Adolescence, a time of uncertainty for many, is tragic in “Astral Season, Beastly Season,” a stunning short novel by Japanese poet and writer, Tahi Saihate, 34. It’s a piercingly twisted coming-of-age story that revolves around two high school classmates who find themselves bound by their obsession to prove the innocence of an underground pop singer after she is accused of brutally murdering her boyfriend.

The novel consists of two parts. The first was published in Japan as a short story, titled “Astral Season, Beastly Season,” in 2014, but its popularity prompted a sequel, “The Season of Reckoning,” which was combined with the first section and released as a complete novel the following year. This translation is Saihate’s English debut.

Astral Season, Beastly Season, by Tahi Saihate
Translated by Kalau Almony
128 pages

Shota Yamashiro, the narrator of the first half of the story, epitomizes the fragile contempt and idealistic vulnerability of youth. A modern Japanese Holden Caulfield who believes himself to be “worthless to (his) very soul,” he proclaims to see the world in black and white.

His fixation with the 17-year-old pop singer Mami Aino stems from his perception that she is “hopeless” in her pursuit of stardom, believing that she lacks real talent or beauty. Yet, he feels an empathetic connection to Aino for her dogged persistence to be more than “ordinary,” despite the odds of finding success in the competitive world of idol pop. When the shocking news of the murder breaks and Aino is arrested, Yamashiro finds himself unexpectedly allied with Morishita, the most popular boy in school and also a fervent fan of Aino’s, to find a way to free her.

Four more deaths follow, and the novel becomes a riveting study of isolation and tenuous connections as the characters search for meaning in spite of their ever-present fear of futility. Despite their chosen spiral into darkness, the boys’ evolving relationship offers a glimmer of redemption. Saihate poignantly reveals how we often understand each other only through our own distorted misunderstandings.

In an email to The Japan Times, Saihate writes, “As long as you have a sense of self, you can’t escape feelings of alienation. Communication is often thought of as sharing feelings, but feelings can never be completely understood by another, separate individual. There will always be more that you don’t understand about another person than what you do, and we can’t ignore that reality.”

Nearly every character in the novel is 17 years old, an age during which, according to Saihate, our humanity subsides as we struggle to become “either a star or a beast.” Although the novel’s title, “Astral Season, Beastly Season,” is referred to in the story as a famous English saying, Saihate admits it is her own creation: “I didn’t want to describe adolescence with a single word or figuratively, yet every time I felt like I understood (how to), I also felt like I was insulting my own adolescence. It’s impossible to accurately describe other people’s adolescence. The first thing I decided for the Japanese title was to use ka (or), thereby creating two titles side by side to emphasize the ambiguity and conflicting extremes of youth.”

In the second half of the novel, Saihate revisits the characters two years after the gruesome murders, but switches the story’s narration to Watase, a female classmate whose best friend was one of the victims. As someone who had been on the periphery of Yamashiro and Morishita’s relationship, Watase’s point of view shifts the reader’s understanding of the events that unfolded.

Part of the novel’s brilliance lies in the juxtaposition of Watase’s view with two other survivors, each struggling for resolution, each with a distinctive perspective that conflicts with the others. Saihate’s unraveling of the darkness and yearning that comes with being a teenager is authentic yet compassionate, and her book is a dazzling achievement.

Tokyo-based translator Kalau Almony, best known for his work on Fuminori Nakamura’s “Cult X,” stays true to Saihate’s vision for the novel, although he says the process of her accurately interpreting the story was terrifying.

“For longer translations I’ve worked on, I’ve tried to get a first draft completed as quickly as possible and then go back to revise,” he says. “Yet for this work, I found myself undoing many of my edits in order to preserve the roughness of thought, the strangeness or randomness in the original. I would edit my own work and then return to the original text and think, ‘This is illogical, but this is the way she wrote it, so I need to keep it since thoughts and emotions are illogical.’”

Translator Kalau Almony
Translator Kalau Almony

The novel is an immersive read and Almony’s translation beautifully retains Saihate’s sense of mercurial, callow youth. The first section is tautly balanced by the logical second section, where the survivors offer a wider perspective on the tragedy. Almony also includes two afterwords from Saihate to present more insight on the story’s themes

Like many in Japan, Almony discovered Saihate through her poetry, with which she has found both mainstream and underground success. Saihate started out by publishing her work on a personal blog during middle school, but from 2004, she became prolific, releasing a torrent of poetry, novels and essays.

She has steadily expanded her fanbase with interactive online poetry, such as sessions in which fans watch her poems form on their screens as she writes in real time, and an online game in 2014 called Shi Shooting, which shares similarities to the video game Space Invaders and allows players to “shoot” her poems as they glide across the screen. In 2017, one of her collections of poetry was made into the film, “The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue,” and an exhibition of her “visual poetry” is currently on display at the Art Gallery Artium in Fukuoka until Sept. 27.

For Saihate, art provides an important way to partially bridge our misunderstandings. “As a poet, I feel I can only borrow the words everyone uses,” she says. “Yet within art, whether it be literature or music or film, there is a moment in time to communicate personally to the reader or listener or viewer. For humans who must live within the uneasy boundaries between self and other, alongside our inability to fully perceive ourselves, that time is precious.”

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