“The Hold” by Koji Suzuki

[self-aware spoiler warning gimmick]

KOJI SUZUKI

is the Stephen King of Japan, according to various sources.  Is there something to this, or is it just something people repeat because it’s catchy, easy to say, and they have the same initials?  Well, it’s definitely true in the sense that when Americans think of popular horror fiction, they probably think first and foremost of Stephen King, and when they thing of Japanese horror, they probably think of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 film The Ring, based on the Japanese film Ringu (aka Ring), based on the novel Ringu by Koji Suzuki.  Not a lot of this kind of popular fiction gets translated into English, but Suzuki, partially riding the popularity of The Ring, has had several English-language releases, most of them prequels or sequels to Ringu.  The book I’m looking at, Dark Water (originally Honogurai mizu no soko kara) is a themed short story collection: each of the stories in some way relates to water, death, trash, Tokyo Bay, and usually spousal abuse.  There’s a sort of frame narrative, but that has about as much bearing on the stories as the one in Creepshow or V/H/S, which is to say, not much (with an exception that would be spoilers for a story I’m not talking about).

While I haven’t read a huge amount of Japanese literature, I’ve noticed that it has a tendency to be sparse.  I haven’t encountered anything like Dickens or D.F. Wallace in Japanese literature.  Suzuki follows this pattern, rarely bothering to, say, set the scene, or describe things.  I don’t know how much of my frustration to pin on Suzuki and how much to pin on the translator, but I can say that I’ve read other Japanese works (Edogawa Rampo and Akinari Ueda in the realm of horror, for example) who haven’t suffered from this problem.  He also has a tendency to overexplain the narrative.  Whereas a lot of authors like M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft like to stick some revelatory stinger right on the end, Suzuki is more likely to put in a stinger and then carefully explain why it’s supposed to be scary and what it means.  All this lends the story a feeling I associate with young adult fiction, which is to say it feels a little dumbed-down (not to say all YA does this, just that it does it in greater proportion than most other genres).  So let’s look at a single story to see how it performs.

THE HOLD

The story starts with fisherman Hiroyuki Inagaki and his son Katsumi taking a walk.  First we get Hiroyuki’s perspective, reminiscing on the view, and we learn that he really figures his self-worth in terms of his ability as a fisherman.

“He wanted to slap down that million yen on the table in front of his wife every month.  As long as he did that, she had no reason to complain.”

Then we get Katsumi’s perspective and learn that his wife would have plenty to complain about.  While she is, in the traditional stereotype, a nag, Hiroyuki is physically abusive to not only his wife but also Katsumi and even random stranger.  When a tourist playing ball with his son accidently hits Katsumi, Hiroyuki first goes after the stranger, and then turns his attention to his son for saying he was hurt when it wasn’t that severe.

“The moment his father’s eyes changed color rarely escaped Katsumi.  Immediately before an eruption of anger, his father’s eyes would go from black to white, with the black part suddenly rolling up.”  This seems to me a pretty clear allusion to a shark, which uses a protective white membrane over its eyes when it attacks.

Hiroyuki reins in his anger, realizing that he’s becoming like his abusive father.  It turns out his anger stems from a headache and the fact that he woke up this morning to find his wife missing, and no one knows where she is.  He looks around, but no one has seen her.  He then returns home.  His father and daughter are there.  His father is senile, his memory starting to disappear after an accident at sea when Hiroyuki was Katsumi’s age; shortly after, Hiroyuki’s mother had run off.  His daughter seems to be suffering from something similar to senility, and due to her aphasia has been taken out of school.  Now they both sit at home, eating piles of jam buns in silence.  He goes to a bar and here the narrative fades out, resuming when he gets up the next morning.  His wife is still missing.  He decides to do the only thing he knows: go out fishing for conger eels.

We get a pretty elaborate description of how conger eels are trapped in plastic tubes.  Naturally, this is just like his sexist image of marriage.  “What pitiful creatures men were to be lured by a scent into a trap from which they could not escape!  It was Hiroyuki’s own story, too. … He had not married for love.  The love he had thought would bloom in time never did.”  Sitting on the well over the hold, he smells something strange, but just reseals the lid without looking inside.  As mentioned before, a lot of the effectiveness for a story like this comes from the fact that we know exactly what’s going to happen, even if Hiroyuki doesn’t yet.

