In this new translation of Mariko Koike’s famous 1986 horror novel The Graveyard Apartment, the Kano family’s darkest secrets come back to haunt them. When they move into their brand new apartment, the young family thinks they hit the jackpot. The unit is spacious and underpriced, sitting at the top of a newly constructed building in an soon-to-be-gentrified neighborhood in Tokyo. Teppei loves the convenience of the building to the train he takes to the advertising agency he works at, Misao enjoys the feeling of a fresh start, and little Tamao finally has other kids to play with. Even their mutt Cookie likes having plenty of room to roam. The only member of the family who doesn’t get the chance to settle in is poor little Pyoko, their java finch who dies mysteriously the first night they move in. Misao thinks nothing of it until Tamao tells her Pyoko is visiting her at night and warning her about the evil in the building.
In fact, the only bad thing about the building is its location, framed on three sides by a graveyard, Buddhist temple, and crematorium. As the Kanos move in, other occupants begin moving out, having had enough of the spooky malevolence permeating the atmosphere. Sinister coincidences and terrifying experiences pile up as the Kano family descends further into madness and fear. There’s something in the basement, something that wants out, and the Kanos are unlucky enough to be in its way.
The Graveyard Apartment is a classic haunted house tale of the J-horror variety. Where contemporary Western horror stories tend toward shocks and gore, Japanese horror fiction opts for psychological terror and gradually unfolding suspense, almost always with vengeful ghosts as the big bad. Buddhist Japanese tradition calls for cremation of the deceased before burial, but for a brief period in the early 20th century bodies were simply buried, and the graveyard near the Kanos’ building is filled to the brim with decomposing corpses in wooden coffins.
Koike uses this seed of an idea and pairs it with an old-school story of the dead coming back to seek revenge on the living. The dead in the graveyard were violated by the construction of the residential complex, but the Kanos aren’t innocent victims either. Teppei and Misao caused, albeit indirectly, the brutal death of someone years before, and that person’s spirit is drawn to the vortex of evil under their apartment.
The Graveyard Apartment isn’t just a ghost story. Koike dissects her adult characters, pulling them apart to expose their innermost thoughts. They all harbor anger toward those who don’t deserve their wrath and guilt for actions they couldn’t prevent even if they wanted to. Sometimes that psychological vivisection can bog down the story and slow down the pacing a little too much, but it’s there for a reason. For Koike, ow the Kanos interpret and react to the haunting at Central Plaza Mansion is just as important as the haunting itself.
Unfortunately, the Kanos are likely to be a major obstacle for many readers. I found them intriguing, but I also don’t especially need to like protagonists in order to maintain interest. And they definitely aren’t likeable. Both make stupid decisions and behave cruelly toward others, although they aren’t downright awful people.
I saw Teppei and Misao as a couple as trapped by restrictive cultural conventions as they were by the ghosts. Teppei insisted on buying an apartment his wife was reluctant about and then resisted leaving because homeownership was his first real opportunity to “be a man” and provide for his family. Misao saw it as a chance to play the dutiful wife and mother. Teppei’s first wife was the epitome of womanhood and wifeliness, and Misao is trapped in her shadow. Their marriage was founded on lies, betrayal, and death, and the apartment was a chance to start over, which is why they stay even after it becomes clear they need to leave. The Kanos are the kind of people who willingly move into a place that’s nothing but bad vibes then try to convince themselves that everything will be fine if they try hard enough. In other words, they’re the people in every haunted house horror movie.
As mentioned earlier, this is a new translation of a 30-year-old book that’s now a classic in Japan. Yet the book’s age is a major detraction. Modern audiences are experienced enough with ghost/J-horror stories that what was likely very frightening in 1986 falls a bit flat now. To anyone with even a passing familiarity with J-horror or ghost stories, the plot is predictable to the point of rote. It’s like watching cop procedurals from the 1960s and realizing that if they just had a computer or cell phone each episode would be resolved by the first commercial break.
We know the tune too well for The Graveyard Apartment to be anywhere near as effective as it once was. However, it’s still a striking, engaging story. As the tension ramps up the book gets harder to put down. The first two-thirds are a bit sluggish, but once the Kanos decide to move out things spiral rapidly out of control. Every little thing that the family initially dismissed—the architectural oddities like that the basement is only accessible via elevator, the coffin-like storage units in the basement, strange icy-cold winds coming from nowhere, inexplicable injuries, electrical blips, etc.—come back to bite them. By the end I was practically biting my nails in anticipation.
Speaking of coincidences, given that I don’t speak or read Japanese, this could be nonsense, but it is interesting to me that the name of one of the pissed off ghosts connected to the Kanos, Reiko, is very close to the Japanese word reikon, meaning spirit or soul. If anyone knows if there’s a relationship to the two words in kanji, kana, or even in Japanese pronunciation, let me know in the comments.
The Graveyard Apartment is a chilling tale of a family on the rocks trapped in a haunted house. With the right lens, it could be construed as a frightening thriller, but for most readers it will a dark story full of wheel-spinning, historical non-sequiturs, and unpleasant characters. If you like classic J-horror or old school haunted house ghost stories, you’ll do just fine.
The Graveyard Apartment is available now from St. Martin’s Press.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.