Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s “Summer of the Ubume”

Reviewed by Chris Carroll

Image of Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s “Summer of the Ubume”

There is a Japanese folktale about a village that was once plagued by a demon. Each night the villagers hear its cries emanating from deep within the surrounding woods and shut themselves in their homes, paralyzed by fear. Crops wither, trade halts, and society begins to unravel at the seams. Unable to rid themselves of the demon, the villagers send for a renowned warrior, who ventures deep into the forest and follows the shrieks to their source. Finally he reaches the fiend's cave and pushes aside the overgrowth only to find a noisy blue heron.

The tale is a tribute to the power of the mind, and its undercurrents run strongly through Natsuhiko Kyogoku's horror-tinged mystery, The Summer of the Ubume. Set in 1950s Japan, The Summer of the Ubume unfolds in a country trying desperately to put its past behind it. Change is everywhere—rising glass towers, new democratic institutions, and for the first time in years a very fragile sense of optimism. Yet amidst all this flux and renewal, Ubume's characters continue to suffer from distinctly ancient and decidedly supernatural problems—curses and possessions and inexplicable ailments. The supernatural, it seems, has not yet lost all of its potency.

Ubume tells a story of modern-day witchcraft. In a hospital deep in the woods, a family of doctors practicing medicine since Japan's feudal ages has been suffering bizarre incidents—babies born with frogs' heads, a husband spontaneously combusted, his wife pregnant for nearly two years, and infants disappearing from the neo-natal ward.
Rumor spreads, and in the novel's first few pages we find narrator (and tabloid writer) Sekiguchi on the way to visit his old friend, Akihiko "Kyogokudo" Chuzenji, an antiquarian bookseller and occult enthusiast, hoping to suss out a few choice morsels about the family that might give his latest piece a creative edge over the competition.

Unfortunately for Sekiguchi, Chuzenji is no blithe mythology enthusiast. In fact, he is, rather surprisingly, strictly rational and almost atheistic. This presents a bit of a paradox, as Chuzenji is also an exorcist, and when Sekiguchi comes to him hoping to find some fabulous explanation for the twenty-month pregnancy that shows no signs of ending, Chuzenji gently chides him in response, "There is nothing that is strange in this world . . . The ghost stories people bandied about in the hill villages of the Edo Period meant something fundamentally different than today's urban myths. To the modern man, the supernatural is merely something he cannot understand. It'd be fine if people just left it at that, but no, they have to go misinterpreting everything, coming up with fantastical rationales in order to make sense of it all."

Chuzenji is the novel's true protagonist. And though he may not believe in the existence of possessing spirits, he realizes, like the villagers in the myth of the heron, that even a figment can possess very real power if someone believes it can. As the novel continues, we follow Chuzenji's reluctant involvement in the unnaturally extended pregnancy and see his exorcisms in action. He works by pandering to the beliefs of the afflicted, his rationality masquerading as mysticism, in order to convince them that they've been cured. The technique comes in handy as Sekiguchi and Chuzenji gradually wade deeper into the mire surrounding the twenty-month pregnancy. The further they progress and the more they encounter—split personalities, amnesiacs, and even people who find their vision censored by an overprotective brain—the clearer it becomes just how powerful the human mind's predilection for self-deception can be.

The Summer of the Ubume, Kyogoku's literary debut, was a runaway success when published in Japan in 1994 and has since spawned hosts of sequels and spin-offs and even a literary award. As a first effort Ubume both enjoys the advantages and suffers from the drawbacks that often accompany maiden voyages. Among its greatest strengths is its peculiarity—the novel is a pastiche of the western detective story, the philosophical essay, and the traditional Japanese folk tale. Kyogoku is a self-avowed yokai researcher—the word "yokai" is a sort of catchall term for Japanese demons and spirits—and with each novel in his series fixates on a mythical creature, from which he fashions an unabashedly modern thriller. In this case, the myth is that of the ubume, a wraithlike female figure clutching a child to her chest, said to be the manifested regret of a woman who died while pregnant.

The unlikely combination of detective novel, folktale and philosophic tract makes for great reading at times —listening to Chuzenji unravel a crime through exegesis of a myth is fascinating—and the tension between pulp, myth, and the intellectual often keeps the novel from stagnating. Sadly, it is also the source of Ubume's greatest frustrations. Kyogoku's attempt to marry mythology with a strictly aspiritual modern world means that any crimes pinned on spirits and demons throughout the book must ultimately be explained away by cold, hard logic, a feat he accomplishes through a series of punishingly long philosophical dialogues. These dialogues recur too often for Ubume to sustain any momentum, and worse still, most of the harebrained logic they peddle is ultimately thrown out the window as each increasingly knotty plotline is resolved with a pseudo-scientific deus ex machina.

But these failings are forgivable and do not keep Ubume from entertaining or provoking thought. In one scene, a character who fought in World War II speaks with sheepishness and a sense of awe of his wartime actions. As he looks back on those years, it is as though he had been in some sort of self-induced trance, that he wasn't himself. "Look at me…I was one of those people who thought the war was right . . . But now that I've had time to cool off, I understand that we were a little crazy back then. And I think that the democratic thing we're doing now is the right way. So maybe justice isn't anything more than a ghost of an idea." As we listen to him, we wonder whether Kyogoku is connecting the power of the mind at the root of Ubume's supernatural activities to the mass delusions of 1930s and 40s Japan, brought by propaganda to the fever pitch of world war not long before the novel begins.

Though witches no longer walk the woods of Kyogoku's modern Japan, the minds that created them certainly do. The Summer of the Ubume is an entertaining reminder of how far we haven't come, that the real progress to be made is in getting to know ourselves. To Natsuhiko Kyogoku, there is no better way to do this than through our myths, and though marred by clumsy pacing and the liberal application of pseudo-science, his debut novel succeeds in making the reader wonder about the hidden truths myths these ancient stories can unearth.

Chris Carroll lives in New York and works at the New York Review of Books.