If you were to enumerate the problems besetting Japanese society, bullying would be high on that list. In school and at work, bullying and other forms of harassment are the root cause of horrific statistics for mental health and suicide. For all the talk and hand-wringing, however, year on year little seems to improve.
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Given the ubiquity of the problem, it’s perhaps no surprise that “Lonely Castle in the Mirror,” Mizuki Tsujimura’s respectful, moving novel about teenage bullying in the Tokyo suburbs, made such an impact upon publication in 2017. It has sold more than 500,000 copies to date, and won the Japan Booksellers’ Award in 2018. Now, it’s been given an English translation by Philip Gabriel.
The story’s protagonist, Kokoro, has all but dropped out of junior high school after a bout of bullying left her afraid to leave the house. She suffers from anxiety, with acute panic attacks, and is well on the road to becoming a hikikomori — a shut-in. Her parents are supportive, but know nothing of the bullying and can’t understand what happened to their child. Guilt over disappointing her parents weighs heavily on Kokoro, and she tries to attend a special school for students in similar situations, but the kindness of one teacher triggers her anxiety and she flees.
Then one morning, the mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom begins to shine. She passes through it into the titular lonely castle where she meets six other teenagers, none of whom attend school. They are told that there is a room in the castle that will grant one student a single wish, if only they can find the key hidden somewhere in the building.
The novel wears its influences proudly, referencing fairy tales such as “Alice Through the Looking Glass” and “The Three Little Pigs,” as well as staples of the young adult genre, but Tsujimura is a subtle writer playing a more interesting game. As the school year passes in the real world, inside the castle the introverted teenagers open up to each other, which leads to a startling discovery.
Through the seven students, Tsujimura explores different forms of bullying — from rejection and neglect to outright physical abuse — and the different ways in which this trauma can manifest. However, the book is never moralistic or belabors its point. Tsujimura shows how easily misunderstandings and miscommunications can escalate, and treats everyone — even the bullies — with nuance. There’s a warmth to her writing, and Tsujimura has a mature ability to allow the story to speak for itself without narrative commentary.
The lesson of “Lonely Castle in the Mirror” is that by sharing our stories, we become stronger. Doors that are closed can be reopened. The shining mirror that leads to a safer world is a metaphor for books in general, and this book in particular.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. For those in other countries, visit https://bit.ly/Suicide-Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance.
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