Monday 26 February 2024

Review by Gus Gresham of "Pictures of Yukio" by Brian Howell

While reading this chapbook short story, I had a sense of moving towards something mystical, poetic and subtly menacing. Three Japanese university students become enamoured of the work of Mishima Yukio, a writer who was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature five times in the 1960s. 

In the modern day setting of the story, Yukio’s shadowy face appears on the wall of a university building, its clarity subject to changes in daylight and sunlight. Pictures of Yukio is driven as much by the pictures of Yukio on the wall as it is by pictures / vignettes of the three student friends, Yutaka, Kimie and Osamu.

According to some sources, Mishima Yukio was a controversial figure, espousing right-wing views that mourned the loss of Imperial Japanese culture, and his writing was a flamboyant fusion of Japanese and Western styles. By contrast, stylistically, Howell’s prose is clear, spare and understated, but Mishima’s life and motivations are echoed in Howell’s story. There are parallel themes, including the theme of “manifesto.” The manifesto of the friends is also a call to arms for returning to the past, but this modern manifesto focuses around the idea of rejecting the globalised Western-driven trend of digital connectivity and the ills of social media that are in ascendancy in modern societies the world over.

Our narrator, Yutaka, offers an early prefiguring: “once you start texting, it becomes complicated. Misunderstandings pile on misunderstandings that can only really be sorted out in the real world of face-to-face communication.” And there are undertones of casual menace in the everyday: “I had noticed a samurai sword specialist shop adjacent to the love hotel.”

Given that Mishima Yukio was an alumnus of the university where the three friends study – and that Yukio delivered an impassioned political speech followed by ritual suicide – a reader is at once beguiled and fascinated, and wonders where this absorbing story will ultimately lead.

Pictures of Yukio is haunting and beautifully written. It lives on in the memory after reading. It made me want to know more about the inspirations behind it, and more about the author. Brian Howell lives outside Tokyo and teaches in Japan. He is also an established writer of short stories and novels. I have no hesitation recommending this forthcoming chapbook story and I’ll certainly be checking out more of Howell’s work.


About the Reviewer 
Gus Gresham has an MA in Creative Writing (NTU) and has worked as a mechanical engineer, construction worker, fruit picker, environmental activist, writer, English tutor, audio-book producer, medical-scenario simulator/facilitator, civil funeral celebrant, and building surveyor. He’s had short stories published in literary magazines including Brittle Star and Under the Radar, and his most recent novel, Kyiv Trance – a dark, twisty, love story and crime thriller – is available on Amazon.

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