The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike

The Graveyard Apartment
A terrifying tale of a young family who move into an apartment building next to a graveyard and the horrors that are unleashed upon them.

One of the most popular writers working in Japan today, Mariko Koike is a recognized master of detective fiction and horror writing. Known in particular for her hybrid works that blend these styles with elements of romance, The Graveyard Apartment is arguably Koike’s masterpiece. Originally published in Japan in 1986, Koike’s novel is the suspenseful tale of a young family that believes it has found the perfect home to grow in to, only to realize that the apartment’s idyllic setting harbors the specter of evil and that longer they stay, the more trapped they become.

This tale of a young married couple who are harboring a dark secret is packed with dread and terror, as they and their daughter move into a brand new apartment building built next to a graveyard. As strange and terrifying occurrences begin to pile up, people in the building begin to move out one by one, until the young family is left alone with someone… or something… lurking in the basement. The psychological horror builds moment after moment, scene after scene, culminating with a conclusion that will make you think twice before ever going into a basement again.
Oh my gosh I was so disappointed in this one, you guys. I thought for sure this would be a home run, I mean Japanese horror, HOW CAN YOU GO WRONG. It has to be creepy, right?

Nope. Turns out it can just be stilted and kind of boring.

Conceptually it’s fine: a family moves into an apartment building erected right next to a graveyard and starts experiencing weird shit. The execution is where it’s lacking. I don’t know if it’s a style thing or a translation thing or just a bad combination of the two, but the narration in this book is winding and super redundant. Characters return to the same thoughts, opinions, feelings, and ideas over and over and over again, as though they’re afraid that we won’t understand or remember them they only state them once.

Specific phrases and words are also re-used pretty frequently, some oddly elaborate and circuitous enough that they stick out more than they normally would. I’m assuming that the words are maybe more common in Japan and/or have a very specific, wordy translation, but the cumulative effect of this, the concept repetition, and the stilted dialogue, is that The Graveyard Apartment can be a real fucking chore to get through.

It’d even out maybe if the story were a little more interesting, but there’s just not a whole to propel the narrative. Spooks are mild and sparse, and there’s little effort made to explain anything. The Graveyard Apartment contains some interesting elements – the dark history of Misao and Teppei’s seemingly idyllic relationship, the mysteriously halted construction of an underground shopping mall, the slow desertion of the apartment complex and isolation of the family, and a pretty mindfucky scene in the basement towards the end – but none of it ever builds to anything concrete. Threads are brought up but never tied together, and the last act plays out without any real explanation or motivation beyond “ghostly evil”.

Also, I’m sorry, but an evil house just straight-up vaporizing outsiders before they can provide or call for help is totally cheating. That’s cheap, evil apartment building.

It’s absolutely possible that there’s some vital cultural context that I’m missing that makes Graveyard Apartment super creepy and relevant – presumably there’s a reason that it’s a classic – but as someone just looking for some spooks, this book didn’t do it for me. There were some creepy ideas and sequences involved, but the writing was too clunky to enjoy, and the payoff too lackluster to make it worth it. It’s a bummer, but I’d have to say pass.

three stars


5 Responses

  1. maverynthia

    October 12, 2016 8:37 pm, Reply

    I notice in translated book that somehow the narrative gets repetitive as if the editor/translator is only translating something one way and one way only. Like in “Vampire Hunter D” the word ‘countenance’ was repeated so many times I decided to make a counter and between two pages the count was at 15 or something. (‘visage’ ranked in at number two). The editor/translator just could not say “pretty face”, “beautiful complexion”, or any thing that involved synonyms for face. It was always ‘countenance’. A few other books have done that too. Different publishers and different editor/translators.
    Maybe that’s what’s going on here.

    Also if you saw my Ju-oh novel review on GoodReads. Repetition does seem to be a thing though.

    • Cyna Cyna

      October 19, 2016 3:29 pm, Reply

      Yeah but I assume if the same translated word/phrase appears multiple times on a page, then the word it’s being translated from would also appear? Hence my confusion about the apparent repetition. But if it’s a thing, it’s a thing.

  2. ZeldaQueen

    October 17, 2016 1:55 pm, Reply

    It is a shame. It sounds like some of the writing is from the translation (although without reading it myself, it’s hard to say exactly how much). I know I’ve read a few fan-translated light novels and without accounting for cultural differences (for example, translating something literally instead of considering a less-literal but more tonally-appropriate phrasing). In regards to the repetition, there are also certain phrases and such that are repeated in Japanese culture, for example “I’m about to receive” and “It was a feast” before and after meals. As for the flowery language, that could be a result of the politeness factor of Japan. The more polite one is, the more lengthy and formal their speech is.

