‘I have always thought of writing novels that, rather than making people's hands unable to stop turning to the next page, are so immersive that a reader would want to bask in it forever.’
This is Keiichiro Hirano in a nutshell. Like a shimmering sunset that slowly dips beyond the horizon, we long to hold onto his words. Yet at the same time, we are driven by an impulse to discover more not just in the narrative, but about ourselves.
At just 23, whilst studying law at Kyoto University in 1998, Keiichiro Hirano won Japan’s most prestigious literary award – the Akutagawa Prize – for his debut novel ‘Nisshoku’ (日蝕).
We walk you into his English-translated works, A Man and The Transparent Labyrinth, to give you a sense of their psychological and philosophical power – and inspire you to pick up more Japanese authors.
Translated by Eli K.P. William
Could mendacious sincerity, consummately performed, be the ultimate deception?
A Man is a psychological thriller about identity which sheds light on Japanese society and leaves a lingering existential punch. It won the Yomiuri Prize for Literature in 2019 and became Keiichiro’s Hirano’s first English-translated novel in 2020.
Rie Takemato’s husband of 3 years, Daisuké Taniguchi, dies in a logging accident. Despite insisting not to contact his family in the event of death, Rie calls in Diasuké’s brother Kyoichi to attend the funeral. It’s here that her world is turned upside down.
Standing over Daisuke, Kyoichi proclaims:
‘That isn't Daisuke... this guy went around using my brother's name... somebody was impersonating Daisuke.’
This shock case of identity theft raises many questions: who is this man that stole Daisuké’s identity? Where is the real Daisuké? And for Rie, the ultimate question is:
‘If a lover finds out that their beloved’s past is in fact the past of a stranger, what happens to the love the two shared?’
Shocked, she enlists the help of divorce attorney Akira Kido to uncover the truth – who turns amateur detective and sets an enthralling psychological investigation in motion.
‘Cases of identity concealment through a false name were common enough... what perplexed [Kido]... Every public record attested to the deceased man being Daisuke Taniguchi.’
Keiichiro Hirano shows how Japan’s family registry system enables this identity fraud, showing just how easy one can bury the past. Consequently, we ask if someone can gain just as much meaning from a false life as a real one?
The investigation forces both Rie and Akira Kido to reflect on their own lives. Kido is living in an unhappy marriage, drinking vodka late at night – wallowing in ‘a bottomless middle-aged kind of loneliness that he could never have even conceived of when he was younger.’ However, the investigation puts it in focus:
‘I’m able to get in touch with my life indirectly through someone else’s… No one can deal with their suffering on their own. We all seek someone else to be the conduit for our emotions.’
Rie, in comparison, is disoriented by the revelation. She now feels on unstable ground.
‘She felt a sort of mystified harrowing sadness, and lost all concrete sense of whose life she herself was leading.’
Keiichiro Hirano’s psychological masterpiece lingers on the page and asks pressing philosophical questions about identity and life’s meaning. It is best savoured; immerse yourself in its brilliance.
The Transparent Labyrinth
Translated by Kerim Yazar
Released as part of the KESHIKI Series by Strangers Press, The Transparent Labyrinth highlights how one night can change your life; and how the past can linger and reframe the present irreversibly.
This short story is shocking, dream-like, and claustrophobic. Epitomised by its opening lines:
THEY WERE CROUCHING, naked, in a high ceilinged room painted black.
Six men and six women, twelve people in all. Okada and Misa were the only Japanese.
A Japanese businessman (Okada) meets an attractive female traveller in a Budapest restaurant, Misa. After Misa’s girlfriend, Frederica, insists they attend a party – a Black Mercedes picks them up and drops them at an elaborate high-rise building. It’s here that they go ‘through hell’.
Along with others, they’re forced to perform sexual acts in a dark room until dawn, while masked spectators watch, laugh, and order instructions.
‘The captives were released before dawn… if a single person disobeyed, they would be held indefinitely… The time for screaming and defiance had passed: silence reigned.’
After their release, they share an intimate embrace at a hotel, recognising their shared trauma. Yet, having previously agreed at the restaurant to travel back to Japan with him the following day, Misa fails to show up at the airport – leaving Okada heartbroken.
‘He was in pieces; her change of heart was a betrayal. He felt freshly wounded, the pain throbbing, his heart racing, helpless.’
Now back in Japan, Okada has been changed. Forever. After visiting Budapest’s castle the day of the incident, he ‘strolled around aimlessly, as if the city were a continuation of the labyrinth’. Now, he feels trapped by the memory of this trauma… stuck in this invisible labyrinth.
‘He was forced to walk along those invisible walls. From time to time he would hit a dead end, turn around, and try to take a different path, only to find himself somehow once again following the same path as before.’
When Misa gets in contact 3 months later and arrives at his door, they agree on a plan to escape their memory of being the object of spectators’ sexual gaze: to record a sex tape and watch it on Okada’s 42-inch-TV. The idea behind it, Misa says:
‘Memories don’t stay the same. They say that every time you remember something, you write over a memory… Instead of trying to erase the memory, we could paint over it with the memory of us now.’
However, although it provides temporary relief, the flashbacks remain for Okada. Keiichiro Hirano gives us a poignant sense of wandering and of reflection.
Like Okada, at the end of the short story, we are sat alone on our bed. Abject. Reflective. And with an aching heart. This is an unforgettable tale of deception and trauma’s lingering sting.
Want to read more Japanese authors?
Keiichiro Hirano’s next English-translated work – At The End of the Matinee – publishes next month! See our blog to find out the Best Japanese Books to Read in 2021 and click on our Book Packages to receive one every month!