“Backlight,” the second in Red Circle’s minis series of single-story volumes, grew out of the real-life events of a 7-year-old boy abandoned by his parents in the forests of Hokkaido, ostensibly to punish him for “misbehaving.” Missing for six days despite a search involving the police, the Self-Defense Forces and dozens of volunteers, the boy eventually turned up safe.
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While many storytellers would be drawn to imagining the boy’s adventures through the bear-rich wilderness, Kanji Hanawa takes a more philosophical tack, using the dynamics of the family to explore ideas of alienation. The boy comes to represent the people modern Japan has left behind, people who are using their abandonment to find their own paths.
It is an odd story. The main character is Ishida, an associate professor of psychology called in to assist in the search, and the bulk of the story is a back-and-forth between Ishida and Momose, professor emeritus at the same university. Ishida tries to retain a professional objectivity, echoed in the Socratic structure that gives the story a formal coldness that masks a deep and unsettling inquiry. By thinking himself into the boy’s situation, he uncovers uncomfortable truths about himself — the case acts as a “backlight,” illuminating his character like a moth pinned and displayed by a collector.
Despite its brevity, this is a story that requires rereading to tease out the unsaid meaning behind Ishida’s reactions. It is an important work of social commentary doing what all the greatest short stories do: opening a rabbit hole of thought down which the reader will fall.
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