My favorite kind of novels include writers as protagonists, the supernatural and folklore, and mystery. Natsuhiko Kyokogu’s The Summer of the Ubume certainly has this trifecta. This mystery fantasy, first in a series of nine, is the reason for the Mephisto Prize. Kyokogu’s first novel follows freelance writer, Tatsumi Sekiguchi, as he’s presented with an unusual case of childhood acquaintances, sisters Kyoko and Ryoko Kuonji. Ryoko comes to ask him for help regarding her sister, who apparently has been pregnant for twenty months despite her husband being missing for even longer. Sekiguchi, in turn, enlists the help of his bookkeeper Buddhist priest exorcist friend, Akhiko Chuzenji, Chuzenji’s sister, and certain members of the police force to help investigate real world and supernatural causes of this unusual problem.
This thrilling, sometimes horrific, completely engaging story is a detailed juxtaposition of modern and folklore, logic and faith. However, the hardest thing in reading this is the very beginning. It took me a week just to get through the first scene because it hits the ground running in philosophical discussion. However, this is a key discussion and once I finished that first scene, I couldn’t put the book down.
Sekiguchi felt very much like a stand-in for the reader, albeit two-dimensional. The reader is able to react to the events in the book as though the reader is in the book, which helps the story move along but does little to develop Sekiguchi. The greater development comes through Chuzenji as the plot moves forward. In fact, it is almost as though this is a vehicle for Chuzenji to be the real protagonist but viewed through the eyes of Sekiguchi. The Kuonji sisters, and to an extent their family, are the center of tragedy and mystery and it they who have to undergo a thorough check into their secrets and pain.
The suspense from him discovering more and more about the events leading up to this atypically lengthy and quite strange pregnancy more than makes up for the lack of meaningful development of Sekiguchi. The plot is so layered with depth and intrigue that it isn’t so bothersome – it’s as though we, the readers, are in the thick of it with him, discovering whether Kyoko is haunted by an ubume or not. That is, if you don’t mind heady philosophy and detailed history. Chuzenji is a very intellectual person who, despite being an exorcist, doesn’t actually believe that possessions really occur. He operates in a world of superstition and the supernatural and uses logic and a keen understanding of psychology to do his work.
Some may be intimidated by this if they’re looking for action heavy books. However, I found these details and philosophy to be tempered well by action and sleuthing. I loved the blend of psychology and superstition: we as humans are met with something we don’t understand and try to explain it in supernatural terms. Yet, how much of that is actually our brains just processing pain, trauma, or stress? Where’s the line between our brain filling in the gaps and actual supernatural phenomena? This is a great read that seeks to answer that.
It’s unfortunate this is the only one of the nine translated into English so far, but he does have other books in English unrelated to the series, including graphic novels. Loups-Garous is one that has also been turned into a fantastic anime.