MEAuthor: Tomoyuki Hoshino
Translator: Charles De Wolf
U.S. publisher: Akashic Books
ISBN: 9781617754487
Released: June 2017
Original release: 2010
Awards: Kenzaburō Ōe Prize

My introduction to the work of Tomoyuki Hoshino was through We, the Children of Cats, a volume containing a selection of his short stories and novellas which left a tremendous impression on me. Since encountering that collection, I’ve made a point to seek out and read everything of Hoshino’s that has been translated into English. (Sadly, there hasn’t been very much.) I was very excited to learn that Akashic Books would be publishing Charles De Wolf’s translation of ME, a book which quickly become one of my most anticipated literary releases of 2017. After Lonely Hearts Killer, ME is only the second of Hoshino’s novels to be released in English. Originally published in Japan in 2010 under the title Ore Ore (It’s Me, It’s Me, a reference to a common telephone scam), the novel would go on to win the 2011 Kenzaburō Ōe Prize and was later adapted as a live-action film directed by Satoshi Miki in 2013. In addition to the main text, the English-language edition of the novel also includes an afterword by Kenzaburō Ōe as well as a brief essay from the translator. Hoshino’s works can be challenging and demanding, but in my experience they can also be powerfully rewarding and meaningful; I was looking forward to reading ME a great deal.

When a stranger accidentally leaves his cellphone on the wrong food tray at a McDonald’s, the novel’s narrator Hitoshi Nagano makes an impulsive decision–he simply walks out of the restaurant with it. As a joke he calls the mother of the cell phone’s owner, pretending to be her son Daiki Hiyama. But he ends up taking the prank a little too far, not quite intentionally convincing her to transfer ¥900,000 into his bank account. Much to Hitoshi’s surprise, a few days later Daiki’s mother suddenly shows up at his apartment acting as though he is in fact her erstwhile son. Understandably and extraordinarily confused by this turn of events, Hitoshi makes a point to visit the home of his own mother only to discover that there’s already a Hitoshi Nagano there. And what’s more, he isn’t the only one to have recently visited claiming to be Hitoshi Nagano. With multiple people seeming to be posing as him, the only identity that remains available for Hitoshi to take appears to be that of Daiki Hiyama. And that’s when things start to get really strange.

Themes of identity and the fluidity of self can be found in many of Hoshino’s translated works, but they are particularly prominent in ME where they form the absolute core of the story being told. Both Hoshino’s long fiction and short stories can often be fairly surreal and ME is certainly no exception, although I do feel that the novel is probably one of his more readily accessible long-form works. Granted, none of the characters are especially likeable, but the basic premise of ME, while incredibly and increasingly strange, is still straightforward enough to follow at the surface level. However, to truly and fully appreciate the entirety of the novel and its depth not only demands but requires a particularly careful and close reading of the text. It would be very easy for readers to get lost if they don’t pay close attention to what is happening and how the novel and its language subtly shifts and changes along with the narrator’s identity. Even the genre isn’t fixed and transforms as the story progresses–ME begins as a peculiar comedy but by its end has dramatically evolved into dystopic horror. The narrative development of ME is both fascinating and perplexing.

Similar to other works by Hoshino, reading ME is an immensely thought-provoking but disorienting experience. The novel’s narrator, who is always himself but not always in the ways he expects to be, is enduring a fantastical identity crisis which, on occasion, still manages to be oddly relatable. He encounters more and more people who are him but not him, their backgrounds and personalities slowly blending together with less and less to differentiate among them. At first there is a sense of euphoria in finding like-minded people, but eventually a tremendous uneasiness begins to develop–hatred of others becomes hatred of self and vice versa, ultimately erupting in a violent confrontation which is part of a vicious cycle that is extremely difficult to escape or nullify. ME is intensely psychological and philosophical, the story using speculative fiction to outline a cerebral exploration of self, society, and the relationship between them. The novel can be simply read for entertainment, but if allowed it also prompts readers to examine the volatile nature and meaning of identity. Hoshino’s work tends to stick with me and I know I’ll be thinking about ME and the ideas it presents for quite some time.

Thank you to Akashic Books for providing a copy of ME for review.

Lonely Hearts Killer

Lonely Hearts KillerAuthor: Tomoyuki Hoshino
Translator: Adrienne Carey Hurley
U.S. publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 9781604860849
Released: November 2009
Original release: 2004

After reading Tomoyuki Hoshino’s collection of short fiction We, the Children of Cats, I knew that I wanted to read more of his work. And so I turned to the novel Lonely Hearts Killer, Hoshino’s first and currently only other volume available in English. Lonely Hearts Killer was originally published in Japan in 2004, making it a later work than most of the stories collected in We, the Children of Cats. Adrienne Carey Hurley’s translation of Lonely Hearts Killer was released in 2009. She initially had a difficult time finding a publisher for the novel. However, like We, the Children of Cats, Lonely Hearts Killer was ultimately released by PM Press under its Found in Translation imprint. Because We, the Children of Cats left such a huge impression on me, I was especially curious to read a long-form work by Hoshino.

