"The theme and technique alike are without precedent, but the author's strong yet supple writing makes this literary experiment a success."―Hisashi Inoue, writer (Asahi shimbun, December 12, 2001, from the press release for the Osaragi Jiro Prize)
This is a highly ambitious full-length novel with a bizarre premise: a motherless boy and a fatherless girl journey back in time through the realm of the dead.
Four-year-old Mitsuo Nishida and his father are homeless. One day, in the cemetery where they have taken up residence, Mitsuo watches as two men and a woman commit suicide. Not long afterward his father dies, too, and Mitsuo grows up in an orphanage. In middle school, he looks up newspaper articles about the deaths he witnessed and becomes accidentally acquainted with Yukiko, a girl five years his junior―the daughter of a painter who died in the group suicide.
The year jumps to 1959. Now 17, Mitsuo bumps into Yukiko, who has just entered middle school. Having left the orphanage to work at a company, Mitsuo has been given a week off and is setting out on a trip. Hearing this, Yukiko goes with him. The pair board a train in Ueno Station, Tokyo, still filled with traces of postwar chaos, and thus their time-slip adventure begins.
Mitsuo vows to follow the precepts laid down in his beloved Jungle Book, and he and Yukiko call each other Mowgli and Akela, after characters in the story. Their train was supposed to be heading north, but slowly they realize that something is strange: somehow they have traveled back in time to the chaotic period immediately after World War II. Among other things, they run into a repatriation ship from the Chinese mainland that, because it is laden with cholera sufferers, is denied entry to Japan. The two of them board a different ship, only for it to strike a mine and sink with them in the hull. This time, they cross over into the realm of the dead.
The journey ends as the pair, dozing in a train, are taken into protective custody by the police. The story had gotten out that Mitsuo was guilty of abducting a child. Reclaimed by her mother, Yukiko heads home, looking out at the bustling Shinjuku district of 2000.
The author has had this to say about her concept of the book before writing: "I naturally have no direct knowledge of what postwar Tokyo was like, but I perhaps began to think that I might convey something of it through the image of the now-vanished Japanese wolf" (Nami, Shinchosha, December 2000). Using a wolf's line of sight, Tsushima casts light on the postwar jungle as well as the concrete jungle of today.