In preparation for my imminent return to the land of sweaty summer (by the time you read this, I will already be sweating through all my clothes and trying to get my Japan summer legs back), I’ve been trying to read through the stack of books that comprise the unscalable Mount Bookstoberead. It’s hard to enjoy wandering through my favourite bookstores and buying new books when the spectre of the books I’ve already bought looms so large. Mostly, this has meant digging into the latest volumes of ongoing series that I’m already reading (Never stop being incredible, Tongari Boshi no Atelier!), but as my good luck would have it, the second and final volume of Moriizumi’s Mukui wa Mukui, Batsu wa Batsu arrived in the most recent package of books, which meant that I could finally read the first volume and devour the story all in one go.
This story was planned as complete in two volumes right from the start, and knowing that, I figured I’d rather read it as one because I am incredibly prone to forgetting the smaller details of plots over time. I also wait to read slower moving longer series, too (I’m looking at you, Dead Dead Demons) because after six months, I can’t remember why anyone is really doing any of the little things they’re doing to further the larger broad strokes of the plot that I actually remember. This is why I keep spreadsheets of the longer running series that I translate. With something like the glacial release schedule of Blue Morning, I can barely remember the characters’ names by the time I get a new volume to translate.
And this is the first of Moriizumi’s works that has made it to more than one volume! Or even a single volume, since technically, all his books have been short story collections. (Inori to Shomei might have been connected short stories, but still the premise was not a longer, single story.) I’m not against the idea of an artist simply being a short story artist. It’s not the popular (read: money-making) choice in the manga industry, but short stories are a genre in and of themselves, and one that I enjoy a great deal. And hey, Junji Ito’s not doing too badly as a mostly short story writer. But I’m always curious about the longer tales short story writers would tell if given the chance. And much like I never saw that bullfighting story coming from est em at a time when she was mostly doing BL one-shots, a gothic horror is maybe the last thing I expected to see from the pen of Moriizumi. (Or toothpick or whatever experimental drawing instrument he’s using now.)
Of course, once I started thinking about it, gothic horror is clearly the exact thing Moriizumi would draw. And draw so very well. His love of sprawling mansions and estates is clear from works like The Castle and Inori, and his stark inky blacks and whites, not to mention the way shadows descend so completely and abruptly in so many of his stories, are basically perfect for horror. And he really goes all out here, making liberal use of the common tropes of the gothic horror but transplanting them to Japan for a story that feels steeped in tradition and yet fresh at the same time.
After a bitter divorce from a cheating husband in America, Matsubaki returns to Japan and goes straight from the airport to the remote, mountain estate of her sister’s husband, Michiyuki. Her sister is missing, and she hopes to find some clue as to her whereabouts, as well as connect with her niece Kazuno. There are ominous signs right from the very start; she has trouble finding her way around the walled estate to some kind of entrance and ends up going in the back way through the expansive garden where she runs into Takiri, Michiyuki’s adult son from his first marriage. He brings her inside where she meets his older sister, the family’s would-be matriarch Sagiri, whose sole concern in life is her young son, Nami. Naturally, everyone is creepy in a strange way, the house is enormous, there is a well-meaning butler who helps Matsusbaki but in the most ineffectual way until he is murdered, and a family history shrouded in mystery. Oh, and creepy murderous children spurred on by a ghost.
All the elements of a solid gothic horror are here. The mansion and in fact all of the buildings on the estate are British, an interesting choice that both explains how a house this enormous can even exist in modern Japan, a country known for its smaller living spaces, and connects the tale to the larger tradition of gothic storytelling in the UK. The house was supposedly transplanted from England as a bridal gift from a doting father to his beloved daughter when she married a man in far-off Japan, but of course, the truth is not so simple as that.
If there’s one thing Moriizumi particularly excels at, it’s creating an atmosphere. And given that this particular genre is basically all about atmosphere, it should come as no surprise that these volumes are beautiful and frightening and full of tension as he takes us through one twist after another, in the massive and sparsely populated space of an old English mansion. Moriizumi plays with light and shadow, bringing readers into underground caves and blinding snowstorms, all the while pulling us forward with a taut, lean story that raises more questions than it answers.
Special shout-out must go out to the book designer, as well. The matte feel of the books is incredibly lovely, while the scratchy noir-ish look is so enticing and perfect for what’s inside. And the flaps of the covers are extra long so that when removed, the front and back flaps meet to create a single image. Beam Comix tends to go the extra mile when it comes to book design, and these two volumes are no exception.