ELLA KELLEHER WRITES (latest in her review series of new Japanese books) — Adolescence in Astral Season, Beastly Season (2020) is a frightening and tragic nightmare that haunts a person endlessly. The teenage mind is pried apart in Tahi Saihate’s unusual coming-of-age story to reveal a deep-seated psychology of obsession. In the process, Saihate exposes the dark and depraved underbelly of Japanese idol culture.
Astral Season, Beastly Season (2020) is the first novel by poet, Tahi Saihate. This is also the first Japanese offering from indie publisher, Honford Star. The novel was skillfully translated into English by Kalau Almony, who precisely conveys the tone of subtle horror in the first half of the novel, and the morose reflection of the second half. Astral Season, Beastly Season at first seems like an outlandish tale of surrealist fiction, but quickly the reader understands that it is an elusive psychological piece where much of the violence occurs as if off-screen in one’s own imagination.
Set in Japan, the first part of the novel is a letter written to a second-rate idol (pop star), Mami Aino, by a devoted fan and high school age boy named Shota Yamashiro. Immediately, we find out that Mami has been arrested for the murder of her ex-boyfriend, an event that tears apart Yamashiro’s world. He decides he must save his beloved Mami from her fate, so he ventures out to her parents’ home (whose address he only knows by stalking Mami after school), and stumbles upon Morishita – a handsome classmate who is much too popular and charming to have anything to do with Yamashiro or idol culture.
Yamashiro is stunned to uncover Morishita’s gruesome plan to save Mami: kill another person in the same manner as Mami’s ex-boyfriend. If their favorite idol is in custody, how could she commit another crime? The seemingly fool-proof plan would mean that the police would have to admit Mami’s innocence. What is truly fascinating, though, is how Morishita does not care that Mami is guilty – he would do anything to please her, to get her attention. The worst part is that Mami is not even a worldwide sensation, she is just a teenage girl with a small following, a minorly famous pop star.
Saihate’s novel exposes the darkness and toxicity that lies beneath the innocent surface of Japanese idol culture – an industry that has been revealed to exploit teenage boys and girls, hold them to strict legal agreements, and underpay them for their labor. Perhaps the most dangerous side to this facet of Japanese culture is its sexual exploitation of underage idols who are used and abused until their “expiration date” passes, which is usually marked by high school graduation. Oftentimes, idols face sexual harassment, assault, and stalking on top of the demands of their companies.
In Yamashiro’s letter to Mami, much of the focus is on Morishita’s psychology and descent into insanity. Morishita explains that, “it doesn’t matter what happens. I don’t care if I die, if I’m killed, if I get caught. As long as I can save Mami-chan, it doesn’t matter what happens. That’s why I’m alive. It doesn’t matter if I have a future, if I have a life beyond that. I don’t care about any of that.” This paints a rather disturbing and unsettling portrait of a monster: a boy willing to murder people all in hopes of being noticed by a third-rate idol who is never destined for greatness.
Yamashiro, on the other hand, struggles less with uncertainty and psychopathy and more with isolation and loneliness. He cannot hide behind a handsome face and natural charisma like Morishita, instead he is shunned by his peers and accustomed to solitude. During a school trip, we feel his suffering when he says, “seeing the Osaka Aquarium, buying souvenirs, and even on the way home, I didn’t feel any pain or loneliness sitting silently with them. I was a wooden plank. Whether Morishita or Watase noticed me or not, time rushed by and swept them along too.” Yamashiro’s coping mechanism has been his undying obsession with Mami, which explains his motivation for why he tags along with Morishita even though he understands that murder is morally wrong – when the “cool kid” approaches, how could he say no?
We become aware of the slight changes that happen as a result of the murders. Since Yamashiro is now Morishita’s “best friend,” other classmates feel obliged to be friendly with him – they have inducted him into the popular clique, and he is entirely unsure of how to react to this newfound acceptance. Yamashiro’s discomfort becomes especially palpable in his interactions with Watase, a kind girl who has a crush on a fellow classmate. Watase is the only character who sees that Yamashiro is profoundly struggling with something – though she has no idea why. In one poignant incident, Yamashiro sits next to Morishita on the school bus shortly after Morishita savagely strangled to death an adolescent girl in her bedroom. Unexpectedly, Yamashiro breaks into a fit of sobs, and Watase is the only one who notices. She fabricates an excuse that Yamashiro’s outburst is due to severe car sickness. Yamashiro finds Watase’s display of human kindness unsettling and confusing. He suspiciously notes to Morishita that “Watase probably knew [he] wasn’t carsick.” Later, we find out that Watase gets on the list of people Morishita decides to kill.
Yamashiro ends his letter by explaining how he has given Morishita permission to make him the final victim instead of Watase. Afterward, it is explained that Morishita will turn himself in for his crimes. Yamashiro ends with a final expression of his love for Mami: “Please become an idol that someone, somewhere in the future will thank. I’m off to hell now. I’ll still be cheering for you from there.”
The brief second section of the novel reflects on the murders years after Morishita was imprisoned. Watase and several other classmates look back at the tragedy of their childhood after a magazine article written by Morishita’s childhood friend details how he was a wonderful man and undeserving of the hate he has received. Saihate explores the paradox of Morishita being both a good person and a serial killer in a way that asks a salient and morally distressing question: “Should we pretend that murderers are completely vile people for the sake of the victims and their families?”
As the title suggests, there are two sides to a human being: the star and the beast. A person must then make the conscious decision about which aspect of themselves they would like to harness. Prior to his death, Yamashiro describes adolescence in simple terms: “when you turn seventeen, [you] become either a star or a beast. Here I was, like a spectator, watching myself desperately try to become neither a star nor a beast but a human. If what I was trying to protect was ‘humanity,’ did that, in the end, amount to nothing more than narcissism?” Saihate conveys how in our fleeting and wretched existence, we are forced at a very young age to decide whether to try to be famous or infamous – and in pursuing one’s own path, a young person can lose their humanity altogether and wind up becoming neither
Ella Kelleher is a staff writer for Asia Media International.