Meet Misuki Tsujimura. The Japanese mystery and children’s novelist from Honshu’s Yamanashi Prefecture has a list of literary awards to her name: including the Naoki Prize, Mephisto Prize, and Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers.
Thanks to Phillip Gabriel’s translation, Misuki Tsujimura now announces herself to readers of English-translated Japanese fiction with Lonely Castle In The Mirror. Out 22 April 2021.
This enchanting novel has sold millions of copies in Japan – winning it the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018 based on votes from bookstores across Japan.
Bullying – or ‘ijime’ – is damaging the mental health of young students in Japanese schools. Causing high numbers of school absentees (known as futoko) – and even leading some to become hikkikomori: modern day hermits who hole up inside and refuse to participate in society.
With tear-jerking power, Misuki Tsujimura confronts this anxiety in Lonely Castle In The Mirror. An emotional masterpiece that resonates with those in Japan and abroad.
7 Junior High students refuse to attend school. Kokoro (through whose eyes the story is mainly told) is being pursued by a bully who even waits outside her house, meaning she can’t leave without an adult. She has anxiety-induced stomach aches and hyperventilates frequently. With this, and her absenteeism, she lives in constant state of anxiety and pain.
‘School was everything to her, and both going and not going had been excruciating.’
Like Kokoro, the other students fail to mention their own reasons for staying at home.
But then, in each of their rooms… a shimmering mirror appears. This leads them to ‘The Castle’ – their magical escape to pass the time during school hours. In a mix between Studio Ghibli’s fantasy realms and Haruki Murakami’s magical realism, the castle provides a beautiful and cathartic escape for the 7 children. It’s run by the Wolf Queen – who says they must leave by 5pm each day or they’ll be eaten by wolves.
‘From now until next March, you will need to search for the key that will unlock the Wishing Room. The person who finds it will have the right to enter and their wish will be granted.’
(For context: the Japan’s starts in April and ends in March).
But rather than desperately looking for the magical key that will make one of their wishes come true… and instead of living in fear of the wolves… the children talk to each other and play games. Mizuki Tsujimura underlines the growing ease with which they make human connections. The Castle acts as a safe haven for them. In contrast to their normal lives of fear and anxiety, the prospect of wolves is almost nothing of note for them. The rewards of reaching out and making friends with others are both enormous and alien to them. And as a result, their lives are completely changed.
‘The only place she could now go to freely from her bedroom was the castle. If I'm in the castle, she started to think, then I'll be safe. Only the castle beyond the mirror could offer her complete protection.’
Like the seven, we feel safe in the castle. Immersed in a bubble of calm. It’s a joy to read Mizuki Tsujimura for the first time in English, and the way she captures the children’s maturation into their own distinct personalities as they start their journeys into adulthood is spellbinding.
The Castle is a magical realm, but the interpersonal connections within it are very real. No longer are they on the outside looking in, but on the inside – sad to walk out when 5pm comes. After reading twist ending (no spoilers)… readers may need to wipe their own tears.
Not from sadness; but from the beauty of the writing, the resonance, and the translation.
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