Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Hell is a stand-alone contemporary fantasy novel. It was first published in 2003 as Heru ; the 2007 English translation is by Evan Emswiler.
Nobutero, Yuzo and Takeshi were childhood chums during World War II but took different paths in life afterward. Takeshi was a law-abiding guy, albeit one with a fatal weakness for seducing married women. Yuzo joined the Yakuza. Nobutero steered a middle path between respectability and criminality.
Hell waits for them all.
The three buddies had markedly different lifespans: Yuzo died young, knifed to death by rivals. At age fifty-seven, Takeshi was murdered by an irate husband. Nobutero lives the longest, becoming senile in the end.
Following his brutal murder, Takeshi is rather surprised to find himself whole in body and spirit. That’s not the aftermath he expects from a fatal car accident. The explanation is quite simple: he died and went to Hell. This would be a catastrophic fate for a Westerner, but as Takeshi soon learns, Japanese people have a rather convenient loophole where Hell is concerned.
You know what Hell is? It’s just a place without God. The Japanese don’t believe in God to begin with, so what’s the difference between this world and the world of the living?”
Thus, rather than the torments a Westerner might experience, life after death for people like Yuzo, Takeshi, and Nobutero isn’t so bad. Indeed, freed of the emotions they experienced while alive, not to mention freed of time itself, it is easier to come to terms with the past.
I’ve come to expect a fair bit of wooden language in translations of Japanese books. This is an exception. Emswiler has done a masterful job.
The novel’s plot is quite minimal. The book is more of a collection of loosely connected and melancholy slice-of-life anecdotes than one narrative. Nevertheless, the characters are interesting and their stories are quite engaging. I was reminded of Yokahama Kodaishi Kiko … but with these differences: this book is earthier and things do happen. It’s not all melancholy musing.