“Weird” and “quirky” are adjectives readily bandied about when reviewing Japanese literature. Interchangeable tropes about Murakami, Marquez and magical realism are lazily trotted out at every opportunity until the words are denuded of meaning. So what happens when something truly bizarre comes along?
Ono Masatsugu’s “Echo on the Bay” is strange, unsettling and definitely weird, but in a brilliantly original and unique way. This isn’t the “quirkiness” of talking cats, second sight and women out of phase with the world around them. Rather this is a master storyteller playing with his reader, undermining their expectations and pushing them into unusual perspectives.
Set in a village on the coast of Oita Prefecture, the book opens with all the appearance of a comedy. Narrator Miki’s father is the new police officer in town, the posting hardly a promotion. He is more interested in the new car the transfer affords him than the reality of the move, but Miki quickly alerts us to some potential problems ahead:
“There was the abandoned boat floating in the bay. There was the body that Mitsugu Azamui said was on the beach, but which nobody had ever found. There were the boys who kept shooting bottle rockets at old Toshiko-ba’s house. And then there was me, in junior high school, in love with Mr. Yoshida, the social studies teacher.”
Her father spends most of his time drinking with the locals, listening to them gossip about village residents and getting into literal scrapes with his new car — and there is much humor to be found. But Ono is playing a game with the reader. The comic style is a red herring, leaving us completely unprepared for the brutal and shocking revelations that follow. Generations of child abuse, the legacy of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and Korean wartime laborers, illegal immigration from the continent and grudges that permeate everything are unearthed in an almost casual manner as the men drunkenly swap stories.
Like the sands of the bay, there is no chance of sure footing anywhere in this story. Tales twist, interconnect, seem clear before becoming muddied once more. Miki’s tossed off admission that she is in love with Mr. Yoshida is an excellent case in point — Ono frames it as a standard schoolgirl crush, until we realize that they are regularly having sex in Yoshida’s car. The fact is passed off by the teenage Miki as unimportant — it’s a detail that explains why she was in a certain place at a certain time, and the reality of this abuse is never commented on, but it contributes to the uncertainty that unsettles the reader. The natural order of things has been upturned.
“Echo on the Bay” is a masterclass in defamiliarization and dislocation, in rendering reality, truly, powerfully bizarre. So let’s hear no more of “weirdness” in Japanese literature from lazy reviewers. A new standard has been set. There’s nothing as weird as reality under close scrutiny.