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Book Reviews Shiba Inu empty Fukushima

Published on September 4th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley


Hell – Yasutaka Tsutsui

Often billed as the “Japanese Philip K. Dick”, Yasutaka Tsutsui initially piqued my interest when I watched the Satoshi Kon animé film based on the novel Paprika which was written by Tsutsui.
Japanese novels don’t often make it this side of the globe and despite the popularity of his novels in Japan and his involvement in the modern pop culture scene, there’s been scarce attention paid to him here, with only a handful of his novels having been translated and published in the UK, his work is hard to find in shops, libraries and even online stores, when I eventually found some of his work on eBay, the prices were rather high.
Hell is a more recent novel, written in 2003, it was published in the UK in 2007 and is a Magic Realistic approach to the subject of the afterlife.

The novel is a vignette of many different characters, following the circumstances of their deaths and subsequent travels through hell; a place that is imagined to be much like the real world.

“A beautiful unity of humanity not seen in the living world”

To name a main character however, Nobuteru is the first to appear and also every character is somehow (if only distantly) related to him. Nobuteru is over 80 years old and is reminiscing on his life, especially a certain incident involving his two best friends of his youth which left one crippled. He feels shame and guilt for his involvement in his friend’s injury and frequently thinks about the two old friends whom he hasn’t seen in years.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Nobuteru for some time, his two friends have already passed on into Hell. Takeshi, the one who was injured, does not feel any regret for the incident, not in life and also not especially in Hell, as people’s emotions become dulled. Things that used to matter in their former lives, including the manner of their own deaths, have little impact on the freshly risen spirits.
People who are in hell are initially believed to be there because “the Japanese don’t believe in God” and also that they have commited some kind of sin, however many different people are present and are able to interact with one another. Hell enables its denizens to “look in” on the lives of other spirits and can also be in two places at one time with no knowledge of it.

Hell Tsutsui novel review

Cover of the localised edition of Hell.


The style of language is simple and straightforward, with a fast pace following the shifts of perspective from all the different characters. It follows characters from all different backgrounds, coming together in death and portrays a beautiful unity of humanity not seen in the living world. The plot is about people it’s about what happened and how they feel and where they are going from now in a unique Japanese view quite unlike the west.

Thematically, Tsutsui is no stranger to controversy, the book includes some more disturbing themes of torture and adultery as well as a good insight into the internal workings of Japanese business society and how they are viewed by the public. It could be well described as a vertical slice of the concepts of adulthood and mortality.

“Hell was a world that surpassed the conscious mind, a world where elements of the psyche took on physical form. But apart from that, it really seemed no different from life.”

Comparatively, the book called more memories of Don DeLillo than Philip K. Dick. The fear of death is a prominent part of why we as humans are so interested in it, and both DeLillo and Tsutsui use the popular culture surrounding death and warp it into a thing of fear unlike Dick’s themes of sanity and paranoia and the state of government. This isn’t exactly one of Tsutsui’s Science-Fiction-esque novels or his many short stories, so there is still room for the PKD references to come  to fruition.

Hell is a different kind of Japanese novel, it doesn’t go out to create a feeling or emotion for the most part in the reader, it’s aim is to explore and inspire. If you go in expecting dictation, you’ll only come out with questions, as such, it is a great introduction to Magic Realism as it is not too heavy on themes and leaves with more resolution than the genre usually permits.

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