Taichi Yamada: Strangers – Ijin-tachi to no Natsu (1987)

A disconcerting, yet deeply satisfying novel: a wonderful study of grief and isolation, a moving expression of our longing for things we have lost and are unable to have again.

I’ve read about Strangers last year on Novroz’ blog (here is the review) and wanted to read it ever since. It’s a ghost story and as such a perfect choice for Carl’s R.I.P. challenge. But it is also so much more than just a ghost story. It’s a truly wonderful book with a haunting atmosphere, a melancholy depiction of solitude and loneliness with a surprisingly creepy ending.

I often think that the problem some people have with ghost stories is that they take them literally and if they do not believe in the possibility of an afterlife, they do not want to read them. But ghost stories can also be read as purely symbolical. Loneliness, longing and grief can affect a person deeply. Lonely children often start to talk with imaginary friends and also older people can start to talk to themselves which is actually rather a conversation with someone who is not present than a discussion with oneself.

I used to live in a huge apartment building for a while and remember that it could feel strange being awake at night when everyone else was obviously sleeping. All the lights were turned off, there were no noises. Coming home at night and seeing the building from afar, like a big ocean liner, with all the lights on, was also quite special.

Strangers starts in a building just like that. A huge apartment building on Tokyo’s noisy Route 8 where constant traffic keeps you awake and the density of the exhaust fumes forbids the opening of the windows. Most of the apartments are offices. Harada, a fortysomething TV script writer, has stranded here after his divorce. At first he can hardly sleep. The traffic noise is overpowering but after a few weeks he gets used to it. One night, despite the noise outside, he feels an intense loneliness. It seems as if he was the only person in this big building.  He finds out that there is only one other person, a woman, staying at the house at night. Everyone else leaves the place and lives somewhere else.

One night the woman, Kei, knocks on his door and wants to drink a bottle of champagne with Harada but he refuses. He regrets it and invites her a few days later. She is a beautiful woman but with a terrible burn mark where her breasts should be. While they start dating, Harada visits Asakusa, the downtown district in which he used to live with his parents. His parents died when he was very young. He never returned to the place but all of a sudden something attracts him magically. Many of the houses have been destroyed and replaced by modern ugly buildings. While walking around Harada meets a man who looks exactly like his dead father at the time of his death. He follows him to his house and there is his mother, she too is still young and looking exactly like she did before she died.

Harada knows that he shouldn’t return to see his parents but he cannot help himself. He has to go back again and again. His friends start to tell him that he is looking bad. Kei wants him to stop seeing them. He can’t and we understand why.

Something closely akin to the wonderful sense of security I’d felt at such times as a child had descended on me that night in Asakusa. I coul recall no such moments in all the years since my parents had died.

Yamada managed to write a ghost story that is at the same time an eerie tale and a realistic portrayal of loneliness, grief and the search for a meaning in life. Harada is at a turning point in his life. He has a hard time finding jobs, his wife got most of his money after the divorce, his son doesn’t want to see him, most women are not interested in a man like him. Falling in love with Kei seems not so much a choice as inevitable. They are both scarred in different ways. Meeting his dead parents is what infuses his days with meaning and warmth until he starts to pay a prize for it.

What did it amount to, anyway, this life I led? Busying myself with random tasks that popped up one after another, enjoying the moments of excitement each little sir brought before it receded into the distance, yet accumulating no lasting store of wisdom from any of it.

Strangers is an excellent ghost story and a melancholic depiction of the loneliness that living in a big city like Tokyo can bring. I really loved this book. I could hardly put it down and at the same time I didn’t want it to end.

49 thoughts on “Taichi Yamada: Strangers – Ijin-tachi to no Natsu (1987)

    • Very true. It’s an amazing book. It captures this eerie feeling of being completely alone in a house and – in Harada’s case – in the world. It’s so much more than a ghost story but it works very well as a ghost story too.

  1. Wonderful review, Caroline! I hope Harada and Kei end up together and are happy in the end 🙂 It will be really heartbreaking if they didn’t, especially after the scars they seem to have suffered. From your review it looks like Yamada has created an eerie atmosphere in the story which makes the reader scared as well as ask some interesting questions. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I cannot say anything abou the end. It’s an amazing book that works on many levels. It wasn’t scary in the beginning but in the end when everything was explained I found it quite spooky. Harada is a very appealing and likable character, it’s easy to identify with him. That’s why it moved me so much.

  2. This book sounds so interesting especially as it deals with isolation, loneliness and other themes. Harada is a haunted character who, I hope, ends up with Kei as it sounds like he needs her. You review really grabbed me and I want to read this book! You make a terrific point about the breadth of ghost stories and how this fits in that genre.

    Thank you for a fantastic review and an intriguing book!

  3. Great review! This book sounds so good. Poor Harada, I hope he finds some comfort in the end. Intense loneliness is so hard to overcome. I’ll have to make sure I’m snuggled up with my puppy and fiance when I read this one, haha.

  4. I’ve heard a lot about this one, and I’d like to get hold of a copy at some point. J-Lit is another of my passions, and ghosts are not as rare as they might be in western literary fiction 😉

    • I’ve read somewhere that it was a typical Japanese ghost story but I’m not sure what that meant. It’s very different from Western ghosts stories and I’m sure that even people who don’t go for them usually would still like it.
      I often read Japanese books. Seems as if we had another preference in common. 🙂

  5. I forgot about de RIP Challenge, I suppose I’ll get to read other ghost stories reviews and thus learn about books I don’t know 🙂

    You sure make this book attractive but I’m still not attracted to ghost stories.
    As an aside, the French title is Présences d’un été. I wonder what the original means.

