Strangers by Taichi Yamada, 2003 (Wayne Lammers’ English translation)
Published by Faber and Faber
First line: “After my divorce, I set up house in the apartment I had been using as an office.”
Book Rx: If you’re looking for a quiet, chilling, old-fashioned ghost story.
In my opinion Japanese horror belongs to a class of its own. One look at films like Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, Audition, and the stranger ones like House; or the gameplay in survival horror gems like Silent Hill and Siren, and you’ll see what I mean — the atmosphere and the feelings they invoke are invariably familiar, but twisted in dark and fearful ways.
Yamada’s Strangers starts out unassuming enough: we are introduced to Hideo Harada, a TV drama scriptwriter who just moved into an apartment in an office building after a nasty divorce from his wife Ayako. The building has no other residents who stay over at night except for Kei, a thirty-something woman who lives on the third floor.
We’re also introduced to Mamiya, a producer whom Hideo respected and was good friends with. Mamiya confesses that he has started dating Ayako and hopes to marry her. Needless to say, Hideo is thrown, and becomes depressed. On a whim, and perhaps in a bid to get out of his funk, Hideo decides to visit his hometown of Asakusa. He hasn’t gone back in ages; both his parents died in a hit-and-run accident in the town when Hideo was 12 years old.
This is where the story starts to get creepy interesting. Hideo sees his father in the cinema, as his father would’ve looked like at the time of his death over thirty years ago. The two get to know each other, and his “father” (is he Hideo’s dad, or isn’t he?) brings him back to his home — Hideo’s childhood apartment — where they are met by his mom. Hideo’s joy is obvious, mixed with a palpable fear:
“To a degree, too, my timing was motivated by a measure of fear — the fear of meeting that couple another time under the veil of darkness. After all, the likeness they bore to the mother and father I’d carried in my mind’s eye for the past 36 years was truly beyond belief. Of course, images engraved in memory at the age of twelve could not, by themselves, provide a reliable impression of their every feature. And yet, somehow, the amazing sense of tranquility that enfolded me while I was with them had all but convinced me that they were indeed my parents.”
This willingness of Hideo to suspend disbelief I chalk up to the state he was in at the time. Everything was crumbling around him, and here his parents were, alive and well, a dad you could chat about your day with over cold beers, a mom that cared about whether you’d eaten lunch already. With them, Hideo would’ve felt safe and secure. Everything was going to be okay.
But it’s not, and you the reader, know this. Hideo’s dance with the dead was sure to have an expiry date. So you are left on tenterhooks, waiting for the axe to fall. Will it be on the next page? Or the one after that?
For this, Strangers for me was a thrilling and satisfying read, told with the restraint which I find typical of Japanese novels, but with enough twists to keep the reader hooked.
My only gripe would be that it was too short. But one cannot have too much of a good thing.