Be With You
 Takuji Ichikawa, Terry Gallagher (translator)
Language: English Release: 2006
Publisher: Viz Media Pages: 267
Genre: Fiction ISBN: 1421513935

Preview: Order
(Page previews barred by copyright)
Back Cover
Nicholas Driscoll

In the early 2000's, there was a phenomenally increased interest in romantic fiction in Japan that corresponded with a specific kind of weepy, idealized love story—the so-called "Pure Love" boom. This fascination culminated in the biggest publishing success in Japan's history—Socrates in Love, which I reviewed earlier. Naturally there were a number of other notable success stories of Pure Love that blossomed into multimedia franchises, such as Train Man (2005) and the subject of today's review, Takuji Ichikawa's Be With You, which has received limited attention in the U.S. This may change, however, with a Hollywood remake in the works as of this writing.

While I was in Japan, the movie version was recommended to me by my friends, but I never got around to seeing it because the rental version didn't include English subtitles. I was also admittedly leery of the movie, having grown weary of the apparent "Pure Love" fascination with setting up sentimental romances that inevitably end with the tragic death of the innocent, wonderful, beautiful female lover. Thus I went into Be With You the translated novel with some trepidation—and came out pleasantly surprised.

The story sets itself apart as something of an urban ghost story. The main character and narrator, Takumi, is a single widowed father of a spunky and smart boy named Yuji. Takumi, however, is not an ordinary Japanese man; he suffers from a mental instability that traps him within a close radius around his home. If he rides in any vehicle (other than an ambulance), pretty soon chemicals in his system max out and he has a paralyzing anxiety attack—a symptom that affects him in classrooms and movie theaters, too. He and Yuji struggle to get along by themselves, living a slovenly bachelor lifestyle tinged with sadness. However, their lives are thrown topsy turvy when, on a walk, they encounter Takumi's deceased wife, Mio, apparently whole and resurrected from the dead—but without any memory of her past. Close inspection proves it must be her, even down to the moles, and Takumi convinces her she is his wife and sets about eagerly reintegrating this most precious person back into his life while recounting to her their bittersweet love story, and worrying about the implications of living with a ghost. As it turns out, Mio had actually promised him that she would be back with the rainy season after she died, in order to check up on him… But that her visit would be short, and she would be gone before the heavy heat of summer. As Takumi unravels the mystery, he uncovers a story of the striking endurance of love and destiny.

Admittedly, this is all very sappy, but it really works. Takumi is deeply sympathetic because he is a complex character, obviously heartfelt and, according to the afterword by the author, based on Ichikawa's own experience (thankfully without Novala Takemoto's egotism). Takumi has deep problems in his unbalanced state, but he is also very intelligent and well-read, accepting his lot in life with humility and understanding. His story of his romance with Mio (as he recalls to her throughout the novel) is honestly touching, as two awkward souls meet and get to know each other over years of acquaintance until circumstance finally opens their eyes to love—a love that nearly dies with Takumi's sudden affliction. In some ways, the tale mirrors the love story in Milk White (2004), as both stories deal with men afflicted with crippling diseases, and both men push away the ones who love them most. Be With You, however, handles the characters much better than the Milk White (2004) movie, successfully exploring Takumi's heart and motivations and crafting a tale more conducive to affecting reader empathy.

Mio is less developed, but the mystery surrounding her keeps readers guessing and caring, wanting to know who or what she really is. She is lost without her memories, but finds herself falling in love with Takumi as if for the first time. Yuji fulfills the role of "cute kid" well, and has pathos of his own to work through as his birth may have inadvertently caused the eventual death of his mother, and he must struggle with a weight never meant for such small shoulders.

Obviously the melodrama is high, but it is focused and earnest, with mostly honest characterizations. Some plot elements, nevertheless, are weak—the most blatant being that resurrected Mio never calls on her parents or former friends in an attempt to regain her memories, and no real complications result from this ghost suddenly living with Takumi. She is visible to everyone, after all, and she operates as his wife. So, what, she doesn't answer the phone for him? The neighbors don't ask what's going on? We are led to believe that Mio really is there in the flesh, but no one finds out except those who Takumi allows into the secret. It's a massive strain on credibility, but the charm of the characters carries through.

The writing itself, as translated by Terry Gallagher, has its ups and downs. The story moves along swiftly enough that boredom is never really a factor, but sometimes dialogue and vocabulary choice become redundant to the point of minor distraction, as Takumi favors the word "fantastic" a bit too much, and characters say "really?" and "that's right" all the time. There is also a plot point wherein the Japanese habit of digging out earwax with ear picks becomes important, which will have Western ear doctors cringing. However, the most troubling aspect of the translation is in the dialogue; much like in some of the other Japanese novels I've read, too frequently it is difficult to know who is saying what because the author assiduously avoids the convention of identifying the speaker. This odd flaw comes to a head on page 245:


The roof was covered with artificial turf with a few benches. Here and there were groups of old people and their families. Everyone was talking quietly and looking out at the sea.

"What a fantastic view!"

"Don't you think?"

"How many years has it been since I've seen the sea? For Yuji this must be the first time ever."

"The real thing."

"Yes, this is the real thing."

"It's kinda scary."

"Yeah. That's what's so great about the real thing."


There are a lot of problems with this exchange. First, the paragraph before the dialogue implies that it is the old people and their families talking, but obviously this is not the case once we reach the third line of the conversation, because suddenly someone is talking about Yuji. We know from context earlier on the page that Mio, Takumi, and Yuji are present, too, but it isn't immediately clear who is talking about what. The third line of dialogue must be Takumi because he knows the most about Yuji's experiences, and he seems to be talking to Mio, but we shouldn't have to read and reread dialogue several times over just to figure out who is talking when. The fact is, even after analyzing the exchange, it is still possible to interpret the speakers credibly in several different configurations. This is incredibly sloppy writing.

That said, of the seven Japanese pop-fiction novels I have read to completion, Be With You is easily my favorite. Ichikawa has crafted genuinely interesting characters, thrust them into a conundrum of importance to us all (love and life after death), and he even managed to pull a surprise ending on me. I can't speak of the movie, manga, or television drama, but the book succeeds handily in telling a story thick with melancholy and sentiment, and for those readers who thrive off of such stories, Be With You is well recommended.