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