    That all could account for the cultural differences, but the awkward prose still, in part, sounds like it falls on the translator. Some Japanese words, phrases, or concepts can be awkward to translate, but there are more than enough good localizations and translations to prove that it’s not impossible to do.

    In regards to the ghostly ambiguity, though, that’s totally on the Japanese horror genre. Having an unexplained, vague evil is a Big Thing for J-horror. My Japanese teacher in high school described the difference as American horror movies having a horror element terrorize specific people and be about them trying to fight it, while Japanese horror movies have a horror element who just goes around killing and terrorizing people in general.

    Manga artist Junji Ito showcases this all really well. His horror stories have stuff just HAPPEN, rarely for any reason, and there’s almost no resolution. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Case in point, a majority of his series, “Uzumaki”, is flipping terrifying, but one story was goofy enough that Linkara featured it at a convention panel.

    • Cyna Cyna

      October 19, 2016 3:56 pm, Reply

      Yeah I think the translation was going for literal rather than tonal, and I mentally glossed over a lot of stuff for that reason, particularly in the hella stilted dialogue (the five-year-old child character in particular was translated in such a way that made her sound like an adult, which was super jarring xD). I’ve read a handful of (to my recollection) well-translated Japanese novels and hadn’t remembered running into the repetition specifically, which is why this one threw me a bit.

      That’s fair, I think what was confusing for me on the vagueness of it was that there was actual investigation into the source of the evil that seemed like it was going somewhere, like government conspiracy or yakuza stuff, and then it just…didn’t resolve or come back up. I figured maybe it was enough hinting that with the right cultural context you could come to some conclusion…or it was just some red herring shit.

      In general it was one of those situations where I was just kind of stumped like, I wish I had the context/information necessary to parse this on more than a surface level.

      I’ve heard a lot about Ito and Uzumaki, esp in international horror rec threads, but most of what I’d seen referenced a lot of gross/gore or just the goofy shit, so I never looked into it further. Would it be worth reading it without a stomach for that sort of thing?

  3. ZeldaQueen

    October 24, 2016 12:21 am, Reply

    That’s a shame, with the translation. I can imagine how the child sounded. I don’t know if the novel had any, but sex scenes are also something pretty awkward to translate.XD (Among other things, instead of saying “I’m coming”, it’s “I’m going!” The more you know!)

    It also doesn’t help, on a non-sex note, that sometimes Japanese has words that technically have the same meaning, but have subtle context differences. It makes using an online translation site and such really hard to use, because sometimes it’s guesswork as to which translation is most accurate to what you want. That really tripped a lot of the folks in my Japanese class up, when we’d look for words we hadn’t actually learned yet. An example that sticks out is that there’s “Kami no ke” and “kami”, both of which literally mean “hair”, but are used in different contexts (my teacher said that “kami” means more like “fur”, so “kami no ke” is more for human hair – fur on the head, basically. At least, that’s how I remember it going. Been awhile.)

    That being said, I’m not sure how much of this can be laid on the translator. Looking her up on Goodreads, it looks like Deborah Boliver Boehm has translated a few Japanese novels besides this, so it doesn’t look like she’s new to the game. Without having read either of them, it’s either that she’s not the best translator and it just hasn’t come up or the novel itself isn’t very good (even if it’s popular, hey. I’m sure Japan has its share of critically acclaimed, yet incredibly stupid YA lit).

    In regards to the evil, that does sound annoying. I hear you on the context aspect. I know in manga and such, it’s not uncommon to put notes indicating cultural explanations or translation issues. It makes me think the book should have had something like that, maybe in the form of footnotes.

    Ohhhh… if you don’t like gore or body horror, I would not recommend the works of Junji Ito. He’s genuinely scary (his works are some of the few things I read that legitimately frighten and unnerve me. It’s tough for me to get that with fictional stuff) and a lot of his stuff does have interesting symbolism and figurative aspects, but it also can be incredibly bloody and/or gross. Just…lots of really nasty stuff happens to people. (Arguably that’s why his work’s so creepy. It’s not just that there are murderous ghosts or monsters, but that this sort of thing often happens to people for trivial reasons or no reason at all. The universe can just make your tongue turn into a snail or fill your house with evil mold or whatever just because.)

    Actually, a lot of Japanese horror manga is pretty gory, come to think of it (my main sources of manga horror are Frankenfran and, when it was being published, Pet Shop of Horrors/Tokyo). Probably the one that’s the least gross/bloody is Zekkyou Gakkyuu (Screaming Lessons), which has its share of stuff happening, but the violent stuff’s mostly off-page.

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