hundred Stories
Yamaoka Motosyoshi, Junkyo 3 (1686)”

In the classic mode of the genteel ghost story, a man visits his friend, and shares with him a strange tale: the daughter of a distinguished family of medical practitioners has been pregnant for twenty-one months without giving birth – a pregnancy that was discovered soon after her husband inexplicably disappeared from a sealed room. Scandalous! Throw in Japanese folklore, Gothic dread, and way too much pop psychology, and you have The Summer of the Ubume.

The storyteller is Sekiguchi, a shy, depressive freelance writer in post-World-War-II Japan who dabbles in tales of the supernatural; the friend who hears his tale is an eccentric bookseller and would-be Sherlock Holmes who goes by the nickname of Kyogokudo. Kyogokudo is an exorcist who disavows any belief in the supernatural, expounding instead his various psychological, neurological, and sociological theories for phenomena traditionally ascribed to supernatural causes. This he does at great, great, great length: the first fifty pages of the book comprise nothing but a dialogue between Sekiguchi and Kyogokudo that’s really more of a lecture. Get through – or skim over – this initial hump, and the rest of the novel is fairly smooth going… except whenever Kyogokudo starts talking again.

Thankfully, the suspense ramps up rapidly once Sekiguchi begins his investigation of the strange affair, eventually roping in two other old friends to help him: a detective with eerily accurate intuition, and a gruff police officer. At the same time, Sekiguchi finds himself confronting uncomfortable memories of his past, and begins to realize that he may himself be implicated in the mystery. Cue torrid revelations, baffling plot twists galore, and more hysteria-tinged melodrama than you can shake an anime plot at. (Indeed, one of my constant thoughts while reading this was that it could be turned into an anime with little to no effort.)

Overall, I was entertained and intrigued, but not engaged. I quite liked hapless, hypersensitive Sekiguchi as a character, but nobody else in the cast has much psychological depth. Plotwise, the novel has that Da Vinci Code kind of tortuousness that keeps you on your toes and invested, but only as much and for as long as it as it takes to ride out the next given plot twist. And I can’t think of too many people who would willingly sit through every word of Kyogokudo’s tirades. Some of the concepts that he proposes are fascinating, particularly his sociological dissections of Japanese folklore, and if you know any neuroscience, there’s a certain entertainment value in seeing how much of his neurological speculation is actually accurate. But most of it is really just window-dressing and showboating on the part of the author.

Bottom line: The Summer of the Ubume is a cleverly conceived, often atmospheric Gothic whodunit that fails to rise above mere cleverness, and is frequently a victim of its own, long-winded conceits.

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Natsuhiko Kyogoku

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  1. kakaner’s avatar

    … I kinda smiled sadly and knowingly while reading this.

    First of all, the more I read of your synopsis/review, the more I (conjugation here) kept thinking how much this sounded like an anime. Many animes and anime movies are based on Japanese novels, and I’m entirely not surprised this book is the way it is. I feel like Japanese media as a whole (I might be TOTALLY way off bat, but here’s what I’ve seen) has encouraged this type of hopelessly superficial plot-twisting characteristic to storytelling that heavily relies on an overly strange or horrific premise for appeal. You see it a lot in anime, and in particular, Japanese cinema. And, well, it’s popular.

    I feel like if I read a lot of Japanese horror novels in a row, I would start to feel like I was reading the same thing over and over.But thank you for the insightful review; although unfortunately, after reading this, I don’t think i could make it through the book =/

    Reply

  2. Emera’s avatar

    Hahaha, this happened with both you and Janisu – when I started describing the plot, she immediately said something along the lines of “This sounds like an anime.”

    type of hopelessly superficial plot-twisting characteristic to storytelling that heavily relies on an overly strange or horrific premise for appeal
    Yes! There tends to be this kind of high-pitched, poorly articulated (or, in the case of Ubume, and again, a ton of anime, over-explained to the point of self-indulgence) hysteria to a lot of Japanese horror and psychological drama. And, as you said, too much reliance on outrageous, marginally believable plot points, the kind that are Cool at first, but eventually wearing in their artificiality and extravagance.

