We all probably at one point or other in our lives have wanted a do-over. Go back to take the left fork in the road, instead of the right. Take back words said in anger, or say words not voiced. In Eto Mori’s novel, Colorful, a nameless soul from a person who committed an egregious sin is allowed another chance at life to make up for that transgression. However, the soul must agree to accept the conditions of the do-over, or face eternal death, never being able to reincarnate. Or as Prapura, the angel in charge, puts it:
“Congratulations! You’ve won the lottery!” The angel smiled. “You committed a grave error before you died. Hence, your soul is now culpable. Generally, you would be disqualified at this time and removed from the cycle of rebirth. … However, more than a few consider this to be a barbaric taking of life, and so our boss occasionally gives lottery winners a second chance, as it were. You are one such lucky soul!”
The lottery win means the soul is assigned to inhabit the body of another person and to live that person’s life, or as Prapura calls it “a homestay”. The conditions of the do-over are that the soul knows nothing about its previous life, nor of the person it inhabits. There is a limited amount of time for the homestay soul to make amends by learning about the person now inhabited and correcting any wrongs committed. “Retraining” as Prapura calls it.
The soul agrees to these conditions, and soon after inhabits the body of Makoto Kobayashi, a 14-year-old boy. Makoto is in a hospital emergency room and has just been pronounced dead after committing suicide. When the soul merges with the ninth-grader’s body, Makoto miraculously comes back to life. In the room are his befuddled parents and older brother, and incredulous doctors. It’s a messy beginning to the soul’s homestay.
As Makoto heals and then goes home, he struggles to understand his family and learn why he committed suicide. Everything seems like he’s landed into a perfectly normal family. Then Prapura gives him some hints to guide his discovery, which leads him to find out that not all is perfect.
What I’d thought was your average happy little family was actually a vipers’ nest. On the surface, each of them was kind and loving and warm, but underneath all that, they were hiding seriously nasty truths about who they really were. Nothing but a group of actors going through the motions of being a family.
The homestay gets more complicated when Makoto returns to school. The boy is shorter than most of his classmates, woefully underperforms in his studies, and spends most of his time in the school art club, all of which make him a prime target for bullying. The girl classmate he learns that he likes has a dark secret, which was likely the motivating factor in his suicide. The only redeeming quality he sees in himself is a talent for drawing and painting.
His situation gets worse, and Makoto begs Prapura to release him from his homestay. The angel reminds him that if he leaves before completing his retraining, his soul is doomed. The angel gives him another hint to guide his path, and exhorts him to keep trying. Makoto realizes that this is his last chance, and he agrees to keep trying, if only for one more day.
Colorful, a bestseller in Japan first published in 1998, weaves an entertaining mystery of identity within a classic morality tale, and ends with a satisfying twist. The three elements of a morality tale are there—conflict, decision, and lesson. The lesson for the soul, and for us as readers, is to discover the complexities of life and people, and not be satisfied with superficial appearances or explanations. Eto Mori provides us this lesson with her entertaining novel, at times thoughtfully serious and at times laugh out loud humorous.
Todd Shimoda is the author of Why Ghosts Appear, Subduction, Oh! A Mystery of 'Mono No Aware', The Fourth Treasure and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji.