January in Japan: ‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato, trans. Stephen Snyder

ConfessionsJapanese literature has more than its fair share of unsettling tales of dark motivation and devious revenge. This latest addition (new to English, at least – it was originally published in 2008 in Japan, where it became a bestseller and was turned into a film) is particularly horrific, since it deals with the teacher/pupil relationship and the psychology of thirteen year olds in middle school. When I was training to become a teacher, my fellow students and I only half-jokingly referred to the class of 13 year olds as ‘the monsters’. They were too old to believe anything that their teacher said, but too immature to have a clear understanding of the impact of their actions. They were also very vulnerable to peer pressure and herd instinct, something William Golding (himself a former teacher, like Kanae Minato) understood only too well and fully explored in ‘The Lord of the Flies’.

This is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the modern age, transposed to Japan and to the supposedly civilised and structured confines of a school.

The story starts with one of the most compelling chapters of 2nd person POV that I’ve read in a long time. Well, not quite 2nd person: it’s a teacher addressing a class on the last day of school, as she announces her retirement and the reasons for it. We find out quite a bit about Moriguchi sensei’s rather sad life: not able to fully pursue her passion for science, she moves into teaching for job security.  When her engagement ends in tragedy (she discovers her fiance has AIDS), she nevertheless goes ahead with her pregnancy and pours all of her love and devotion into her daughter. Life as a single mother is not easy, especially in Japan, and she occasionally has to bring her daughter to school with her because of lack of childcare. One day, when her daughter is on the school grounds, there appears to be a dreadful accident and she is found drowned in the pool. Moriguchi, however, calmly informs the class that she knows it was not an accident and that she believes two of the pupils in her class were to blame. She does not trust the criminal justice system to punish these minors, so she has devised a diabolical revenge plan of her own.

Each chapter that follows gives us an alternative point of view, including that of the two pupils, building layer upon layer of complexity. Although not all of the voices are equally compelling – and some voices are frustratingly missing – the book makes you question all your previous notions about guilt, revenge, innate evil and criminal intent.

This Russian dolls style of narration, stories nesting within stories, shifting points of view which make you wonder if there ever is a single correct interpretation of events, appears quite frequently in Japanese literature (think ‘Rashomon’).  It works well here, showing the profound repercussions of a single event – the tumbling of domino stones – and people’s inability to understand others, while fooling themselves that they do (or expecting them to react in certain ways). Neither adults nor children behave in admirable ways here and you cannot help but feel pity for each one of the protagonists. It has that feeling of ‘inescapable fate’ of Greek tragedy.

Perhaps too dark and crazy for readers who are not used to Japanese literature, its melodrama is toned down by a cool, detached, simple style. On the other hand, fans of crime fiction, horror and psychological thrillers will find it a compelling introduction to contemporary Japanese society.

I read this as part of Tony Malone’s wonderful initiative January in Japan. For more great links, reviews and readalongs, head over there.

 

 

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24 thoughts on “January in Japan: ‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato, trans. Stephen Snyder”

    1. Oh, I don’t know – there was some bullying and stealing at Mallory Towers, I’m sure..! But yes, doesn’t show schoolchildren (or their teachers) in their best light.

    1. There is quite a contrast between style and subject matter, so it sucks you in. There are no horrid graphic details or anything like that – it’s just sad to think how cruel people can be to each other.

  1. This does sound very chilling and thought provoking, especially given the different points of view and absent voices. Were you able to plug (or guess at) any of the gaps?

    1. I would have loved to hear from the mother of the other young killer (we do hear from one of them) – but I suppose that is precisely the point, that she is the ‘great absence’.

  2. Marina Sofia – What a terrific review of this book. It is indeed dark and unsettling, and Minato manages to show that psychological darkness without indulging in a lot of gore. What I also found fascinating is the look it gives at the modern Japanese middle school, and the culture there.

    1. Your wonderful recent spotlight on this book made me want to read it even more – it had been lingering for a while in my TBR pile, because I wanted to leave it for January and the Japan feature. As you said, no one emerges unscathed from this book, so it is not for the faint of heart.

    1. That’s what I liked about it too: there was no overt horror or fantasy, just real psychological insight (into minds we may prefer not to know too much about, but that’s a different matter).

  3. I loved this one, though it left me with my usual feeling of not understanding Japanese culture at all. In fact, the more Japanese literature I read, the less do I feel I know – very odd! But this is the kind of ‘dark’ I like – where the darkness is in the psychology rather than in gore.

    1. I think the problem lies a bit in the translation, to be honest. Not that it’s badly translated (although I haven’t read the original, but it sounds perfectly natural in English). It’s just that all Japanese novels rely so much on nuance, context, on what is implied rather than stated directly, there are lots of hidden allusions and cultural references which are very hard to convey to a Western reader (without going into reams of footnotes or long explanations).

  4. I love the film, so I’m really glad to see the book has been finally translated into English 🙂 Thank you for this lovely review!

      1. Oh, you should watch it! I don’t know if it’s faithful to the book or not, but it was magnificent nevertheless.

  5. I think I recall reading a review of this elsewhere, in fact it might have been FictionFan’s blog. I also think this is something I’d rather quite like.. It’s very much true that witness accounts to events can vary and change, our perceptions at hightened events are also distorted. I’m sure this is a brilliant read and I’m going to add it to my TBR!

  6. I’m reading this at the moment – it’s quite a strange, unsettling book. I keep thinking…seriously, would s/he do that?? And I can’t figure out if it’s the cultural differences, or its just unrealistic. It’s very much a book of “dominoes” – one seemingly small thing can lead to much more serious events.

  7. oh heck… what a story… i’m a bit torn – on one hand i’m totally curious and would like to read the book – on the other hand i think it would be too tough for me

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