Tahi Saihate: 星か獣になる季節 (Astral Season Beastly Season)
This novel was originally in two parts. The first part – Astral Season Beastly Season – was published as a short story in 2014. As it was so popular, a second part – The Season of Reckoning – was added and the two combined and published in 2015. That is what we have here.
Most of the major characters in this book are seventeen. I read that at seventeen you stop being human. You become either a star or a beast, is the apposite comment.
The narrator is Shota Yamashiro. Only his mother calls him Shota, everyone else calls him Yamashiro. Yamashiro is a loner. He seems to have no friends and is ignored and/or despised by most of his classmates. I’m always bored, he later comments. He is generally well-behaved, turning up to school on time but he does not get good grades.
He seems to have one interest in his life – Mami Aino, the leader of a J-Pop group, Love You Mixer. He attends all their concerts (on his own). She’s cute, but besides the way she looks, there’s really nothing special about her. She can only dance and sing because she works hard. It’s all just effort. She’s an ordinary person who gets by on just effort, and that’s why she’s so cute. Does he admire her because she is able to do what he does not seem able or willing to do, namely work hard to get on? It is not clear but if he has sexual fantasies about her, they are not mentioned.
One morning, he sees on his phone that she has been arrested for murder. He cannot believe it. He dashes out of school, pursued by his teacher. He heads to her parents’ house, which is nearby. It seems there is a microphone in the house which he can hack into and listen to what is being said on his phone. It seems that she is being interrogated by the police and asked if she killed someone called Yu-chan. Yamashiro assumes this is a little girl who disappeared a couple of days ago. Mami seems to admit it – I killed Yu-chan. Yamashiro is horrified.
Yamashiro is not alone. Also seemingly spying on the house is Morishita. Morishita is in the same class as Yamashiro but the complete antithesis of him. He is good-looking, popular, adored by the girls, and successful at school. The two boys have barely spoken. However, Yamashiro is well aware that Morishita attends Mami Aino’s because he has seen him there several times, also alone. Morishita had not been at school that day so Yamashiro is not surprised. The two boys do not speak.
The next day, neither boy goes to school but Yamashiro meets Morishita with a young girl who, he claims, is his sister. The next day the girl is shown on television. She is missing.
It soon becomes apparent to Yamashiro that Morishita has killed not only the girl but also Yu Huan. It seems that Yu Huan is not a young girl but Mami’s ex-boyfriend who took pornographic photos of her. Mami was naturally the chief suspect when he was killed and now Morishita wants to deflect suspicion away from Mami onto himself. In short, he is quite happy to be the fall guy if it saves Mami. However, he also makes it clear to Yamashiro that one victim will not be enough.
The story develops with Yamashiro being slowly and only partially reluctantly dragged into the plot. Okayama, an older man, who seems to be a ticket scalper but is also obsessed with Mami, is also dragged in, unwittingly, not least because he has managed to steal various items belonging to Mami. How far will Morishita go? How far will Yamashiro go along with him? And will the police catch up with him?
The second book is set two years later. Three people involved meet up. They are Okoyama, Aoyama, who was Morishita’s best friend and who has just given an interview to a magazine about the case, and Watase, a classmate who had been somewhat attracted to Morishita and whose best (female) friend had been one of the victims. Watase and Aoyama in particular are critical of Aoyama for saying that Morishita was good when he was a murderer. Watase tempers her anger, not least because she is somewhat attracted to Aoyama.
While this novel is clearly a serial killer novel there is much more to it. Firstly, if you look at Morishita and Yamashiro, their profiles and how they are seen by their classmates, you would naturally take Yamashiro, the loner, as the serial killer, while the confident, well-liked and generally kind Morishita as the innocent. Perceptions vs reality, however, are key to this book. It comes up in the second part when Aoyama insists that the Morishita he knew was a good person, while Okayama, understandably, considers him to be evil. Indeed, Morishita is by no means the only killer both in real life and in fiction who was something of a charmer. But do we judge him only on his killings? In other words, humans are perhaps more complicated than the image one person sees of them.
What are Morishita’s motives? Nominally it is to deflect police attention from Mami but clearly, there is more to it. Doubtless there are studies on the motives of serial killers. However, one thing becomes clear here is that Morishita enjoys the thrill of the chase, outwitting the police. At the same time, he enjoys being judge, jury and executioner, arbitrarily selecting his next victim for no obvious reason. And would he have become a serial killer, had it not been for Mami’s boyfriend taking those photos of her?
And what are Yamashiro’s motives? Clearly he goes along with Morishita at first, because he wants to save his idol. Also he is clearly weak and somewhat under the spell of Morishita, not least because he has never had a friend and now he seems to be befriended by the most popular boy in the class. He does try to put up some kind of resistance but his resistance is fairly feeble.
Overall, Saihate gives a wonderful exposition of boys under the spell of a pop idol and the gradual slippery slope for both boys – the guilty party and his only somewhat reluctant accomplice – into mass murder, as well as the consequences not only for them but those who knew them and their victims.
First published in 2015 by Chikuma Shobo
First English translation by Honford Star in 2020
Translated by Kalau Almony