This book is one of the few I picked up in the used Japanese book section of a Japanese market in South Florida, along with this one which I reviewed the other day. My wife had shown it to me and said I might enjoy it, so I picked it up and looked it over.
The title, translated as “The other side of the swing”, is quite cryptic and didn’t really mean much to me, so I checked out the marketing blurb on the back. Here is an excerpt from that, followed by my English translation.
One day on the way home from school, I met another “me”. He had a face identical to mine, as if he just jumped out of the mirror. You don’t believe me, do you? I began following him, as if pulled forward by an invisible thread. After walking for some time, this boy entered into a house I’d never seen before. I tried to follow him inside and then…
I was immediately intrigued by this brief intro and decided to purchase it, pulled into the story just like the main character was pulled to follow his other “me”.
I’m not one to give too many plot spoilers, but after finishing this book in only a few weeks I can say that I was very satisfied by a story filled with surreal and fantastical elements. The main character’s journey across diverse landscapes kept my attention, and the ending was quite good as well. At a bit under 200 pages it’s not an overlong read, either.
To give a very minor spoiler, I’ll just say that dreams are a key theme in this book, along with their connection to reality. Even though the narrator is a young boy, there are many thought-provoking scenes which will feed the intellectually curious.
Another reason I enjoyed this novel is that parts of it reminded me of my favorite TV show of all time, an American Sci-fi series from the late 80s and early 90s.
Linguistically, this book is one of the most simple Japanese novels I’ve read that was targeted at adults or teenagers. The number of Kanji used per page is much less than any other book I’ve read, so much that it took me a while to get used to reading long, unbroken streams of hiragana which ironically I’m not too great at. There isn’t too many advanced or special-purpose vocabulary words either, and much of the text is stream-of-consciousness straight from the main character’s head. This is actually quite useful for learning phrases to use in your own internal dialogue, much more so than witty dialogue or over-detailed descriptive passages.
Although I’ve managed to get to the point where I can read somewhat advanced Japanese novels, after reading this book I’ve realized that simple Japanese like this allows me the freedom to focus more on imagery and the story itself rather than nitty gritty grammar details. As a result I can really get into the plot more.
One amazing thing about this book is it was actually published quite a long time ago. The book I read was published in 1978, but it was a reprinting of the same story with a different title (誰も知らない国で) in 1971! Whether conscious or not, I feel that this book was influential on several generations of Japanese writers. Actually it turns out that this book’s author, Shin’ichi Hoshi, was a famous and very prolific writer of Sci-Fi short stories.
For Japanese that is over 40 years old, it wasn’t much different than Japanese from modern novels that I’ve read. The biggest difference was the absence of some modern phrases, plus a few old ones which aren’t too popular any more, like “〜たらない”. The biggest thing that took me time to get used to was the frequent use of ある to describe the existence of people, whereas in modern Japanese いる is almost always used. This was particularly frustrating to me since I was trying to get rid of my bad habit of doing that exact thing when speaking in (modern) Japanese.
Unfortunately for non-Japanese speakers, there doesn’t appear to be a full English translation of this story, only an abridged picture book version. The flip side of the coin is that Japanese speakers get that much more satisfaction from reading something they knew they could probably never read in their native language. I haven’t checked translations for any language but English, but they seem unlikely.
Overall a super read, highly recommended for anyone who is an intermediate to advanced student of Japanese.