The name Koji Suzuki might not ring a bell for most non-Japanese people, but they might be familiar with his horror novel The Ring, which was turned into a movie in Japan, and later, in the United States.
The Japanese movie version of The Ring (and its sequel/prequel), was probably the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen, and in fact, The Ring became the measuring stick with which I’ve compared every other horror movie to. It wasn’t until recently though, when I read Death and The Flower, by Koji Suzuki, that I learned that The Ring was originally a novel.
Originally published in Japan as Sei To Shi No Gensou in 1995, Death and The Flower, is a collection of 6 short stories which revolve around concepts of domesticity, and self-sacrifice. Five of the 6 stories are told from the male perspective – from the perspectives of young fathers, who, despite personal and financial challenges, strive to ensure the happiness of their families. In the first story, “Disposable Diapers and a Race Replica”, the young father, gives way to his wife’s career and chooses to be the stay-at-home father to his newborn, doing odd jobs to help out financially. As a private tutor to a difficult junior-high boy, the narrator one day finds himself conflicted between seeking revenge for a wrong done to him or preserving his life for the benefit of his young daughter and wife.
In another story, “Key West,” a father struggles to maintain normalcy and balance after his wife and son die in a tragic car accident, leaving only himself and his eldest daughter to grieve and to move on with their lives. In “Beyond Darkness,” the longest, and to me, most interesting story, a prank caller threatens the happiness of a family who has recently bought and moved into a house they could hardly afford. Yoshiaki, husband and new father, is enraged by the prank caller’s effect on his distraught wife, and at the same time enraged at the possibility of having to move to a new location after sacrificing so much for their new house. “Embrace,” the only story told from the perspective of a woman, deals with the challenges of being a newly divorced, single-mom, caring for a child with a disability. “Embrace,” a sad tale of love and friendship, highlights the strength of women despite hardships and loneliness. Despite the absence of a husband, Reiko is in full control of her life, and emotions, and does not need to rely on a man for financial or emotional security.
The final story, “Avidya” features the same man and family in the first story, “Disposable Diapers and a Race Replica.” “Avidya” seems to differ from the other stories in that it recalls the man’s memories of a solitary trip he took in the mountains to commune with nature and visit sacred sites. The man recalls this special trip as he drives his family to a camp in the woods where they will spend the weekend relaxing, and learning new skills. While driving through the forest, the man remembers the inner peace he felt during his trip brought about by the strange spirits of the forest and the mountains. However, his reverie is broken by the realization that they are lost, unable to find a camp site, and have suddenly witnessed a terrible scene.
The families in the 6 stories, aside from dealing with domestic hardships such as financial problems, illnesses, death, and tragedy, are also faced with the challenges of raising small children. In fact, one of the central themes they all have in common is, aside from striving for domestic happiness, is providing for their children and protecting them either through acts of violence or submission, from external factors which threaten their lives and well-being.
The stories also challenge the traditional and non-traditional roles of men and women in Japan; of the traditional roles of women in the household, raising the children, and the role of men as the primary financial providers. However, due to modernization and globalization, lines between the traditional and non-traditional have become blurred, and roles are reversed in order to adapt and survive the ever-changing times. The stories which feature strong, dependable, men, feature quiet, meek wives, who either suffer from some kind of neurosis, or illness. The one story which features a strong woman, also features a husband who is insecure and intimidated in the presence of such strength.
In line with traditional and non-traditional roles in Japanese society, another theme shared by the stories is the young men’s recognition of their fathers’ rigidity, and coldness toward their mothers, ignoring her needs, and often even abusing her, and their own vow to never be like their fathers – their vow to take an active role in solving domestic problems, and to care for and love their wives and children. This sentiment, along with the different domestic sacrifices made by the young men in the stories help shatter stereotypical ideas about Japanese men being cold, distant, and emotionally unavailable to their wives and children.
The author shares in the Afterword of the novel that his idea for Death and The Flower was to bring together both paternal and maternal factors side by side, and to show the importance of striking a balance between the two to ensure the success of raising a child. Having also experienced being a stay-at-home father, Koji Suzuki wanted to share the paternal side of parenting rarely seen in Japanese society. Also, by mixing happy and tragic elements in the stories, Suzuki wished to impart that life is beautiful and worth living despite hardships, and tragedies, and that evil, as well as good are all part of humanity, and facing bad situations are necessary in order to grow.
The stories in Death and the Flower are somber, quiet, sometimes even melancholy, and though their central theme is domestic happiness, they all contain a touch of mystery and suspense, sometimes even hinting of the supernatural. However, those expecting to read horror stories like The Ring among Death and The Flower will be sorely disappointed.
The stories are captivating, thought-provoking, and sad in a way, but make for a wonderful reading experience. Though not a big fan of short stories (or a collection of short stories), I had a hard time resisting the stories in Death and the Flower, and putting the book down.
Death and The Flower (Sei to shi no Gensou) (2014) – Koji Suzuki / translated by: Maya Robinson and Camellia Nieh
Vertical, Inc.; 217 pages
Personal rating: 4/5