The first few books covered for this year’s January in Japan could be described as classics, but today’s choice has a decidedly more contemporary feel. It’s the first Japanese offering from indie press Honford Star, and while the release was unfortunately delayed from last year (because… well, you know), it’s finally due out tomorrow. We’re off to high school today, but if you’re expecting fun and games, and a bit of study, you’re sadly mistaken. The kids are most definitely *not* all right, and if you’re not careful, you might end up as the victim of their unwelcome attentions…
Astral Season, Beastly Season (translated by Kalau Almony, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short, two-part novel by poet Tahi Saihate, a chilling story in which she examines the teen mind and the psychology of obsession. The story begins with the arrest of Mami Aino, a minor-grade ‘idol’ (pop star), for murder, an event that shatters the world of high-school boy Yamashiro, who is obsessed with the singer. Immediately bursting out of school, he goes to Mami’s parents’ house to see if he can find anything out, where he sees Morishita, a classmate far too popular to have anything to do with Yamashiro.
Yamashiro is stunned to find out that Morishita is also a fan, but that’s nothing compared to the shock at hearing his plan to save Mami. You see, now that their idol has been arrested, if another murder were to occur, then the police would be forced to admit that Mami was innocent all along. At which point, Morishita springs into action, with Yamashiro tagging along on a bizarre mission to clear Mami’s name and cleanse her reputation – with blood…
Astral Season, Beastly Season sounds like a crazy story in the vein of Ryū Murakami books like Coin Locker Babies or Popular Hits of the Showa Era, but that’s not really the case. In fact, it’s a more low-key, psychological work, with most of the mayhem occurring off-camera, as it were. Much of the story involves Yamashiro’s discussions with Morishita on how to go about their quest, and then a lot of introspection and reflection once the bloody deeds are done.
The first part takes the form of an extended letter, or diary entry, in which Yamashiro is actually addressing Mami, a young woman he knows is fairly untalented (and probably guilty) but whom he adores, anyway. There’s a focus here on Morishita, with the narrator describing his actions and reactions, revealing his cool, focused insanity to the reader:
“It doesn’t matter what happens. I don’t care if I die, if I’m killed, if I get caught. As long as I can save Mami-chan, it doesn’t matter what happens. That’s why I’m alive. It doesn’t matter if I have a future, if I have a life beyond that. I don’t care about any of that.”
p.33 (Honford Star, 2021)
It all makes for a rather unsettling portrait of a monster, and the fact that the youths’ idol is really a third-rate pop star, never destined to make it big, somehow makes it all even creepier, and more pathetic.
By contrast, Yamashiro is a far more uncertain figure, dragged along in Morishita’s charismatic wake. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a loser, a loner accustomed to his solitude:
Seeing the Osaka Aquarium, buying souvenirs, and even on the way home, I didn’t feel any pain or loneliness sitting silently with them. I was a wooden plank. Whether Morishita or Watase noticed me or not, time rushed by and swept them along, too. (p.65)
The obsession with Mami is another way of coping with this isolation, and this explains his motivation for going along with what he knows is wrong when the cool kid of the class approaches him.
The school scenes are among the most interesting parts of the novel as Saihate sketches out the dynamics of the high-school classroom, highlighting the cliques, crushes and outcasts. We see the subtle changes that happen as a result of the murders; with Yamashiro now Morishita’s close friend, others feel obliged to communicate with him, albeit unwillingly in some cases. In particular, Watase, a girl with a crush on another friend of Morishita’s, begins to chat to Yamashiro regularly, something he finds confusing and difficult to handle.
Of course, it’s the character of Morishita that stands out in Astral Season, Beastly Season. A strange, charismatic figure who keeps the class on edge, he has a compelling focus and is determined to carry through his plan, all the while knowing Mami is almost certainly guilty. Throughout the first part of the book, he’s the one driving the story along, leaving the hapless Yamashiro trailing in his wake as he decides who the next victim will be, and how the plan will end. Like many others, Yamashiro falls for his psychotic charm; this is a boy who can seduce and kill with the same smile…
And yet, surprisingly perhaps, there’s more to Morishita than shown here. The second part of the book is a kind of coda, looking back at events from the distance of a few years, with several characters discussing a magazine article that stirs up old sentiments, This all revolves around a friend’s description of Morishita as a good guy, and Saihate uses this part to explore the paradox of being a murderer and yet still wanting to be kind and help people. The dilemma here is whether a murderer has the right to have their character revealed in this way. Shouldn’t we pretend murderers are completely evil, if only for the sake of the victims’ families?
I’ll leave that for you to decide, but what I can say is that Astral Season, Beastly Season is an intriguing, and enjoyable, story of messed-up teens, with great work done by writer and translator alike – and a reminder that for many people, school years aren’t always as easy as we would like. It’s a shame that Saihate’s English-language debut was delayed, but better late than never, I suppose. Let’s hope more is forthcoming very soon 🙂