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STRANGERS, by Taichi Yamada, translated by Wayne Lammers. New York: Vertical, Inc., 2003, 204 pp., $19.95 (cloth).

Orphaned as a child, a middle-aged TV script writer wanders back to Asakusa where he was born. “A forlorn air hung about the area . . . streets empty even at midday . . . the atmosphere of an old forgotten byway.”

At the same time the area is somehow better than, say, Akasaka, where he works. Here in the old city people still smile, they still look you straight in the eye. “That’s what’s nice about Asakusa. You can still run into people like that around here.”

And there he meets his father, a man who, if he were alive, would be well over 70, but who here is not yet 40, the age he was when he died — a man who is now younger than his orphaned son.

The older son is taken home by the young father (“I longed to return to the passive role — to the carefree joy of simply doing as my parents said”), and there he meets his mother, still in her 30s, the age at which she died.

After that the son often visits. His parents are always there and always happy to see him. Together they eat eel, drink beer, play cards — family things — and it slowly becomes apparent that the parents know they are dead, and the son begins to realize that he is somehow responsible for their afterlife.

“Like on the set of a movie, no matter how normal and real everything appeared on set, I had to assume I was somewhere a long way from reality, had to assume that the moment I departed, my parents would cease moving, grow colorless and be robbed of the breath of life.”

At the same time, without their intending it or his realizing it, the couple are breathing death into him.

He turns sallow, then cadaverous and realizes that “the return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living.” But he also knows that “one who’s been given the chance to spend time with his departed parents must not ask for much more.”

During that old-fashioned family treat, a sukiyaki party, there is a resolution. Mother and father slowly and sadly disappear. They know they are disappearing without ever knowing why they reappeared. The son doesn’t know why they reappeared either, nor do we. The surprising conclusion of the book gives us a hint, but it does not explain its revealing sadness.

This novel is a translation of “Ijin-tachi to no Natsu,” a 1987 work by a well-known scriptwriter who worked with Keisuke Kinoshita and Masahiro Shinoda, and is perhaps best remembered for the scenario upon which Yoji Yamada based his 1986 “Final Take (Kinema no Tenchi).” Taichi Yamada knows a lot about make-believe worlds and their sway over the “real” one.

He is thus able to create a subtext for his ghost-story novel. The protagonist may work for television but he is strongly against the very kind of home drama he is now forced to live. At the same time he cannot but recognize that life four decades ago in Asakusa is more comforting than contemporary existence in Akasaka.

His story could be read as an allegory where the here and now is questioned in face of the old and then. The latter may in many ways be better, but it also enfeebles because it isn’t now — and “now” is all that counts when it is the only reality.

The protagonist, like all of us, wants to return to the world of his childhood. He remembers coming home from school, “flopping down on the tatami in my underwear, and utterly free of the need to keep up appearances, drifting drowsily off to sleep as my mother went about her preparations for dinner.” That same safe feeling returned when he found his dead parents in old, dead Asakusa.

Yet if you do this you die — you have no life of your own because you have done nothing to earn one. This is a dilemma that all of us know and one that is deeply felt in societies where the family unit is still the most important one. It no longer is in Japan, and so this extremely interesting novel reads as elegiac.

It plays that way too. Removed one step further from “reality” it became the basis of a film, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1988 “The Discarnates.” The Asakusa of 40 years ago returns — the way people used to look, the way they moved, the way they smiled. There is a poignant sense of the past, and a premonition of its awful weight.

Both novel and movie might be read as exercises in nostalgia were it not for the sadness that so informs both, and the knowledge that the past can kill. This lifts the work into something near metaphysics — that branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.

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