The Graveyard Apartment – Mariko Koike, 1993.
Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm, 2016.
Misao can’t believe her good fortune when she and her young family move into Central Plaza Mansion in the spring of 1987. The new high-rise apartment building sports fourteen spacious luxury units and is only twenty minutes from the center of Tokyo and close to local schools and shopping. It is surrounded by cherry trees and lush greenery and…a graveyard. From their balcony, Misao can see the morbid grave markers and the pall from the smokestack of the crematorium at the Buddhist temple. Aside from a few distant, empty weed-covered buildings, Central Plaza Mansion stands alone next to the sprawling graveyard.
Misao tells herself that life will be wonderful here for her and her daughter Tamao and husband Teppei if she can just get over her unease with the cemetery. Needless to say, everything will not be wonderful. The inexplicable death of their pet white finch after they move in heralds trouble to come.
The few tenants in the building start experiencing eerie and inexplicable events: voices whispering in the basement. Strange images on their televisions. And, one by one, neighbors start to move out.
After Teppei and the resident managers are rescued from a basement ordeal, Teppei agrees that their family also needs to get out of Central Plaza Mansion. He and Misao look desperately for new place to live, but will they be allowed to leave?
The Graveyard Apartment moves along quickly. The novelty of a foreign locale and customs gives a little extra spice to the story. The characters are relatable, but their emotions feel explained, rather than evolved from their dialogue and actions. This may be a factor of the translation (which seems aptly done) or simply a style choice, but does end up feeling a bit stiff.
More frustrating, however, is the use of the supernatural elements. The scary bits are neat: the imagery is effective and the suspense is strong. Unfortunately, there is such a wide variety of seemingly unconnected horror devices it proves vexing.
One doesn’t see how the white handprints appearing on outside of the apartment building connect with the Lovecraftian entity in basement, the nuclear-acting beams of light, the shadow figure in television, the seemingly possessed elevator, or the preternatural attack on Tamao or the violent death of Pyoko, the finch.
Is it just the proximity of a graveyard? Does it have something to do with the abandoned subterranean shopping mall that dead-ends in the basement? Does the suicide of Teppei’s ex-wife play into the hauntings? All of these things are hinted but not brought to fruition, leaving the reader impatient.
Because the background story threads are not woven together, the reader also doesn’t know how to interpret the horror elements and it lessens their effect. Mr. Shoji, an intriguing character with the potential to help out the reader – and the other characters – unfortunately exits early in the story.
All said, The Graveyard Apartment is not a bad read: it does hold interest until the somewhat anticlimactic end. It just lacks the cohesion that would have made it great.