Japanese Literature Challenge 15

Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Mizuki Tsujimura

Translated by Philip Gabriel

I just managed to squeeze in a Japanese read in time to catch the end of this year’s Japanese Literature Challenge 15 hosted by Dolce Belezza

Lonely Castle in the Mirror was a prize-winning bestseller in Japan and it’s easy to see why with its blend of the everyday life of a young teenager who is having problems at school blended with a fairytale quest.

Kokoro spends a lot of time off school at home with a painful stomach ache. Her mother has tried everything including finding a new school, but Kokoro, more often than not, finds her stomach ache comes on before it is time to go – it’s very real to Kokoro, she’s not faking it.

It wasn’t simply that she didn’t want to go. She couldn’t.

When she was finally able, with great effort, to mutter a response, her mother let out a huge sigh and grimaced, as if she too felt a twinge of pain.

‘Is it only today you can’t go? Or are you never going to go?’

Kokoro couldn’t say.

It’s like this most mornings. Kokoro has her reasons, but can’t explain it to her mother. She does her best to keep up with schoolwork at home, her neighbour and classmate Tojo-san brings it to her. Her mother has to go to work and leaves her on her own to do her schoolwork if she can. Or she watches TV.

Then one day, the frame of the full length mirror in her bedroom starts to glow. When she touches the glass, she is sucked through into another world – the lonely castle of the title. Once she comes to, she sees a girl in a wolf mask, who welcomes her to the castle. Kokoro panics, and seeing a glowing mirror on the wall which will surely take her back, makes for it only to be tackled to the floor by the wolf girl.

‘Don’t you dare run away!’ the little girl shrieked in her ear.

‘I’ve been interviewing six others all day, and you’re the last. It’s already four o’clock and I’m nearly out of time!’

‘I really don’t care!’ Kokoro found her voice. […]

‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to know where you are? You could be on the brink of an adventures, and you’re telling me you really don’t care? Use your imagination for once in your life!’

‘I will not!’ Kokoro shouted back, nearly in tears.

The wolf girl continues to try and explain what it’s all about, but Kokoro just wants to get back to safety. The wolf girl tells her she’d better return tomorrow, and lets her go. She arrives back in her room. The mirror is no longer shining. Was it all a dream?

When it starts shining at 9am the next morning, she hadn’t imagined it, and goes through again. This time there are six others in the hall, a mix of girls and boys, some slightly older than Kokoro. The wolf girl makes an announcement, calling them all ‘lost Little Red Riding Hoods’, and explaining that there is a Wishing Room hidden in the castle. They all have until next March to find the key. The person who finds it will be able to enter the room and have their wish granted. However, the mirrors will only work between 9 and 5. Outstay their welcome any time and the wolf will eat them up!

Thus begins a new way of spending her days, getting to know the six others, and exploring the castle, which is strange – it has no kitchen or bathrooms. It appears that all seven of the students have their reasons for avoiding school, be it bullying or various kinds of abuse, or bereavement. They meet each day in the castle, play video games and talk, sometimes they even look for the key. Talking with each other is natural therapy for them, they mostly give each other a sympathetic ear – although given Japan’s strict codes of etiquette, it is hard at first to get past the formality required.

For a large part of the book, nothing much happens once the seven start meeting in the castle every day, although things will come to a head eventually as the deadline looms, and explanations for everything become clearer. The main point of course, is to discuss adolescent mental health and the need to fit in or not and how to come to terms with it. Interweave the magic realism from the castle, the wolf girl and the many fairytale references the novel contains with the hard knocks of life for many Japanese teens and there are riches to be mined from this text.

American, Philip Gabriel is best known as a translator of Murakami and is obviously at home with the magic realism in this novel. I couldn’t decide whether the book was aimed at YA, crossover, or adult audiences originally, but obviously, although a little long and drawn out in the middle, there is much for YA readers to enjoy here (although you should probably note the occasional mentions of child abuse etc).

The person I felt most for though was Kokoro’s poor mother, who is at a loss to comprehend her daughter’s anguish which manifests through her stomach pain. With the help of a sympathetic teacher, mother and daughter will come together and talk, which was a relief for me.

I sort of enjoyed this book. How things all tie up is cleverly done in particular. It is a bit long-winded though and if you’re not a magic realism fan or Murakami fan (I’m rather on the fence with him), this may not be for you. Meiko Kawakami’s novel Heaven is in my TBR pile (Anna reviewed it at Shiny here) and gives another view of bullying at school for Japanese teens without the fairy tale elements.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Doubleday paperback original, 2021, 354 pages.

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4 thoughts on “Japanese Literature Challenge 15

  1. Bellezza says:

    I have purchased this book, for the challenge even, but trust you to have read it. ❤️ I love your review! A wishing room? A quest? I’m crazy about magical realism in general, and Japanese literature in particular, and you have made me all the more excited to get to it. Interesting that you have compassion on the mother…I suspect that I would, too. And thank you, Annabel, for being a participant in the challenge until the bitter end.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I was lucky to get sent a proof last year (ahem!). I’m sure you’ll enjoy this novel, I’ll be interested to see what you think when you get around to reading it too.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    If I didn’t have a collection of short stories to read by Murakami (an author I’ve not as yet tried) I’d be very tempted to try this after your description. Perhaps if I find it at hand next time I’m in a bookshop I might succumb to that temptation…

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