Kanae Minato is a Japanese fiction writer dealing in the subjects of crime, mystery, and/or thriller. Perhaps formulating my distinction between mystery and thriller is the fodder for a future post at Matt Lynn Digital, though my focus today is on Minato’s first novel, Confessions.
The translator from Japanese to English behind Confessions is Stephen Snyder. The language and presentation of the storytelling was very accessible. As you might have guessed, the story does function largely as a first person mystery through a series of six “confessions,” in the form of extended soliloquies or monologues, from the first-hand perspective of different characters in drama.
I should warn you now, much of what follows lands in the realm of spoiler. If you want to skip the spoilers and go directly to my opinion, proceed to the last two paragraphs.
Yuko Moriguchi is the given the role of first and last confessor. It is Moriguchi as teacher, would-be wife, and mother of the 4-year-old Manami Moriguchi that introduces us to the mystery revealed through confession. Upon returning as confessort much later in the novel, Yuki keeps Confessions in the realm of mystery, though I was tempted to think this was headed to thriller.
It is in the elder Moriguchi’s first confession, a last nonsequitur-filled lecture to her middle school class where we learn that Yuki has resigned, that a famous instructor at another school was sick with HIV, that having HIV forced Yuki to call-off that engagement, that 4-year-old Manami was killed.
This confession lecture reveals more and more, increasing tension to a fever pitch wherein we learn that two of the students to whom Moriguchi was lecturing, per Yuki, had killed Manami.
Mizuki Kitahara, the class president, offers the second major soliloquy. We learn that the class treats Shuya Watanabe badly in the classroom. We also learn that Naoki Shimomura has stopped coming to school with the new term. The new teacher, known as Mr. Terada and more often as Werther, is the temperamentally inexperienced teacher that allows much bullying to occur in the classroom. He represents a hopelessly uncritical device through the story, as is the opening confession offered by Yuko Moriguchi.
The audience hears from Naoki Shimomura’s sister next. As seems to be true of all the adult males in Confessions, Naoki’s father is strangely absent and unaware of the home life in his own household. The sister feels like she is out-of-the-loop with the happenings at home given her very reasonable life at school away from the home. It wasn’t until the sister discovers the diary of her and Naoki’s mother that we acquire some insight into the desperation that Naoki’s mother bore alone as she was at her wits end in trying to protect an uncommunicative, inexplicably behaving Naoki. We learn of the mother’s death in an incident with Naoki, and some visits from Werther to the Shimomura home, thanks to the journal monologue.
Naoki provides the fourth confession. We learn much of the insight behind Naoki’s fear over having acquired the HIV-virus from Yuki Moriguchi, as well as the craving for emotional bonding from his mother. We get a sense that Naoki wants to confide in his mother, though is working through overcoming the embarrassment of the bullying that accompanies Werther’s visits with bullying students from his class. Naoki hears all the conversations his mother had with the visitors at this time. The absence of the father’s involvement in any of this remains alarming. It is hard to tell if this is more a factor of plot or Japanese culture. Near the end of Naoki’s confession, he reveals to his mother that he believes he has HIV-AIDS, that he killed Monami Moriguchi not from fear but from wanting to articulate his own misguided sense of maturity, and finally loses the ability to own his own actions as he takes his mother’s life.
Shuya Watanabe offers the fifth confession, and arguably has the most prominent voice in the story, outside of Yuko Moriguchi, in the narrative. That we were more than seventy percent into the novel before hearing from Shuya is significant in confirming that Confessions is a mystery. One insight that we gain from Shuya’s confessions includes that he, like Naoki, has an overwhelming craving for emotional connection with his mother. He creaves validation from his biological mother, and it seems that she felt it necessary to beat him regularly for not performing to her expected levels. Shuya continues to crave that connection nonetheless. The Watanabe parents divorce, and Shuya stays with his father, who remarries soon after. The biological mother “agrees to cutoff all contact with the son” as part of the divorce arrangement. As the confession reveals, Shuya acts on the sense of building and invention that he thinks will get him attention from his biological mother, recognizes only later that he has failed in the killing of Monami Moriguchi (outfoxed in that endeavor by Naoki Shimomura), and ends up killing class president Mizuki Kitahara when she, Mizuki, raises the subject of Shuya’s need for validation from his biological mother.
As Shuya’s confession finishes, we learn this his biological mother has married the professor who judged his science project; that professor has fathered a child with Shuya’s mom, which he only learns at this confession wraps up. Shuya posts a confession to all this on his website, and has planned his vengeance on his mother by aiming to blow up his classmates by cellphone bomb.
It was at this point that we again hear from Yuko Moriguchi again. We learn about the manipulations she has taken in getting Werner to act on her behalf with the class to bully Naoki and Shuya. We learn that Yuko has been attempting to mete out her revenge through those manipulations, and that her HIV-infected former fiance has really reentered her life and, without Yuko’s knowledge at the point of the original confession, undid the attempt to infect Naoki and Shuya with HIV. We see the confirmation that Yuko confronted Shuya in the novel’s resolution about the shocked-zipper that Naoki tried to dispose of at the Monami Moriguchi murder; we also learn that Yuko knows about her husband’s subterfuge as well as Shuya’s website confession. Naoki reportedly has undone the school bomb threat, and moved it instead to where Shuya’s mother, unborn half-brother, and Shuya’s biological mother worked. The revenge at this point is complete; Shuya’s attempted phone-detonation of his bomb did not fail to function; instead, his misdirected attempt at revenge has.
In Kanae Minato‘s Wikipedia page description, the one influence that Minato has who I recognize is Agatha Christie, whose novels I have enjoyed. The approach to storytelling by Minato in her first novel here is different, though I see that Minato kept with much of Christie’s sense of mystery, revelation, and determining the resolution. As is true of much of the mystery telling I see in popular American culture today, Minato kept with Christie’s approach for “letting the audience solve the mystery.” Minato took to today’s narrative landscape, at least the one I’ve seen in America, by focusing less on “who did the crime” like Christie and, instead, determining “who actually obtained revenge.”
Changing the question of the mystey genre is interesting. I appreciate the skill with which Minato accomplished that goal. I could be a bigger fan of an approach to mystery that focused on the nature of revenge rather than the motivation for the crime. As a result, my overall grade for this novel is 3.5-stars out of 5.0 stars.
Matt – Wednesday, February 15, 2017