  6. For a while I saw this book all over the bookshops, and although I was intrigued, I resisted it. I’m really glad to have your review because I would think much more about reading it now. I love what you were writing about your apartment building looking like a huge ocean liner at night – I could picture it so clearly!

    • Thanks, Litlove. It was a beautiful sight. I know people think not much of huge apartment buildings but I thought it was special, it felt quite safe. I miss it sometimes.
      I loved the book but it is quite sad.

  7. first of all, thank you for linking it to my review 🙂

    judging from your review, you seemed to like this more than me. I like it too but it didnt even made into my top5 book from last year read. I know someone who likes it as much as you. Too bad the 2nd book I read by him was not interesting, well at least for me.

    • You are welcome. I know you didn’t like it that much but your review gave me the impression, I would, and it was true.
      Emma wanted to know what the Japanese titel means. Do you know?

  8. I love books like this–where you both want to race to the end and don’t want the story to end. I thought this sounded intriguing when you mentioned it earlier, but I shall definitely be looking for a copy of it now. And I agree that ghost stories don’t have to be of the obvious sort–there are definitely different sorts of hauntings!

    • I thought it was fantastic and works on many levels. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it. It’s also quite short, 200 pages.
      There aren’t many books like this, that make you want to go on reading and saving it for later at the same time.

    • I like the cover and for once it really captures the feel of the story. I think you might like this. my review doesn’t give away too much. There is stll enough that would be surprising should you read it.

  9. I know it must be a compelling tale when you say that you can’t put the book down and yet you don’t want the story to end.
    I like your suggestion that a ghost tale doesn’t have to be taken literally. It can be a symbol for lonliness.
    Great review, Caroline.

    • Thanks, Jacquelin. The atmosphere of the novel was really special and the pictures still haunt me. This is the second Japanese book this year that made such an impression. The other one was The Square Persimmon by Atoda. theses were some of the most beautiful short stories I have ever read.

  10. I’m pleased you reviewed this. I was aware of the novel, but hadn’t seen a single review of it and I didn’t find it the sort of book one could easily browse in a shop. It seemed too much about mood for that to work well.

    It’s a curious idea that one wouldn’t read ghost stories because one doesn’t believe in life after death. I’ve always rather liked them and I’ve never believed in an afterlife. Of course, if I met a ghost that would perhaps make it all the more shocking to me…

    An awful lot of science fiction, horror and fantasy is designed to operate at multiple levels – the literal and the allegorical. Not all of it by any remote means, but it’s a common technique. The same is true of course for a great deal of literary fiction. If one ignores anything not hard set in our reality, stuff one knows or believes not to be true, one misses so much. Magical realism for example. Calvino. Will Self. Murakami. A host of writers.

    • No, I agree, browsing it in a book shop would not tell you all that much.
      I rea somewhere that it was the perfect book for people not familiar with Japanese writing because it was typically Japanese but still very accessible. I thought the mood was Japanese, it did remind me of Atoda’s short stories. I don’t know if you have read him.
      I have heard people put it that way, saying they were not interested in ghost stories because they didn’t believe in ghosts. That does of course only apply to one type of ghost, namely the ghost of a dead person. There are other types. Especially in fantasy novels. Those are of another type that I would call spirits.
      You seem to have always read ghost stories in an allegorical or symbolical way, which was my point, exactly. You don’t have to take them literally.
      I know you will not believe me, but I have seen ghosts or sensed them and I was not alone feeling the presence. Still, I read these novels in different ways. The imagination is powerful and can create apparitions too.
      I never understood how people could limit their reading to the purely realistic and factual.
      You just reminded me that I wanted to read another Murakami this year.

  11. I’ve not read Atoda.

    Being honest, when I first read The Turn of the Screw it didn’t even occur to me there was a possible psychological explanation. I took it utterly literally as a ghost story. The ambiguity of the tale escaped me entirely.

    I do have a fondness for stuff like MR James, the great master of the unambiguous Victorian ghost story, but for serious literature I think you need more than just a literal spook.

    • I like M.R. James when it comes to atmosphere. And alos Susan Hill. She owes him a lot, I would say. I was a bit confused by The Turn of the Screw. Never sure whether it was supposed to be real ghosts or not.
      Ghost stories like Maupassant’s Le Horla or Chekhov’s The Black Monk are much more complex and not as easily explained.
      I could imagine you would like Atoda.

  12. That lack of clarity as to the ghosts’ reality is central to Turn of the Screw. It’s intended to be ambiguous, which is why it’s funny that I never noticed that ambiguity on my first reading.

    Adolescents can be very literal.

    I really need to read the Maupassant and Chekhov. Perhaps once winter is fully here.

  13. Thank you for writing a wonderful review about “Strangers” ! We are so glad you enjoyed Yamada’s book and happy to hear the review from many people. Hope we could publish more his books in English.
    I would love to share your site on Yamada Taichi facebook!
    From: Yamada Taichi management

    Taichi Yamada website

    Taichi Yamada’s facebook

  14. Pingback: Best and Worst Books 2011 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  15. Pingback: Taichi Yamada: In Search of a Distant Voice – Toku no koe wo sagashite (1986) « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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