An interesting novel about obsession, violence, and grief
The story follows Morishita and Yamashiro, two high-school boys approaching the age in life when they must choose what kind of people they want to be. When their favourite J-pop idol kills and dismembers her boyfriend, Morishita and Yamashiro unite to convince the police that their idol’s act was in fact by them. This thrilling novel is a meditation on belonging, the objectification of young popstars, and teenage alienation.
This is the first novel I’ve read published by Honford Star. Their mission is to publish major, overlooked-in-English East Asian authors, and also modern authors who combine both literary and genre sensibilities. Astral Season, Beastly Season is a more contemporary novel, and one that examines how obsession can twist someone to commit horrific and violent acts, and also the fall-out of such violence. It’s an interesting read.
The novel is split into two parts. The first part, which shares the book’s title, is told from the perspective of Yamashiro, a J-pop obsessive smitten by an “underground” J-pop star. Able to eavesdrop on her home (just one creepy part of Yamashiro’s narrative), he learns that she has committed a grisly murder. As he learns this, he notices Morishita, a popular kid from school, is also listening in. They quickly form a very close bond, and Yamashiro learns of Morishita’s desire to save “Mami-chan” by committing a series of copy-cat murders to draw attention away from their crush.
It’s a story of the most toxic obsession. Yamashiro and Morishita are delusional, and quite creepy throughout. It’s clear that Morishita is a psychopath, quite emotionless when it comes to executing his plan and the murders. Yamashiro retains a bit more humanity, but barely. The way they talk about Mami-chan is uncomfortable to read: it’s incredibly sexist, objectifying, and patronizing.
Morishita, what do you like about Mami-chan?
“I like that she’s cute and a good dancer.”
But she’s just practicing as hard as she can. She doesn’t have any talent.
“That’s what’s best about her.”
I get that. That’s why you’re great. Because you have absolutely no talent, no sense, and yet you work so hard to act like you do despite your inferiority complex. Your favorite food, your favorite music, it’s all so normal, so you’re proud of anything that’s slightly different about yourself. It’s that attitude, that pathetic attempt to be even just a little bit better than others that I love. What I mean is, you’re sad and pathetic, so I can look down on you however much I want.
The bond that Yamashiro and Morishita form happens very quickly, which was surprising given what the latter was proposing — and has actually done by the time they “find” each other. There were times when I thought Yamashiro might find their plan too much never materialized, and the final conclusion to this part was quite surprising.
The second part, The Season of Righteousness, is set a few years after Morishita and Yamashiro’s plan has been completed. It focuses on two characters who feature prominently in the first part (and adds another, more peripheral character). The narrator is Watase, a female student who has since gone off to college and appears to be doing very well. While events from school still loom large in her memory and thoughts, she is glad to have moved away.
There probably aren’t too many people who had a classmate in their youth that turned out to be a serial killer. Most of the people I met in college take everything seriously and have experienced things like love and friendship as slightly worse versions of what’s portrayed in comic books. I describe my past like they do when I talk about it. I never say anything like, “My best friend was killed by one of our classmates.” Basically, I try not to ruin the mood.
The other main character is Aoyama, Morishita’s best friend. He has just given an interview for a magazine in which he focused on the things about his friend that suggest he was actually a good person. Watase confronts Aoyama about this, which leads them to talk about Morishita’s killing spree (they aren’t aware of Yamashiro’s involvement). The characters clash over whether or not anything good Morishita did matters, or if his murder spree does and should overshadow everything. Who cares if he was a good person? He killed people! (I’m with Watase, here.) The story is also one of teenage grief, and how different people cope with tragedy — as well as the difficulty one has in accepting how others might react differently. (It is also, perhaps, a mild criticism of Japanese education culture.)
“You’re so cold.”
“How could you just apply to college? How could you get in?” Aoyama started talking fast. And then, suddenly, I remembered I used to like him. “Normally when this kind of thing happens, you can’t study, and you definitely can’t just take entrance exams.”
“But the exams weren’t going to wait for me.”
“But…” I could see the arteries on the back of Aoyama’s hands. They bulged, vanished, and then reappeared even more clearly. It looked like he was breathing through them. “You’re so cold.”
While it can’t stand on its own, I did like The Season of Righteousness more than Astral Season, Beastly Season. I liked the way it examined what happened, and I am typically more interested in stories that don’t focus on the killer(s). How people cope, adapt, and live with tragedy is more interesting than why killers kill. Yamashiro’s letter does nothing to redeem him, nor to make him sympathetic. Watase, on the other hand, is sympathetic, clearly struggling with her experiences, and trying to understand how Aoyama can have had such a different reaction.
You become either a star or a beast. When you turn seventeen. I recalled those words I read somewhere in my studies. Here I was, like a spectator, watching myself desperately try to become neither a star nor a beast but a human.
It’s difficult to know how good the translation is, having not read the original in Japanese. However, Kalau Almony does a fantastic job of creating two very distinct voices for the two halves of the book. The first, Yamashiro’s, was quite stilted, often strangely worded and stiff. I didn’t love this, but it is written as a (long) letter to Mami-chan — and therefore it’s a clear choice to channel Yamashiro’s character through his “own” prose. The Season of Righteousness felt as though it was considerably better-written, and Watase’s voice is more thoughtful and interesting (another reason I preferred it to part one). The two afterwords included in the book are also interesting, and illuminate a little bit what the author was thinking when they wrote the stories.
I’d be interested in reading more by Saihate. Reading Astral Season, Beastly Season has also made me want to try more of Honford Star’s titles. Overall, an interesting read. If you’re looking for a short, character-driven story that is slightly different to what’s normally on offer, then give this one a try.
Tahi Saihate’s Astral Season, Beastly Season is due to be published on January 15th, by Honford Star. The novel was originally published in Japan, as 星か獣になる季節.
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Review copy received from the publisher