“Fractured Soul” by Akira Mizubayashi

Akira Mizubayashi (photo: Francesca Mantovani) Akira Mizubayashi (photo: Francesca Mantovani)

Akira Mizubayashi’s Fractured Soul opens in Tokyo in 1938. Rei sits quietly to the side while his father Yu conducts rehearsal for a string quartet playing Franz Schubert’s “Rosamunde Quartet”. Yu plays first violin, accompanied by three exchange students from war-beleaguered China. When Yu realizes they’re about to receive an unexpected visit from Japan’s military police, he hides Rei in a Western-style wardrobe in a spare room. Rei listens as officers smash his father’s beloved instrument and then take Yu away, never to be seen again. A lone military officer discovers Rei’s hiding place, but keeps his secret.

The rest of the novel takes place in the early 2000s, with a number of flashbacks to scenes from Rei’s adult life. The reader learns that Rei has been adopted by a French diplomat and moved to France. He has taken on the French name Jacques and becomes a luthier—a craftsperson who makes and repairs stringed instruments. And he has spent his life repairing the violin destroyed by the Japanese military police that day in 1938.


Fractured Soul: A Novel, Akira Mizubayashi, Alison Anderson (trans) (HarperVia, March 2023)
Fractured Soul: A Novel, Akira Mizubayashi, Alison Anderson (trans) (HarperVia, March 2023)

Fractured Soul is an unapologetically sentimental book with a strong dose of pathos. The novel’s central metaphor is the “soul”, which translator Alison Anderson explains in a note. In French, âme names not only the human soul, but also


a very specific small piece of wood found in stringed instruments… a wooden peg that is in fact, in its own way, the soul of the instrument, the tiny material element that gives beauty and heart to the sound produced by the bow against the strings.


In English, this piece is almost always referred to as the “soundpost”.

In repairing the broken violin, Rei is repairing not only the instrument, but also himself. (Near the novel’s close, Rei finds himself “overcome by a strange sensation that release[s] him from the frozen space-time of his childhood, allowing him to land, at last, in the space-time of the present.”) It’s also notable that the cover (designed by Janet Evans Scanlon) features kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing cracked pottery with another substance—most famously gold. It is supposed to be an art of celebrating breakage as part of an object’s history, remaking it even stronger than before.

Beyond even Rei’s own recovery, the narrative offers a post-war redemption arc for Japanese society as a whole. In a beautiful karmic moment, Rei encounters the granddaughter of the military officer who protected his hiding place. The former officer taught his granddaughter to love string quartets, a kind of music which he insisted was the exact opposite of the military music that was used to “transform soldiers into herds of cattle”. Now, the granddaughter has become an internationally-renowned concert violinist. Through his granddaughter, the regretful soldier has been able to leave a legacy of peace.


Fractured Soul was originally written in French. (It won the prestigious French literary award, the Prix des libraires, in 2020.) Author Akira Mizubayashi is himself Japanese. He has taught French in Tokyo since 1983, and currently serves as a professor emeritus at Tokyo’s Sophia University.

In addition to its French origins, Fractured Soul also fits with other Japanese novels translated into English in the last several years. It occupies the same space as works like Shion Miura’s The Easy Life in Kamusari (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste (Alison Watts), or Miyashita Natsu’s The Forest of Wood in Steel (Philip Gabriel). In an earlier ARB review, I categorized works like these as “garbaru literature”:


Persistence takes center stage as characters “do their best” at difficult professions—usually unorthodox ones. Authors carefully lay out the details of obscure or minute crafts as characters fully commit to working hard at them.


But Fractured Soul avoids the pitfalls all too common in works of “ganbaru literature”. Sometimes “ganbaru” promotes a “keep moving forward” attitude that characters ought to persevere even when they face truly insurmountable odds that are outside of their control. (For example, some cultural critics accuse the Japanese government of using the phrase “ganbatte Tohoku” after the 3/11 Triple Disasters conceal its own neglect.) Fractured Soul, on the other hand, never ignores the characters’ trauma. Instead, the narrative shows the reader how the characters face the trauma and move forward anyway.


Mizubayashi adds complexity to an otherwise straightforward story by following a musical structure in the novel’s composition. Each section of the novel is named for one of the four movements of Schubert’s “Rosamunde Quartet”. Like many composers of classical music, Mizubayashi returns to the same themes many times to explore the same ideas and events from different angles. The result is a strikingly intricate, tightly woven novel. It’s compelling.

Fractured Soul also makes frequent references to a Japanese children’s classic, Genzaburo Yoshino’s How Do You Live? (translated by Bruno Navasky). It is a remarkably anti-militaristic and anti-authoritarian book given its debut in 1937. In Fractured Soul, Rei’s father gives him the book, and Rei is reading the novel the day his father is arrested; it continues to shape his choices for the rest of his life. This is how Rei later describes the book’s importance:


Right in the midst of fascist madness and infatuation with all things military and jingoistic, Yoshino was bold enough to write, for a young Japanese audience, a book that advocated the critical use of reason and defended the moral superiority of friendship among equals over the blind submission to one’s elders and leaders that was rampant. I think my father wanted to raise me as a young man who could keep his wits about him in any situation, who wouldn’t succumb to collective folly, and would rebel against absurdity.


Although familiarity with How Do You Live? isn’t necessary to enjoy Fractured Soul, it certainly enriches the reading experience. Readers interested in Yoshino’s novel might also want to know that it takes a central role in Hayao Miyazaki’s highly-anticipated film of the same title, scheduled for release in Japan this July.

Akira Mizubayashi could easily have written a similar book that stayed in the realm of comfortably sentimental. Instead, Fractured Soul presents readers with a symphony of a novel—a tale about recovery and redemption for both one human individual and a society that gave way to nationalism and fear.

Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.