When a young and popular emperor unexpectedly dies with only his sister to succeed him, the country is left stunned and directionless. Some people are so affected by his death that they are “spirited away,” a phenomenon which leaves them in a near catatonic state. Shōji Inoue is not one of those people. A young and privileged experimental filmmaker living off his parents, he is fascinated by society’s reaction to the emperor’s death. When he learns that Mikoto, the boyfriend of Iroha—a former classmate, fellow filmmaker, and friend—is among the group of people to have suffered a breakdown, he is intensely curious. But Inoue and Mikoto’s meeting triggers an even greater tragedy and Iroha is left behind to deal with the aftermath. Years later Iroha is working at a remote lodge owned by her friend Mokuren, away from the prying eyes of the mass media which blames her in part for the epidemic of suicides and murders that have swept the country. At the same time, the mass media is one of her only remaining ties to the rest of the world.

Lonely Hearts Killer is told in three parts by three different narrators, each building on and critiquing those that precede them. “The Sea of Tranquility” is seen from Inoue’s perspective, “The Love Suicide Era” is Iroha’s response, and Mokuren’s commentary concludes the novel in “Subida Al Cielo.” Each chapter leads further away from the initial incident in both time and association while simultaneously providing more information about it and capturing the escalation of fear and death. Lonely Hearts Killer is a chronicle of the end of an era; the world is turned upside down and society’s values are inverted. The novel can be both disconcerting and disorienting. People become so consumed by a culture of fear that they come to rely and depend on it. Any challenge to the system is seen as dangerous and the media’s role in its perpetuation is largely ignored by the general population. Things become so twisted around and perverted that it is those who would try to refuse to participate in the violence around them who are deemed abnormal and deviants by society at large.

In addition to the novel itself, the English edition of Lonely Hearts Killer also includes an introduction by the translator and a newly written preface by the author as well as a question and answer session between the two. I found this material to be particularly valuable in putting the work into a greater context. The death of an emperor and the demise of the emperor system is a rare topic in Japanese literature. Lonely Hearts Killer is a very political work although much of its message is left up to the readers’ individual interpretations. The novel has the potential for multiple analyses, including both anarchist and pacifist readings. I personally appreciate this ambiguity; it’s one of the reasons that I find Hoshino’s work as a whole to be so interesting. As I’ve come to expect, Hoshino’s writing requires active engagement and thought on the part of his readers. The novel isn’t particularly easy reading, but the ideas, concepts, and themes that Hoshino deals with in Lonely Hearts Killer are incredibly unsettling, intriguing, and fascinating.

We, the Children of Cats

Author: Tomoyuki Hoshino
Translator: Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser
U.S. publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 9781604865912
Released: August 2012
Original release:1998-2006

We, the Children of Cats is a collection of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s early short works. Published in 2012 by PM Press under its Found in Translation imprint, the volume gathers together five short stories and three novellas which were originally released in Japan between 1998 and 2006. (PM Press is also the publisher of the only novel by Hoshino that is currently available in English, Lonely Hearts Killer.) Three of the stories in We, the Children of Cats were previously translated and released in English, but the others are appearing for the first time. Although one story, “Chino,” was translated by Lucy Fraser, Brian Bergstrom was primarily responsible for editing and translating the collection as a whole. Bergstrom also contributes a substantial afterword to the volume, “The Politics of Impossible Transformation.” We, the Children of Cats was my introduction to Hoshino’s work.

After a newly written preface by Hoshino for the collection, “To All of You Reading This in English,” We, the Children of Cats begins with the short story “Paper Woman.” This story ended up being my favorite piece included in the volume and made me want to read everything that Hoshino has ever written. This set my expectations pretty high for the rest of We, the Children of Cats; for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. I did tend to prefer Hoshino’s short stories (“Paper Woman, “The No Fathers Club,” “Chino,” “We, the Children of Cats,” and “Air”) over his longer novellas (Sand Planet, Treason Diary, and A Milonga for the Melted Moon.) For me, reading Hoshino’s works was often a heady and even dizzying experience; his shorter pieces are still mystifying but more grounded, immediately accessible, and easily grasped as a whole.

The stories collected in We, the Children of Cats are not directly related to one another although many share common elements and themes. Faint echoes of Hoshino’s earlier stories can often be seen in his later works. Latin America is a frequent touchstone in We, the Children of Cats. Which, considering Hoshino’s personal interest and time spent in the area, shouldn’t be too surprising. The influence of magical realism, which has strong ties to Latin American literature, is also readily apparent in Hoshino’s stories. Perhaps my favorite recurring theme to be found in We, the Children of Cats is that of the power granted to words and language and their ability to change, process, create, restore, and transform truth and reality.

As Bergstrom’s illuminating afterword asserts, transformation is the key to We, the Children of Cats. Some of the stories are more realistic (some are even based on or inspired by actual events) while others are more fantastic, but they all deal with transitions, growth, and changing identity in some way. Hoshino’s writing style tends to be discursive and his stories aren’t always particularly straightforward, but his imagery is powerful and poetic. Every once in a while there would be a thought, idea, or phrase that would momentarily floor me. After reading We, the Children of Cats, even I felt changed or transformed in some nearly indescribable way. We, the Children of Cats isn’t an easy collection, at times it can be difficult and even troubling, but I am glad that I put in the effort needed to truly appreciate it.