Sunday, August 17, 2014

Be With You (book) by Takuji Ichikawa, translated by Terry Gallagher

Be With You is a Japanese novel that has some sci-fi/fantasy elements but that would probably best be called literary fiction. It was published by VIZ Media and appears to be out of print. I had considered ordering it during my last online book shopping binge, but the prices people were charging for it were a little high, so I opted to get it via ILL instead.

Review:

I vaguely remember seeing the cover of this book several years ago and being intrigued. I hoped I would enjoy it, but I've been burned by so many English translations of Japanese novels. Happily, this turned out to be one of the good ones.

Be With You is told primarily from Takumi's perspective. Takumi is a widower with a six-year-old child named Yuji. In the year since his wife died, he has tried to keep going, do his work, and be a good father, but it has been difficult. I'm not sure what his diagnosis would be, but he has severe anxiety. He cannot travel far from home and has a great terror of being enclosed inside vehicles. He cannot go inside movie theaters, his short-term memory is bad, and sometimes he seizes up and thinks he is dying. His efforts to cook for Yuji often go badly, so they usually just eat Yuji's favorite food, curry. Their home is a mess, because it doesn't occur to Takumi to clean, and Yuji sometimes goes to school in dirty clothes.

This is how things are for them when Mio, or her ghost perhaps, comes back into their lives. Takumi finds her at one of his and Yuji's usual exploration spots, near an old factory. She has no memory of either of them, nor of her death. Takumi had always told Yuji that deceased loved ones go to a planet called Archive, and it now seems possible that his story was true, and somehow Mio has temporarily come back to them. Takumi is hesitant to tell Mio about her death, but he does tell her about how they met and eventually fell in love. The three of them gradually become a family again, as though Mio never died. But this can't last forever, right?

The words I would use to describe this story and Takumi are: quiet, timid, and a little strange. The writing was very spare, to the point where I couldn't always picture what certain settings looked like and some conversations were a little hard to follow. The focus was very much on Takumi's thoughts and the characters' conversations.

I don't know that I can say I liked Takumi, but I sympathized with him. He knew his anxiety restricted his life a great deal, but few doctors had been able to help him. He felt that his illness put a burden on Yuji and Mio, and he couldn't understand how Mio had ever fallen in love with him or wanted to be with him. When he was 18 or 19 and started having problems, he tried to push Mio away. A life without her saddened him, but he couldn't imagine someone like her enjoying a life with someone like him, and he wanted her to be happy. He is not magically cured by the end of the book, although he works harder to take better care of himself and Yuji.

Because the story was told from Takumi's perspective, it was a little hard for me to get a fix on Mio. She seemed a bit like some perfect housewife who sprang into being just to love and be with Takumi, and that bothered me. For some people, it might come too late, but, near the end of the book, Mio reveals in a letter that she made several conscious choices about her life's direction. While I would have liked more glimpses into her thoughts, I was happy about this revelation that she wasn't completely passive. She made some incredibly tough decisions, all on her own.

Before I began this book, I worried a little about its potential to be a tearjerker. For the most part, Takumi's narrative felt very emotionally removed, as though everything was muffled by a few layers of gauze. On the one hand, I was happy that the characters weren't wallowing in the sadness of Mio's approaching disappearance or trembling over the mystery of how she came to appear in the first place. On the other hand, it made it a little difficult to connect with everyone. I will say this, though: I needed tissues during the last 40 pages. Apparently I managed to connect with Takumi, Mio, and Yuji enough for that. I wish I could give Yuji a hug – he's an example of one of the few literary young children I actually like. He felt real, rather than like a disgustingly adorable idealized child.

All in all, I don't know that I'll ever want to reread this, but I'm glad I read it at least this one time. The translation was smooth and generally easy to follow – I'll have to see about trying other works Terry Gallagher has translated (my quick search brings up ZOO by Otsuichi and Self-Reference ENGINE by Toh EnJoe). Unfortunately, it doesn't appear as though any of Takuji Ichikawa's other works have been translated into English.

Additional Comments:

The animal lover in me was not entirely happy with how Ichikawa handled Pooh, a dog owned by one of the characters in the book. At some point prior to Pooh becoming Nombre's dog, his vocal chords were removed, meaning that he couldn't bark – I didn't like this, but I could deal with it because he seemed content. However, at the end of the book Pooh escaped and was never found again. There was no reason this loose thread couldn't have been tied up in a happy way. Nombre believed he was doing just fine, but I needed something more concrete than that.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • The Time Traveler's Wife (book) by Audrey Niffenegger - This book is actually a good read-alike for several reasons, but I first decided to add it to this list because Takumi's problems reminded me a bit of Henry, and because it also has a sad/bittersweet ending readers know is coming. I have written about this book.
  • Train Man: The Novel (book) by Hitori Nakano - Supposedly, this is a true story. It's composed entirely of anonymous 2ch posts. It might work well for those who'd like another Japanese love story told from the perspective of a guy. I've written about this book.
  • Whisper of the Heart (anime movie) - Shizuku, a young girl in junior high, loves to read. Every time she opens a library book, she always sees the same name on the cards, "Seiji Amasawa" - it's as though this guy somehow reads even more than she does, and she becomes determined to try to find him. As Shizuku learns more about Seiji, she also learns more about herself and her goals in life. Those who'd like to watch another gentle and sometimes awkward romantic story might enjoy this anime.

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