    I’m not sure how to characterize it succinctly, but I’m tempted to ascribe this kind of storytelling to an overly obsessive focus on the part of creators, a kind of narrow-sighted intensity that often fails to move beyond the immediate appeal of “omg, WEIRD PLOT TWIST. it’s shiny. and weird. and shiny. they’ll wet their knickers over this one, it’s so weird. I’m so weird!” Conceptual shininess over substance and believability, basically. What do you think?

    Also, I wiki’d the author and one of his books was, indeed made into an anime. Surprise!

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  3. kakaner’s avatar

    OH. HO. HO.

    he wrote Moryou no hako??? I’ve had that anime downloaded episode by episode ever since it came out! Just of course, haven’t gotten around to awtching it.

    It isn’t supposed to be half bad. It’s kinda on the goodness level of tactics.. or Stood… and I intend on watching it. And it’s the sequel to Ubume!!

    GAH. Why are you giving me newfound purpose to read this?

    But back to your comment. Yes. I entirely agree about the Cool at first. That happens to me a lot in Japanese films, as much as I enjoy the premise, if you’ve got bad writing and a bad plot, not to mention HORRIBLE acting, then, you got a dud.

    honestly, I think it’s less the creators and more the culture. I think all of media as a whole has just moved together, encouraging each other to come up with stuff like this. In hollywood, all the famous dramas and movies emphasize the grace and beauty of subtlety and a perfectly constructed narrative. (Same with acting) It’s one of the reasons why American cinema is so great. I, um, really haven’t seen that emphasized in Japan. Ya know what I mean?

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  4. Emera’s avatar

    Oh yeah, the sad thing is I would have no opposition to having any of his books delivered to me in anime form, as long as the anime were decent. And Moryou no hako looks awfully pretty. (I don’t know that I find a comparison to Stood all that inspiring, though.)

    I mean, do you watch that much Japanese cinema apart from random J-horror, though? I think it’s a stretch to compare aesthetic/narrative standards of American mainstream cinema to those of popular Japanese horror. To compare apples to apples, most American horror is just as flimsily constructed, poorly acted, and driven by tropes and mini-obsessions as is J-horror.

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  5. Emera’s avatar

    ^ which is why I fall over myself in my haste to be obsessed when a horror movie that is actually subtle and has aesthetic ambitions, like Let the Right One In, happens. :P At least there’s plenty of excellent, thoughtful horror fiction, even if most films insist on being bigstupidpredictable.

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  6. kakaner’s avatar

    Ah okay I retract my statement. I think my mind was just overloaded by negative images from Jhorror. Still, I find American horror movies to be better quality than Japanese. They still rely less on huge amounts of sexual perversion and violence. Although, I mean, American horror still does have those elements.. it’s not as over the top as all the famous Jhorror ones.

    haha. All this Jhorror talk is making me hungry. And I seriously cant figure out why…

    Reply

  7. Emera’s avatar

    I find American horror movies to be better quality than Japanese.

    Really? I mean, again, I think it’s a question of whether you’re comparing apples to apples, because I think the most famously exploitative and absurdly violent Japanese movies occupy a niche of their own, and one that certainly has an American equivalent in Saw, Hostel, etc. Although yes, that niche in Japan media does seem to be exploited more frequently and gleefully. I wonder if that might partly be a function of the relative sizes of the Japanese and American horror movie industries, though. random guessing.

    Anyway, this is all really hard to justify on the basis of of genre-wide generalizations (we’re probably each thinking of completely different sets of movies when one of us says “American horror” or “J-horror”), so I’ll stop there.

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  8. Kara’s avatar

    I’ve been looking for this book, anyone knows where I can buy, even a used copy?

    Reply

    1. Emera’s avatar

      Hi there – I’ve seen used copies at the usual bookselling sites, but they are all >$40 (as you might already know). I don’t think Vertical reprints novels very often, so your best bet might just be checking a library. Good luck!

      Reply

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