They can appear anywhere – people who look for the cracks in human nature and seek to fill them with their own darkness. The Kanbara family in particular has done it for years, and whenever they show up, people suffer…and sometimes die. Do you have a crack that they can slip inside? Or are you strong enough to withstand the pressure of the darkness?
Yami-hara is translated by Stephen Paul.
At first, it doesn’t feel like this is from the same author as . That novel (and its film adaptation) is a sensitive look at what it means to be bullied and the ways people cope with it. , on the other hand, is a horror novel, one that uses its text to slowly create, build, and eventually not quite resolve its creeping sense of terror. By the time you reach the end, you can see that Mizuki Tsujimura is working with the same basic themes in both books. But even if they share a thematic element, the stories are different enough that it doesn’t feel like she’s simply retreading the same ground.
takes its name from two portmanteaus, one of which both opens and closes the book. (The second is only present at the end, for plot reasons.) According to the text, it is created by combining “yami” (dark) with “harassment” to form a word meaning, “unwelcome conduct toward a person stemming from darkness in one’s mind or heart. Applies to any action that threatens, or violates, the other person’s dignity, regardless of intent or awareness.” On the surface, it just looks like another word for “bullying,” and within the context of a few of the interconnected short stories that make up the novel, that does appear to be true at first. But when you begin to look a little more closely, it becomes somewhat more complex than that. The instances of this conduct are wide-ranging, from a toxic relationship to peer pressure to the seemingly innocuous trait of being the office punching bag. The central form of in four of the five chapters is entirely different in each story. That forces us to look at the actual behavior and how it affects the third-person narrator, and the people around them.
The first chapter, which has characters who play a central role in the fifth chapter (although all of the previous four are brought together in the end), is perhaps the most typical. The narrator is Mio, a high school girl who has an odd new student transfer into her class midyear. Kaname Shiraishi frightens Mio at first, and she’s convinced he’s creeping on her. When she tells the upperclassman she has a crush on, he offers to walk her home and “protect” her from Kaname. At first, Mio is thrilled, even if she’s a little confused that he’s telling people they’re dating… and seems to believe it. As the plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that he’s emotionally abusing her, stalking her online, and controlling how she can interact with him and others. Eventually, Kaname shows up to rescue her from him, revealing that the upperclassman is part of a strange family known as the Kanbaras. Kaname is dedicated to hunting them down and stopping their use of because many people don’t come out of it as unscathed as Mio does… including her friend Hanaka, who vanishes with Kanbara. Mio asks Kaname to take her with him when he pursues the family, and he agrees.
At this point, Mio and Kaname vanish from the narrative for around two hundred pages. Subsequent chapters deal with the other three members of the Kanbara family and their victims, and each chapter differs significantly from the preceding ones. Despite appearing unrelated on the surface, all of them serve Tsujimura’s central theme: that it only takes one person to disrupt and cause mental and emotional harm, if not physical. Each individual who falls prey to the possesses their vulnerabilities and weaknesses that allow the darkness to seep in. Whether it’s a faint sense of superiority, a distaste for specific behaviors, or pure ambition, everyone has something that makes them susceptible. We witness this most prominently in the second story, where Ritsu, a working mother, and her family relocate to a popular apartment complex. Initially, Ritsu plays more of an observer role than that of a victim, and she demonstrates enough perceptiveness to identify vulnerabilities in both others and herself. Of the chapters, this one solidly establishes Tsujimura’s thesis and plan, and the horror stems from the realization that even with awareness, the unfolding events cannot be thwarted.
In a very real way, that’s what makes the ending of the novel so effective. Many successful horror stories (whether they utilize terror or horror) use a relatively open end as a way to imply that the evil has only temporarily been vanquished. In , Tsujimura makes it clear that things only resolve for the specific protagonists, not bullying survivors as a whole, and that’s something she employs here as well. The implication is that while one group of practitioners has been taken care of, the problem still exists. Kaname and Mio are just two people, and both of them had specific, personal reasons to go after them. It is up to others to continue the work, but whether or not there are any willing and able to step up remains an open question.
Although well-written with excellent breadcrumb trails of clues stretching from chapter one through chapter five, isn’t an easy book. To some readers, it may feel too on the nose, and that’s fair—Tsujimura is tackling a subject that can feel too light for some horror aficionados, or that people are tired of reading about. But it’s still a solid book, one that takes a different approach to its subject matter than we typically see, and it uses creeping terror very nicely. Certainly, it’s worth reading if you enjoyed Tsujimura’s other English-language release, but it’s also a good book on its own merits, like a less gruesome novel version of some of Junji Ito‘s or Kazuo Umezz’s more psychological tales.
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