Self-described “old retired gardener who was now pushing eighty-six”, Mas Arai makes his final appearance as an amateur detective in Naomi Hirahara’s novel Hiroshima Boy. I would add cantankerous to his self-description, in all the best literary nuances of that word. This seventh and final novel in the mystery series finds Arai-san in Hiroshima, where he lived through World War II, surviving the atomic bomb blast. He is there to return the cremated ashes of his friend, Haruo, to his friend’s sister who lives on a small island named Ino, a short ferry ride from Hiroshima.
As a child, Mas had gone to the island to go hiking. Ino was called the Little Mount Fuji of Hiroshima. Aside from being the approximate sloped shape, the mountain was, of course, nothing like Mount Fuji.… after the Bomb fell, Ino’s legacy had forever been altered.… The makeshift rafts, the lifeboats that people rode to escape the flattened and burning city, the black rain.… Ten thousand people had come to Ino seeking refuge. Unfortunately, far, far fewer were able to leave the island alive.
On the ferry, he notices a teenaged boy traveling by himself, and brooding, as Arai-san depicts him. On Ino, Arai-san stays in a guest room of a nursing home where Haruo’s sister lives. There he encounters the geriatric and eccentric residents, the harangued staff, and a one-eyed cat that he temporarily adopts and names after his friend Haruo. Things quickly go awry, as not only does he find his friend’s ashes have disappeared, but also discovers the body of the boy he noticed on the ferry. This tragic discovery recalls darker days.
This wasn’t the first time Mas had encountered the dead body of a teenager. There had been so many here in Hiroshima in 1945. His classmates, forced to work at the Hiroshima train station. During those last years of the war, there was no school. Men were disappearing and boys too young to be drafted still had to help with the war effort by doing manual labor. Names he hadn’t spoken in years came to his lips: Kenji, Riki, Joji.
At first, the death appears to be a suicide. The boy, named Sora, was a hikkikomori, one of the youths in Japan who rarely come out of their rooms. Perhaps his foray to the outside world was too much for him. But then clues and a postmortem reveal his death was a homicide. Arai-san finds himself involved, especially when Sora’s mother arrives on Ino and begins to turn over the “rocks” of both the present and the past. Several suspects in the murder come to light, including a gang of youths who bully all those weaker whom they encounter.
The legacy of the Bomb and its radioactivity also turns out to be a “suspect”. As Arai-san is drawn deeper into the case, often at his own peril, he is increasingly haunted by the memories of the Bomb. His reminiscing and his caring for the cat Haruo softens his rough edges, and we find out more about the tragedies of his youth.
Mas knew that a sibling had died in childbirth between him and his next oldest brother. Maybe that’s why he felt like an afterthought during most of his youth. Perhaps the sadness of a child dying had enveloped his mother, clouding her body not with hope but with fear, leading to a sense of disconnection.
As the case unravels before it is resolved skillfully by Hirahara, we are left with a strong feeling of unnecessary loss. This is heightened by the unexpected and dramatic resolution of the mystery of the disappearance of his friend Haruo’s ashes. And there is the bittersweet loss of an unforgettable fictional character, wrapped up in the final book of the series… but to Hirahara’s credit, not too neatly wrapped up.
Sayonara, Mas Arai.