Zūnome Doll
Author: Ichi Sawamura
Specifications: ISBN  978-4041043554
396 pages
13.5 x 19.6 cm / 5.4 x 7.8 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Kadokawa Corporation
Tokyo, 2016
Buy now: amazon.co.jp


An absurd, made-up story that should never have risen above urban legend status “comes true” in the “real world” of the novel as the eponymous doll kills those who fall under its curse one after another. Following in the footsteps of Kōji Suzuki’s Ring, which became a Hollywood movie and turned into a worldwide sensation, this ambitious work dials the horror up another notch with its metafictional structure. The relentlessly terrifying twists and turns may well leave readers with troubled dreams.

The role played by the videotape in Ring is here played by an urban legend, and by a manuscript in which that urban legend is recorded. The legend says that those who hear the story of the Zūnome doll—it is a doll of a little girl in mourning clothes, whose name comes from the Japanese word for “onyx” pluralized in English style and read backwards—are destined to be attacked and killed by it on the fourth day. Those who read the manuscript are destined for the same fate. To develop this chilling premise to the full, the story proceeds along two separate threads: (a) the present time of the novel, in which one person after another reads the manuscript and dies; and (b) the manuscript of a novel based on tragic events that took place roughly 20 years before (hereafter “Manuscript B”).

The protagonist of (a) is 25-year-old Fujima, who is still relatively new in his job as an editor for Giga Publishers, a small publishing house. The company puts out an occult monthly centering on supernatural tales and phenomena, spirits, UFOs, urban legends, and the like called Burushitto (Bullshit). A writer named Kiyoshi Yumizu, who writes a regular column for the magazine under the title “Urban Legend Source,” misses his deadline without notice. The magazine is struggling to stay afloat as it is, and any delay in the next issue’s publication would almost certainly spell its demise. Fujima and an intern hurry to Yumizu’s house, where they find Yumizu dead and missing his two eyes. They also find Manuscript B with the first part scorched black. The intern is the one who actually brings the manuscript back, and soon both he and his parents die in their home. The narrative thread set in the present proceeds with Fujima reading the manuscript and searching for a means to avert his own death four days hence.

Manuscript B is written as the first-person narrative of Riho Kisugi, an eighth-grader at Mitsukado Middle School. Her mother left her journalist father due to persistent domestic abuse, so Riho must now look after her grade-school brother Ryūhei and toddler sister Mami while her mother is at work. She also faces bullying at school, and her one place of respite is the public library, where she likes to read horror fiction. At the library, a girl who calls herself Yukari introduces her to the legend of the Zūnome doll, saying that it’s a story from “when my friend’s grandmother was little.” What Yukari gives her to read about the legend apparently includes the secret of how to break the curse, but Manuscript B deliberately omits this part. In relatively short order, three middle school girls who have been bullying Riho die mysterious deaths at around the same time. Having become aware of the Zūnome doll’s power, Riho tells her father about it when he visits, and soon he, too, dies. Apparently having heard the story from him, Riho’s younger brother and sister die as well. After that, Riho stops being able to see Yukari at the library, and things return to normal. Manuscript B goes on to tell of Riho growing up, getting married, and having a son, but then the narrative comes to an abrupt end without any clear resolution.

Having read this manuscript in the present, Fujima seeks the help of Kon Nozaki, a freelance writer and authority on urban legends who has written for the magazine in the past, and his fiancée Makoto Higa, who possesses strong spiritual powers. Their inquiries reveal that Mitsukado Middle School actually exists; that Makoto’s older sister Miharu was not only in the same class as the person who goes by the name of Riho and narrates the novel, but had died in a strange incident when she was in ninth grade; and that in other ways as well the novel appears to be based on fact. They also learn that the original handwritten Manuscript B was submitted to a now-defunct publisher’s new-writer contest, and there had been numerous deaths among the administrators of the contest.

With only a half day left before the Zūnome doll is expected to strike, the three discover that Riho is the popular culinary maven Yukari Tsujimura in real life. They go to see her at her home. Tsujimura admits that she wrote Manuscript B, but insists that she does not know how to break the curse and sends them away. Late that night, right on schedule, the doll comes to attack Fujima, but he and his companions narrowly escape death.

In real life, the girl calling herself Yukari who befriended Riho in the novel turns out to be the daughter of Bullshit editor-in-chief Tonami and her ex-husband Yumizu, the dead writer in whose possession Manuscript B was found. The daughter later commits suicide. Having read the manuscript herself, Tonami is conducting her own investigation, and she visits Yukari Tsujimura after Fujima and his companions have left. When the Zūnome doll attacks Tonami at about the same time as it attacks Fujima and the others, she makes a suicidal effort to take Tsujimura with her. It is because Riho, the original source of the curse, dies that the curse is broken and the other three are able to escape with their lives.

Even though it is revealed midway through the novel that the Zūnome doll story was fabricated out of whole cloth by Yukari, the legend takes on a life of its own and becomes something that neither Yukari nor Riho can control. The skill with which author Sawamura takes a patently absurd premise and builds it into a sinister but wholly believable plot is something to behold. The work easily matches Suzuki’s Ring and Fuyumi Ono’s Zan’e (Lingering Pollution) in its spine-tingling scariness.