A blood-soaked woman, clutching a child, stands on a barren moor. This is the image of the ubume of the title. This creature, or figment, who may or may not exist, but who haunts the narrative of this novel, is defined as the visible form of the regrets experienced by a woman who has died during childbirth.
Set in the Tokyo of 1952, the story begins with a lengthy discourse on the function of the brain, mind and consciousness, and with preliminary discussions on the nature of reality, living matter, consciousness, death, folklore and the occult. The account is related by Mr. Sekiguchi, a freelance journalist, but the central character of this strange and freakish tale is the bookshop owner Kyogokudo, a Shinto priest and intellectual who likes nothing better than to have a captive audience to whom he can espouse his theories.
Given to bouts of lengthy pontification, Kyogokudo turns out to actually have something original to contribute to the solving of the mystery. Despite his ministrations as a man of the cloth, he remains a rationalist with a deep appreciation of the supernatural, someone who can conclude that “religion is a scheme the brain came up with so it could have its way with the mind — a holy gambit, if you will.”
A strong empirical mind is needed to unravel an intriguingly complex plot, which begins when a mutual acquaintance of Sekiguchi and Kyogokudo marries into a once wealthy medical family, then disappears inside a locked room, an annex of their bombed-out clinic complex.
A year and a half later his pregnant wife has still not delivered, remaining bedridden in the cold, gloomy library where the vanishing took place. Is the figure in the crib a phantom? A human suffering from psychogenic amnesia or estranged identity syndrome? Or is there another explanation?
It is this improbable premise, and the challenge to deal rationally with it, that drive the plot. Kyogokudo is tasked with the job of disentangling folklore and superstition from fact — to set free the truth and lay to rest a family curse. In writing of a very high order, the author offers the reader a good deal more than just the classic sealed-room murder mystery.
Describing the hospital setting, the writer creates an opulent mix of the Japanese Gothic and clinical. Entering the room that is the heart of the mystery, a “strong smell of disinfectant assaulted my nose. And there was something else — a medicinal smell, perhaps; or perhaps someone had been burning incense. Whatever it was, it filled the archive chamber with a pungent odor.” Growing in the garden outside the room are flowers containing psychotropic alkaloids.
In the old Japanese story “Botan Doro” (The Peony Lantern), a man falls in love with a woman only to discover that he has been sleeping with a skeleton. One night, forgetting to put up the wards that would protect him, his body is found entangled in the bones of his ghost-lover. The story is typical of the manner in which women have always been demonized in Japanese fiction.
Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s novel sits firmly in this tradition, where men are led toward willing self-destruction by women surcharged with a malign eroticism. Describing the inhabitant of the chamber, the author writes: “She was terribly haggard. Her eyes were sunken, her skin dry, her lips without color. Her long hair stuck to her skin as if wet.”
The description mirrors the faces of haunted women in old ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Images of even more appalling horror rise like ether from the page. Among the descriptions of earlier traumas experienced by the wife’s sister is an image worthy of Edo Era artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi: Tied to the bed, she is “subjected to the torture of having to look at her child’s corpse, preserved in formalin, resting by her pillow.”
For all its fascination with possession and the paranormal, rationalism does finally prevail. As Kyogokudo concludes on the subject of our corporeal state: “When people die, they’re dead. That’s all. It is we the living — you and I — who decide whether or not the person it belonged to becomes a Buddha.”