TOKYO (Reuters) - In Japanese novelist Miyuki Miyabe’s Tokyo, the moon hangs low over dark rivers, spiraling debt leads to murder, and a young woman roams the streets setting criminals afire with a single thought.
Miyabe has gone from being an office clerk who wrote only on weekends to becoming one of Japan’s most popular, prolific and prize-winning authors with 46 novels to her name. Her works, which cover genres from horror, to fantasy, to historical fiction, have been translated into 11 languages.
Miyabe’s popularity across Asia has not extended to the English speaking world, but her publisher hopes this will change with the release of the English translation of her novel “The Devil’s Whisper,” which contains Miyabe’s characteristic use of rich, dark portraits of modern Japan and Tokyo.
The English-language release of “The Devil’s Whisper” capitalizes on intense interest abroad in Japanese culture, including manga comics and anime films, as well as the works of internationally-renowned Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
“Tokyo has two faces. One is the one everyone knows: the economic power, the bright, shining place where all the political power gathers and all the people of strength come together,” Miyabe, who rarely gives interviews, told Reuters recently.
“But there’s another face, the place where ordinary people live. They can’t take part in the beautiful Tokyo — it’s kind of scary to them — but this is the Tokyo I write about.”
Critics say her trademark city of working-class neighborhoods far from the glitter of the Ginza shopping area, provides something not found in the work of other authors.
“She brings society and social problems into her works, but she also shows a world of social ties and obligations that has largely disappeared — even while she writes about crimes,” said mystery story critic Shinta Nakagami.
The gritty realism may be a selling point even as it contrasts to books by Murakami, Japan’s best-known living author overseas.
“Murakami’s books show an idealized Tokyo, one people long for. But his world is not all that real, which may be unsatisfying for some,” said literary critic Masayoshi Shirakawa.
Miyabe’s style has clearly emerged from her own experiences.
Born in December 1960, she grew up in the same working-class neighborhood on Tokyo’s east side where she still lives today, the fourth generation on the same plot of land.
Her father — who loved to tell her scary stories — worked on the assembly line of a small factory and her mother was a seamstress who frequently took her to movies. On her own, she read voraciously, especially science fiction and mysteries.
“It was a neighborhood full of people who worked with their hands — nobody wrote, and nobody worked at a desk,” she said. “I loved to read but never thought then that I’d become a writer.”
While working as a clerk at a law office, she took a fiction writing class. She then spent several years writing — and rewriting — on her days off.
In 1987, she published her debut novel. Two years later, her second novel, “The Devil’s Whisper” came out. By now, she has sold more than 42 million books in Japan. About 60,000 copies of her books have been translated into English.
“The Devil’s Whisper” centers on teenager Mamoru, who tries to solve the strange deaths of several young women.
Though an early work, the book is full of trademark Miyabe touches. Mamoru lives in a working-class neighborhood, and the book is spiced with flashes of humor and striking images such as a half moon looking “close enough to cut your hand on.”
“The Devil’s Whisper” is her fifth work to be translated into English. The first was “For All She Was Worth,” about a woman driven to murder by her massive debt burden.
“I thought breaking into the English market would be impossible since I write such very Japanese-oriented things,” Miyabe said.
While Miyabe is still relatively unknown to English readers, all her books have been translated into Chinese and Korean. She has also been published in Thai, French and Russian.
“She’s really becoming popular now. A lot of overseas publishers are interested in her,” said Ako Sahara, managing director of the Japanese Literature Publishing and Promotion Centre. “It’s just taken her a while longer to get going.”
“Japanese things are very popular in China and Korea, and probably because the societies are similar, her books are translated into these languages right away,” said Sahara.
Like many Japanese authors before her, including Murakami at the start, venturing into English has taken time due to a reluctance by publishers to take on translated novels due to their lack of popularity among English-language readers.
These days with interest in Japanese culture growing, Miyabe’s intense Japanese-ness is a plus.
“Miyabe’s books are really good to read to find out what’s going on in Japan now,” literary critic Shirakawa remarked.
“(If) my books can show just a little more of what Japan is and what it wants, I will be very happy.”
Editing by Megan Goldin