Cultural Interzones: ‘Numamushi’ by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh – Novella Review

Angelica Meneely
Angelica Meneely
A proud Londonder and a recent graduate from UCL with a BA in Comparative Literature and Portuguese, with particular interests in the creative arts and exploring global cultures.

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Numamushi is a novella by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh that fluidly bridges different worlds. From curses to rural landscapes, the text captures a true Japanese and British cultural blend. 

Adopted by a river’s guardian spirit, the novella follows the eponymous Numanushi who learns to catch frogs and shed his skin. But, Numamushi’s world shifts and acute curiosity awakens when a mysterious man named Mizukiyo moves into the abandoned house near the river one day. Their friendship grows when Mizukiyo teaches Numamushi to write, but with their budding relationship comes greater consequences. Both embark on personal journeys of growth. While Numamushi learns more about the secrets surrounding the history of the house and the river, Mizukiyo has to learn to come to terms with his cursed past. The novella is accompanied by some wonderful illustrations that deepen the highly descriptive writing.

Mina Ikemoto Ghosh

Mina Ikemoto Ghosh, the author of Numamushi, is a British-Japanese writer and illustrator who was born in Surrey, UK, with family in Wakayama prefecture. She completed a Master’s degree in Japanese Studies at the University of Oxford with a particular focus on Contemporary Anthropology and Classical Literature. Some of her other works include short stories like The Dividual, featured in the After Dinner Conversation series, or The Converter of Time, as well as an upcoming YA novel, Hyo the Hellmaker, set to be released in March 2024.

Mina Ikemoto Ghosh – Lanternfish Press

I was lucky enough to have the chance to discuss the novella with Ghosh. When I quizzed her about her intended readership, she remarked that she did not have a specific intended audience in mind when writing. But the text may, perhaps, appeal to those who quest to further understand themselves; those confronted with anxieties surrounding cultural identity, that is, people belonging to a ‘cultural interzone’. On reflection, using Ghosh’s own words, it is precisely this feeling or idea of a ‘cultural interzone’ that shines through the text and caught my attention as I dived into this fictional terrain. The main characters, Numamushi and Mizukiyo, face the experience of learning to live in between two distinct ‘cultures’.

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Numamushi plot

Enveloped in the rural setting, the characters are detached from society and this creates a general sense of timelessness within Numamushi as a whole. Yet, as the plot unfolds, we slowly come to learn that the novella is temporally situated in 1950.

Following the sheer destruction that the country faced in the aftermath of the Second World War, Japan had to construct and navigate, with uncertainty, its modern national identity. The US Occupation of Japan, which formally lasted from 1945 to 1952, created a social state of liminality. Ghosh revealed in our discussion that she actively opted to set the text in this specific era primarily because this crucial period of identity construction in Japanese history has the capability to mirror the experiences of those in a ‘cultural interzone’. The USA culturally colonised Japan through processes of Americanisation and, in turn, Japan’s modern identity became more hybridised.

The different layers of identity configuration that can be found in the setting and presentation of the characters enrich the novella and prompt a point of contemplation for the reader, especially for those who can identify closely with similar experiences. While the interplay of atemporality and specified time enhances the text’s overall mysterious ambience, it is the way in which the social and historical context is bound tightly with the fictional world that is demonstrative of Ghosh’s careful narrative construction and underscores the text’s distinctive quality.

Shinto Shrine: Where reality meets spiritual – Unsplash (Syuhei Inoue)

Inspiration behind Numamushi

Besides the intriguing plot, Numamushi is an interesting piece because it evades any specific genre identity, so the text’s very own make-up mirrors the experience of existing in the ‘cultural interzone’.

Ghosh grew up reading British fantasy literature such as the works of J.R.R. Tolkein or C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and although Numamushi incorporates fantastic elements, the novella isn’t purely a fantasy like the aforementioned novels.

Clive Staples Lewis – British writer famously known for The Chronicles of Narnia

The story is also completely shrouded in mystery and partly conforms to the aesthetics of 1950s Japanese murder mysteries. In our discussion, Ghosh indicated that the mid-late 20th century Kosuke Kindaichi series by Seishi Yokomizo, an absolute classic in Japanese media, influenced her work, as seen through the abandoned house setting and the creation of Mizukiyo’s character.

Seishi Yokomizo – Japanese writer famously known for Kosuke Kindaichi

Her storytelling sensibilities stem from her upbringing reading Japanese murder mysteries on her mum’s bookshelf and Detective Conan, the famous detective manga series from the mid-90s onwards. These modern Japanese murder mysteries have absorbed tropes found in Western detective fiction, while also paying homage to iconic fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.

Ghosh deliberately includes these formulas and in doing so maintains a layered dialogue with Japanese and British literary history so they closely intermingle with one another. Thus, readers well acquainted with all these different types of literature will especially enjoy the visible traces of these influences in Ghosh’s novella.

British Greenery: The North Downs in Surrey – Unsplash (Sandro Cenni)

East and West

The blurred genre identity reminded me of how divisions between the spiritual realm and reality are less distinct from each other in Japanese and other East/South East Asian cultures in comparison to the West.

Through an anthropological example, Ghosh compared how ghosts in the West are often antagonistic figures that are meant to be gone from our world. On the other hand, the living maintain an active relationship with the dead in Japan with the belief that they are present in our world. Obon, a festival of likely Buddhist origin, marks the time of year in which Japanese families honour their ancestors by visiting and washing their gravestones among other festivities.

Even though the novella does not overtly comment on such customs or spiritual relationships, Numamushi strays away from any stubborn or concrete distinctions between the fantasy/spiritual world and everyday life as the two interact with each other. These subtle insights on Japanese culture offer greater nuance to the text.

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A post shared by Mina Ikemoto Ghosh (@minaikemoto119)

I was particularly struck by the stunning descriptions of nature that permeate the text. The novella opens with vivid evocations of the natural world: the ‘river’s scaled waves’, loving is associated with ‘the spring sunlight’. Japan’s profound relationship with the natural world has been notably present throughout the history of its arts, from the formation of a haiku (short poems which originally sought to evoke images of the natural world) to the subjects of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints, translated as ‘pictures of the floating world’, popular in the Edo Period (1615-1868) – famously, Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa).

Similarly, greenery and landscapes have maintained a prominent position within Britain’s artistic culture, from the expressive landscapes (such as Norham Castle, Sunrise) by 18th century painter JMW Turner, to serving as a major inspiration for 20th century composer Gustav Holst’s classical music (like The Planets). With prior knowledge of Ghosh’s roots in Surrey and rural Wakayama prefecture, as well as of the importance of nature within the history of both Japanese and British arts, I couldn’t help but read into this aspect of the text. It is through the natural and rural world which engulfs the characters that Ghosh manages to find subtly, or perhaps unintentionally, some cultural similarities between Japan and the UK.

The novella is a layered and unique tale, full of surprises. Ghosh’s writing relishes in ambiguity and features vivid imagery that allows the imagination to soar and lingers in your mind even after you have finished it. Numamushi is seasoned with Japanese flavours, and also creates scope for several forms of ‘cultural’ encounters to take place and seep through the whole text. Experiences of residing in a ‘cultural Interzone’ are not conveyed by a sense of unease, but rather, are recognised and celebrated.

For readers in the UK/outside of the USA, Numamushi is available to buy on Blackwell’s or on Amazon in either paperback or digital form.

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