As always in these situations, a storm is brewing, getting worse by the minute.  The violent rocking makes him aware of a strange sound from the well, so he decides to investigate.  Sure enough he sees a body floating upside down in the water.  One of the things I love about this story is his blasé reaction:

“‘Nanako . . .’ he called to his wife, ‘so this is where you were.'”

Suddenly he remembers getting into an argument with his wife during which she blamed him for their daughter’s aphasia and implied that the only reason she didn’t leave him was because she thought Katsumi would turn out just like Hiroyuki if she did.  He attacked her, strangled her, and threw her in the well on the boat, then promptly forgot about it after drinking himself to sleep.

He feels very little regret, instead concerning himself with the practicalities of disposing of her body.  Unfortunately the storm is getting stronger by the moment and before he can get the body out, the ship capsizes and he ends up trapped in the hold, breathing the small amount of air that remains in a pocket there.  He tries to dive out through the bottom but he’s pulled back in and then blocked, seemingly, by his wife’s corpse.  Of course, we get this:

“He was like a conger eel caught in a trap.  His wife’s corpse was the rubber flap at the opening of the eel tube.”

Thanks for explaining that.  I really couldn’t have figured it out otherwise.

Then he realizes that the same thing, minus his drowning, must have happened to his mother and father, this being the cause of her disappearance and his senility.  Suddenly, knocking on the hull alerts him to a rescue operation.  Already in the process of passing out, he knocks back, and after seeing that his wife’s corpse must have been blown out to sea, he finds the hull opening, the rescue workers grabbing him, pulling him up, etc.  “Once back in the land of the living, he would be able to love them all, his son, his daughter, even his senile father.  The shell that encased him was cracking, and breaking off like the lie it had always been.  He was sorry not everything could be the same again.  He was going to beg for his wife’s forgiveness.  He had no idea how to apologize to the dead.  His desire to do so, however, was genuine.”

Then, dun dun dun!, we see the perspective of the rescue workers, who have discovered a pair of bodies in the hull, the recently drowned man, and that of a woman who’d been dead for several days.  And they were hugging each other!  And the woman had her thumb in the man’s mouth, which he was biting down on, which would be totally impossible!  And he had a look of serene happiness on his face!  “It wasn’t easy to bite down so fiercely and at the same time wear such a serene expression.  But this man had accomplished the contradiction.”  The end.

Gee.  As you can probably tell, this is another one I had some difficulty with.  It’s so busy beating you over the head with the metaphors and themes and implications that it fails to develop any of the characters, and this is a general problem with Suzuki.  Another problem is the way that his despicable characters almost border on sexist portrayals at times, partially driven by what seems to be an almost general revulsion toward sexuality that strikes me oddly after reading the proto-fascist Howard and decadent Brite.  And the final events are so tame compared to what could have happened—after he spent so long looking for his wife, I was expecting him to discover that he had drunkenly put her in the hold and she had starved to death over the time he had been looking for her or something particularly gruesome like that.

But still . . . somehow I found myself really enjoying this collection.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a huge sucker for themed short story collections like this, and looking at the little ways that certain ideas or images popped up in the different stories fascinated me.  Perhaps Suzuki has some hidden skill that I’m not detecting but that still affects me.  Either way, while I didn’t think these stories were particularly good, I’m giving “The Hold” a 7/10, and overall recommending the collection.  It’s a quick, breezy read, and a couple of the stories (“Dream Cruise” and “Adrift”) were real chillers, reminiscent of good episodes of The Outer Limits. (I’ve also heard that “Dream Cruise” was made into a pretty good episode of Masters of Horror so I’ll be checking that out soon.)  I’ve not yet read The Ring, but general consensus online seems to be that it’s much superior to Dark Water, so that might be a better place to start, particularly if you liked the movie.  On the subject of movies, you might want to check out the Japanese film Dark Water (2002) based on “Floating Water,” which deals with some fascinating issues of gender in Japanese society that Suzuki’s story doesn’t touch on.  There was also an American remake, but I know nothing about it.

Tomorrow let’s take a trip back in time, and also to Königsberg, to find out what’s so unheimlich about E.T.A. Hoffmann.

 

All quotations from Dark Water, copyright Koji Suzuki 2006.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.

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