Eto Mori:カラフル (Colourful)
Our hero is called Makoto Kobayashi or, rather he will be. We do not know his original name but it may not matter, as he is dead. Yes, the book starts off with his death. Neither we nor he know how he died or, indeed, anything about his life. Once he dies, his soul(for want of a better word) drifts off into the ether, destined to go where dead souls go. However, God (the word is not used – our hero’s personal angel merely calling him the boss) likes a bit of fun and has decided our hero has won the lottery and will get another chance. It seems he made a serious mistake in his previous life but this will; give him a chance to make amends.
He declines the offer but the angel, Prapura, tells him that he has no choice. He would be placed in a human body. How bad the situation he is placed in would depend on the magnitude of his sin which, of course,he does not recall. If he does well, he will gradually regain his memories and then go back into the cycle of rebirth. He is not excited by the idea but has to do it. Prapura takes him back to Earth and he wakes up in hospital in the body of the aforementioned Makoto Kobayashi, a fourteen year old boy who has just killed himself. Initially he is quite impressed. The parents seem quite nice and his elder brother not too bad. He gradually recovers – he had, in fact, been dead for ten minutes – and returns to the Kobayashi home. It is a nice home and he thinks he has done well. Then Prapura tells him what is really going on and why Makoto killed himself.
It turns out that neither of the other three Kobayashis are quite as nice as they might seem and Prapura is happy to dish the dirt on them. To add to the misery, the previous Makoto had seen his fourteen year old first love, Hiroka Kuwabara, going into a love hotel with a much older man. Makoto is small and his older brother teases him about it. Finally, he learns he has high school entrance exams in six months and his current grades indicate he has no chance of passing.
Makoto is a loner but is still somewhat surprised that no-one at the school has come round to visit or enquire after him. However, he does decide that he must go back to school. His classmates find him unusually upbeat. Clearly our hero has a different character from the real Makoto. Indeed, this is specifically noted by Shoko Sano, a classmate of Makoto and seemingly attracted to him. She suggests that the current Makoto is not the same as the one she used to know.
Makoto does have one thing going for him. He is a highly skilled artist and was a key member of the Art Club. At his death he has been painting a picture which his successor takes on board.
We follow Makoto Mark II as he deals with various issues – his relationships, in particular, including those with Shoko, Hiroka and his homeroom teacher, as well as, of course, with his three immediate family members, all of whom have issues. He also befriends another boy in his class, Saotome, and they become close.
The key issue will be whether he can pass the exam for public high school, or whether he should go to private school – easier to get into but also a huge financial burden for his parents, who are are already facing the cost of Mitsuru, his older brother, going to medical school. There is also the possibility of going to art school.
However, he is struggling with being Makoto, who seems very much unlike how he was in his previous life. I was honestly fed up with all of this shit. “The more I find out about him, the clearer it is to me that he was lost, he was so unlucky. He was shy and quiet, and then he died without saying a word to anyone. His other problem is trying to find out who he was and, try as he might, he cannot recall the grievous sin he committed in his previous life.
Gradually, however, he starts to understand not only Makoto but his family, Shoko and Hiroka. Prapura is increasingly putting in fewer appearances but has told him he has only a year as Makoto. And then what happens to the family? Are they to lose him again? And if he does not recall his sin, what will happen to him? Can Makoto be saved? Anyone and everyone in this terrible world was broken in their own way.
Earlier this year, I read Mieko Kawakami‘s ヘヴン (Heaven). Though it is a very different book, there is one key similarity. It also concerns a Japanese boy and a Japanese girl at school, who are both loners and who become close. The key theme of Kawakami’s book is bullying. the pair are brought together by the fact that both are constantly bullied. While Makoto and Shoko are bullied, this is not a key issue and, indeed, only really is mentioned later in the book. However, they are loners and do not fit in with their classmates, like the unnamed narrator and Kojima in ヘヴン (Heaven). Bullying, of course, exists worldwide but is it more prevalent in Japan? In her afterword, Mori mentions it as one of the issues Japanese children face (along with many other challenges). This book has had considerable success in Japan and was made into three films, so it clearly resonated with the Japanese. I suspect ヘヴン (Heaven) also did well. Both are excellent books, though this one clearly has a lighter touch and happier ending.
First published in 1998 by Rironsha
First English translation in 2021 by Counterpoint
Translated by Jocelyne Allen