Review: Strangers, by Taichi Yamada

>>Published (Japanese): 1987

>>Published (English): September 2003

>>Finally got around to it: March 2011

A mother and father in their thirties with a 48-year-old son could not be of the real world, of course, but if an imagined world could allow such a relationship to exist, then I was ready to embrace that world. The terror I’d felt before was gone; floating before me were my parents’ joyful smiles welcoming me into their home.

***

Harada is a television screenwriter living in Tokyo. He is divorced, estranged from his son, and his best friend and working partner has dissolved their relationship to pursue Harada’s ex-wife. One day, shortly after meeting what may or may not be the only other person living in his apartment complex—an intriguing young woman named Kei—Harada meets a man at a comedy club. The man is a doppelganger of his father, who passed when Harada was 12. Following this man, Harada is taken deep into his past, where he inexplicably comes face to face with his parents, 36 years after their deaths.

A lot of ghost stories tend to iterate on the theme of being “incomplete”; there’s a hole in the protagonist that can only be filled through exploring of their past, which when translated into an identifiable form or conflict, usually involves a visit from a ghost(s). Strangers is no different in this regard. What Yamada does differently, however, is that he extends the reach of his ghosts into the creation of neighbourhoods that no longer exist, giving his apparitions a real-world presence that others can interact with; he allows the ghostly remains of Harada’s parents to physically alter the subject of their haunting—in this case, Harada himself, who is slowly wasting away, dissolving into a wraith of nothing more than skin and bones.

We’re forced to witness Harada’s pain as he finds such joy in being reunited with his parents after so many years alone, though by giving himself over to their otherworldly love, he allows himself to fall apart, to become a shade of a man on the verge of death. He cannot see the withering effect their presence is having on his life. It is only through a developing relationship with Kei that he can finally see how thin he has become, how lifeless and emaciated he appears to the world.

The happiness he is forced to abandon to save his own life, and the struggle he faces to come to this decision, is certainly evocative of any sort of life-altering addiction. What Harada is addicted to is feeling whole again, for the first time since he was 12. The hole in his heart was one that neither marriage, nor success, nor friendship, nor the birth of his own child could satiate. Finally able to fill that hole gives Harada a sense of joy unlike anything he’s felt, though the feeling of unity he experiences with his parents is paralleled by what he is giving up in the present to come to terms with his past.

Yamada structures the relationship between Harada, his parents, and Kei as a devotion triangle, with Harada in the middle, deciding which world he wants to give himself over to. But as he makes his decision, a larger one looms in the background: does he continue to rely on others to satisfy what’s lacking in his life, or will Harada find enough strength in the journey to fill the hole in his heart on his own?

Strangers is what a ghost story should be—meditative, unpredictable, and emotionally charged. The stakes are life and death masked as happiness and loss, but which option is preferable is an answer the reader is never guided to with complete certainty.

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