A thoughtful journey down the darker alleys of the human condition, One Love Chigusa will be sure to raise as many questions as it does goosebumps. Shimada's wonderful and downright eerie prose manages to keep the story moving whenever it threatens to linger, and its predictable ending thankfully does little to subtract from the sheer emotion permeating every page.
You will reflect on this book, and you will reflect often.
Soji Shimada’s One Love Chigusa is a book that took me quite by surprise. This should not have happened, because the author of One Love Chigusa is Soji Shimada, the genre-defining master of whodunnits and one of Japan’s best-selling authors. When I opened the charmingly-sized novella, with its simple yet stylish cover, I had expected twists, but I hadn’t expected just how much Shimada’s latest story would make me think.
As an aside, I think Red Circle Authors are doing something wonderful. When I lived in Japan, I read as much Japanese-language fiction as I could. My kanji remains not as strong as I would like, and I remember wondering how much of the story I’d lost to my pigeon translations. Red Circle Authors is aiming to set people like me straight and bring some of the most lauded Japanese authors right to Western audiences through Red Circle Minis, a series of ‘short captivating books by Japan’s finest contemporary writers’. This is an endeavour I wholeheartedly support. Keep doing your thing Red Circle, that thing is great.
One Love Chigusa is a science fiction story, but not the kind of science fiction that currently dominates contemporary pop culture. One Love Chigusa is unsettling, thought-provoking and utterly eerie. Set in the late 21st century (2091AD), It tells the story of Xie Hoyu, the survivor of a horrific motorcycle accident. His survival has come at a cost however; his legs, arms, muscles, eyes, lungs and blood are all prosthetic. Even his memory is recreated through technology, stored inside a “Quantum Memory Drive”. Xie has been restored to an extent never before seen, but at what cost? This is a question that I expected to go unanswered for a long time, and while the definitive answer is not revealed until the story’s final moments, the book wastes no time in immediately establishing that the reader cannot trust Xie. His perceptions and thoughts are utterly shattered. His doctor, his nurses and in turn his co-workers now resemble horrific, bright blue or red demons. Each person’s chest is covered by strange indicators and number counters. The city buses appear as “horrible manta rays”. In time Xie’s quantum drive restores the world around him but the humans never change; they stay “the most frightening thing”, and this is the first of several themes that drive One Love Chigusa’s plot onward.
The primary driving force is the titular Chigusa. Xie’s life has lost all meaning, he cannot function or belong in the world anymore, and moments before “finding a place to die”, Xie sees her.
“Suddenly, at the edge of the window, coming from the left side, something out of this world appeared, something unimaginably beautiful – it was a slender woman.”
There is no angry red face or indicator, only a normal, beautiful woman. In an instant. Xie is enraptured. But, as sudden as she appears, she disappears into the crowd. And so, the story truly begins. Overwhelmed by a terrifying, alien world, Xie finds Chigusa, and his life finds meaning.
Up until this point (21 pages), One Love Chigusa has been a strictly sci-fi story. However, here the story morphs into a disturbing romance steeped in mystery, and the sci-fi elements are for the most part dropped by the wayside. Indeed, the science fiction seems to exist only for the purpose of the premise – the world itself is largely unchanged in custom and in form, cyborgs excluded.
Xie begins to pursue and stalk Chigusa relentlessly, and Shimada superbly ramps up Xie’s obsession. It starts out with Xie just wishing to see her again, then to find out where she lives and works, and then to talk to her and culminating in a marriage proposal. Xie’s erratic actions and dialogue keep you constantly wondering what Xie will do next. It’s a wonderful part of the book. Wonderfully uncomfortable. This, coupled with his status as an unreliable narrator, helps craft a world drenched tension and suspense. I found myself putting down the book several times – not out of boredom – but from sheer goose bumps at the length this man was willing to go. Xie gave me shivers.
This sense of discomfort is heightened by Xie’s rapidly worsening condition. Shimada wastes no time is showing Xie’s disconnect with reality. He is haunted by nonsensical noises and ghostly voices, calling for Benjamin Franklin, electricity and the Aryan race. He hears phantom music without rhyme or reason. This continues for 10 pages, almost ten percent of the entire book. The first time I read One Love Chigusa I found this mildly irritating, but during my second read through I found myself drawn into it. What Xie is experiencing does not follow any established norms; his mind is beyond human relatability. It adds an unneeded yet appreciated layer to the protagonist, and made me think on what haphazard thoughts enter my mind when I am troubled. Upon reflection, this was one of my favourite parts. Up to this point, Xie has failed to function as a human being but here Xie conjures world history, stats and figures with incredible, mechanical accuracy. It paints a sad picture – Xie is now more machine than man, in mind and in body.
