“Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight” by Riku Onda

Riku Onda (photo: Yuji Hongo) Riku Onda (photo: Yuji Hongo)

There is a word in Japanese—komorebi—that refers to the way sun shines through the trees, casting a sea of soft, dark shadows scattered with gleams of light, a phenomenon reflected in the title of Riku Onda’s most recently-translated psychological thriller Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight.  


Deep below the dappled sunlight, fish twist and turn at the bottom of a dark-blue pool. Occasionally they rise to the surface with a flick of fins, but it is impossible to see them clearly or count them.


The novel opens with Hiro and Aki meeting for the last time in their now-empty Tokyo apartment before going their separate ways. The previous summer, the couple vacationed in the mountains together and hired a local guide to accompany them on a hike; however, the excursion ended abruptly when he slipped and fell to his death. As the humid night wears on, suspicion of culpability hangs heavily between Hiro and Aki—each believes the other committed the murder.


Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda, Alison Watts (trans) (Bitter Lemon, June 2022)
Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight, Riku Onda, Alison Watts (trans) (Bitter Lemon, June 2022)

As in Onda’s previous thriller Aosawa Murders, also translated by Alison Watts, structure adds to the suspense. Untitled chapters, told in the first person, alternate between Hiro and Aki taking the role of narrator, each wrestling internally with how much to reveal, carefully analyzing their thoughts before speaking. Onda’s choice of setting—a quiet apartment devoid of evidence of their shared life—is conducive to remembering long forgotten details.

Without the distractions of daily life, the characters’ sensory perceptions are heightened, and they become more aware of each other’s movements. When Hiro sees Aki fold a plastic bag, a flashback of her behavior during a break on the hike comes to his mind. Later, she notices the way he slices salami with his pocketknife and recalls a detail from their meeting with the guide. New recollections are also triggered by the senses: the scent of grass, the taste of a cigarette, and the hum of the kitchen fan. A memory comes to life before Aki’s eyes, for example, and she watches the mountain guide making his way through the familiar landscape of the forest.


I stare blankly at the wall, and an image of the man flashes across my eyes. I see his broad, powerful back from behind, almost like a projection. Shadows filtered through the trees play across his body as he walks ahead of me at an unhurried pace, along the mountain trail cocooned by lush green forest.


As their memories are gradually pieced together, a narrative of not only their mountain trek, but also their complex relationship emerges. Even though Hiro and Aki remember key events from their own distinct vantage points, they come to a new understanding of their past and the secrets that have been hidden from them. Throughout the book, Onda repeatedly returns to images of clocks, alluding to the complex associations between time and memory. The only remaining object in their apartment is an expensive photo frame with a timepiece. Looking at it, they imagine how their story could have turned out differently. Then focusing their attention to a snapshot from the hike, they consider which emotions shine through—grief or joy, frustration or love. After all, memories, like photos, can be seen through different filters.


Albums are full of people smiling. But if that’s the only kind of photo you see of the past, your memory gets distorted. You fall under the illusion that everything was always happy and lightness when in fact it wasn’t. There’s always some kind of conflict going on behind the scenes – people being bullied, love-hate relationships playing out and so on.


While some memories swim to the surface easily, some are distorted by time, and others do their best to remain buried. Ultimately, Onda’s novel centers on uncovering deeper aspects of the past, and readers won’t be able to stop reading until the solution comes to light.

Mary Hillis (@mhillis) is a teacher and writer based in Japan.