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Masahiko Shimada: 雁 (夢使い (Dream Messenger)

The idea of renting a friend or family might seem somewhat bizarre to us but, apparently, was and still is something of phenomenon in Japan. Misa Yamamura, a crime writer, even wrote a novel about it called レンタル家族殺人事件, which translates as Rental Family Murder. It is not available in English but, if you read Japanese, it is readily available from your favourite(?) online bookseller. This book is, to some extent, about that phenomenon.

Maiko Rokujo is a securities analyst. She was a beauty queen and, at that time, met Miko Amino, the wife (and now widow) of very rich and unethical land speculator. Miko took to Maiko and helped her get the job which led to her becoming a securities analyst. However, the two have barely met in recent years. At the start of the novel, Maiko gets a a letter from Miko asking her to help her find her son. Maiko, who is no detective, is surprised but accepts the offer of a car to come and fetch her. When she gets there, she is surprised that she is met by a man who calls himself Mrs Amino’s houseboy and assistant but is, as she knows, Takehiko Kubi, a former genus juvenile fiction writer. We learn that he had got into serious debt and had abandoned writing and offered himself for sale, effectively as a slave, to anyone who paid off his debts. Mrs Amino bought him. Renting friends or families and buying people are just two of the cultural features of this book that might seem unusual to Western readers.

We gradually learn that Masao Fudo, Miko’s son, was taken up by Yusaku Katagiri, a Japanese man who lives in the US and hates Japan and who rents out children to those who want them, because they cannot have their own. Masao was rented out from a young age and has become accustomed to the way of life. As an adult, has worked as a gofer/gigolo/rent-a-friend and seemingly made a living out of it, under the watchful eyes of Yusaku Katagiri. Since being a young child, he has had a guardian angel/alter ego whom he calls Mikanaito. No-one knows where he got the name from and Mrs Amino had spent some considerable time and money to find out. She was not successful. Masao, who had taken the name Matthew as an adult, spoke fluent English and Japanese. When things got too tiring in New York – he had three girlfriends all called Susan and they were being too demanding – he decided to move to Tokyo. In Tokyo, he does more or less the same thing – rent himself out as a friend/companion/lover. Given that his mentor, Yusaku Katagiri, is highly critical of Tokyo (Tokyo itself is an amnesiac city set in a desert. Things that happened yesterday are already covered with shifting sand.), we have to wonder why, apart from the girlfriend issue, he really moved there.

Maiko is sent off to New York to speak to Yusaku Katagiri and find out what she can about his US life, while Takehiko has to disguise himself as a bum and hover around Tokyo looking for Masao, based on a reconstruction of what he might look like now, from a photo of him as a child, and a description from a man who knew him but is now in prison. Meanwhile, we follow Masao in Tokyo and his guardian angel Mikanaito, who can enter other people’s dreams, hence the title.

It all seems like an interesting idea but it did not really work for me. None of the characters is interesting, sympathetic or, indeed, convincing. Maiko is flat and wooden. She is a former beauty queen who has become a securities analyst. Neither role seemed to particularly interest her. Indeed, she is very happy to quit being a securities analyst at the drop of a hat to work for Mrs Amino, at a job for which she has no skill, knowledge or training. Her love life seems to have been minimal. Money nor, indeed, much else, seems to interest her. Miko wants to control, as she has done by buying herself a novelist (Stephen King did it much better) and as she is now doing with Maiko (why hire a securities analyst when you really need a top detective?) and as she wants to do with her son but, apart from that, seems to have little going for her, at least in novelistic terms. Masao could have been interesting but I tended to find him somewhat annoying but that maybe because the book seemed annoying, trying to be too clever, too hip and perhaps, too post-modern punk, and ending up being, to be quite honest, quite dull.

Publishing history

First published in 1989 by Kōdansha
First English translation by Kodansha International in 1992
Translated by Philip Gabriel