Despite Xie’s uncomfortable behaviour, I found his character to be – excuse the pun – well put together. His major talents lie in his painting and poetry, he dislikes using digital tools to work, and commercial arts and complex relationships exhaust him. He is a peaceful, nature loving man. Xie has a defined human identity. As Xie becomes the very thing he’s always felt a disconnect with, it’s impossible not to empathise with him. As a reader, I was made to feel as conflicted over Xie as Xie was himself, and that’s a very impressive thing done by Shimada.
Speaking of impressive, the story’s world is a feast for the imagination. Shimada’s use of sound in particular had me smiling in appreciation.
“If he listened as he walked on, it all became entwined, a little like the sound of the strings of a jazz guitar, echoing languidly.”
Xie’s senses, the trees he sits beneath, the trams, the bars and coffee shops; it all feels real, it feels lived in (which I suppose is rather ironic considering our protagonist’s fate). Xie is an unreliable protagonist to say the least, but the world through his broken eyes is beautifully realised.
The twist of the story: that Chigusa is in fact a robot and Xie’s mind has been warped into that of a machines’, can be seen coming from a mile away. With almost 50 pages to go, Chigusa tells Xie that “I don’t – live…”. Other hints pepper their relationship throughout. This takes away some of the emotional punch we are supposed to feel when all is revealed, but the story is not really about the twist. Shimada would have known the audience would have twigged long before the end; One Love Chigusa is more about two misfits exploring what it means to live, love and exist inside a world neither of them really belong. We walk with them to the edge of the cliff, and it is a hauntingly brilliant, thought-provoking final few steps.
This may seem a cheat criticism, since I feel Xie’s character is both to the story’s merit and detriment. Despite Xie’s utterly awful situation, I found it hard to side with him. I pitied him, desperately so, but Xie made my skin crawl. Xie is spellbound by Chigusa, but the extremes of his stalking and veneration of Chigusa reach uncomfortable heights.
“You have become the god of my salvation.”
“What could I ever order you to do? I’m looking at a god. You are my god.”
So too, is Xie’s penchant to promise not to do something to Chigusa, such as hold or touch her, and then to immediately do just that. It’s unpleasant and I found myself disliking the character the more insistent he became. Naturally, the half-machine love-mad protagonist cannot be expected to perform to contemporary societal norms, and I am positive that Xie’s behaviour is intentionally disturbing, but it remains slightly problematic if Shimada’s goal was to make us feel sorry for Xie.
As I mentioned above, Xie is not a likable protagonist. There is no sugar-coating that, and while its fine to have unlikable protagonists in one’s story, it did not help soften the uncomfortably casual sexism rife in the novel.
“Love should be the most important thing for a woman.”
“His boss was a man, but nagged like a woman.”
So too, when listing off all the terrible things he has heard on the news lately, Xie only mentions crimes committed by women towards men. Xie does admit he has only had girlfriends who “screamed, got angry, and only thought of themselves”, but this is not enough to soften the bluntness of the story’s sexism. Especially since Xie then immediately defines his ideal woman as gentle, mild-mannered and restrained and admits to having no male friends. More attention on Xie’s history with women, revealing something that justified his view towards their sex, would have been very welcome. The sexism does little, if anything, to advance the story. I tried to find a functional reason for Xie’s sexism, but there wasn’t one, and it only ends up leaving a bad taste in your mouth.
The novel’s standout weakness is the finale, which is abrupt and dotted with conveniences. Xie is knocked unconscious following a struggle with some engineers over Chigusa; he wakes up in hospital and his boss is beside him. Xie asks his boss, forever named “Boss”, where Chigusa is. Boss does not know who Chigusa is, but then realises that Xie is referring to Chigusa 7, a Japanese-made worker robot and an “ugly piece of junk ready to be dismantled.” The conversation progresses, and Xie’s boss describes Chigusa’s fate exactingly, revealing Chigusa’s habits, what the engineers found inside her and why they were taking her in. Perhaps the engineers told him just because he is Xie’s boss, but Boss knowing all of the information to lay out Chigusa’s fate in heart-wrenching detail, including knowing her final thoughts, and having in his possession the last remaining part of her, her ‘heart’ … I found to be steps too far. In an effort to make the most heart-wrenching, hopeless conclusion, Shimada invoked the god in the machine a little too hard.
The final sentence too, is too brief for my liking.
“A bug? Was that all love was? Just a bug? The idea suddenly overwhelmed him. He began to cry tears of utter frustration.”
Considering how much is dedicated to Xie finding Chigusa, I would have liked to see more of Xie once he has lost her. Perhaps it was intentional by Shimada, for Xie admits he would not exist without Chigusa. An abrupt ending symbolises Xie simple shutting down just like a machine. While I may be in the process of talking myself into appreciating this ending, for now my sentiment remains.
This offering from Red Circle Authors is an excellent introduction to the darker sides of Japanese fiction. It is an emotional, mature examination of technology, love and the human condition that only occasionally misses the mark. You could read the whole thing in an afternoon but, really, it’s worth more than your time. It’s worth your thought.