Mizuki Tsujimura’s Lonely Castle in the Mirror follows Kokoro, a 7th grader at Yukishina No. 5 Junior High School. After having been bullied by her classmates, she stops going to school. She spends afternoons in bed, watching TV and waiting for her mother to come home from work. Kokoro can’t find it in herself to tell her mother what happened, and feels as if there is no way out. It is the castle in the mirror that eventually gives her a voice. There, she meets six other teenagers who, like her, have all stopped going to school. Throughout the next few months, they become friends.
The story unfolds and ends in a fairytale-like fashion— pleasantly circular, gentle in its mystery and allure. There is something both familiar and unfamiliar about all fairytales. Lonely Castle in the Mirror’s narrative is deeply influenced by Western fairytales, and its tropes can consequently feel too expected at times. However, there is something delightful in this, because the audience becomes so sure of what will happen next, allowing the opportunity to subvert those expectations. Tsujimura cleverly turns the fairytale on its head while staying true to the genre. The fantastical elements of the book don’t take precedence over its main focus on the children’s friendships and the emotional toll their exterior lives have taken on them. They instead frame the story; the plot is spurred forward by the possibilities the fantasy allows, but does not revolve solely around the fantasies themselves.
While reading Lonely Castle in the Mirror, I was thinking a lot about the way children speak and move through the world, how the whole expanse of the lives they’ve lived thus far can feel confined to a few landmarks, a handful of people, and nothing more. I used to believe that I would never forget what childhood was like, along with all of its hardships. But that’s impossible, I think. Surviving the thing makes it easier to downplay later on. It truly is hard, and Tsujimura is sympathetic to this, applying an eagle-eye focus to the moments that make childhood feel so visceral and difficult and taxing. She spends quite a bit of the story on Kokoro’s anxieties surrounding her relationships within the castle. She is initially upset when she sees Aki and Fuka’s closeness, wondering whether she is welcome at all or if she will end up alone again, much like her current situation at Yukishina No. 5 Junior High. And within the castle, it is the mundane things like playing video games and sharing snacks that allows for the friendships to fall into place, its allegiances and hostilities often unspoken at first.
Based on its premise, it’s clear that the book is interested in the degree to which bullying and ostracisation goes ignored, but less apparent is its focus on their inherent helplessness, not only against the adults in their lives but their peers, as well. It shows how lonely children only foster more loneliness, that children aren’t inherently evil or malicious but can sometimes just be lost or confused. The book does a great job of allowing all its characters grace without disregarding the impact of their actions. The children, all of whom have been ostracised, lost, or neglected, find solace and strength in each other. At the end of the day, Tsujimira is saying, it’s through conversation and companionship that things can change.
At one point in the novel, one of the children, Ureshino, lashes out because he feels like the other children aren’t taking him seriously. They eventually make up, and all is well. However, through those scenes, Tsujimura is able to show what most children want so badly. To belong, yes; but also to be spoken to and valued like an equal. Often, it’s easy to discount difficult childhood experiences as something everyone goes through, as if all suffering is a rite-of-passage to deserve— what? I’m not quite sure. After reading Lonely Castle in the Mirror, I was struck by the thought that perhaps adulthood would be less cruel if we stopped excusing children’s pain as childish pain.
In a separate note at the end of the novel, the publisher writes that ‘Japanese children were ranked second-to-last in an international survey assessing children’s mental health’. Tsujimura’s novel opens up a discussion about bullying and psychological well-being, which are often overlooked in favour of academic success and other such markers. It calls on us to remember what it was like to be children ourselves. Specifically, the memories, both happy and sad, that have left a lasting mark on our memories. Even something miniscule can leave us reeling years later, showing that all pain and suffering is just that. The presence of pain does not discount the wounds that come before or after it. Although the statistic listed in the publisher’s note is disheartening, the book ends on a hopeful note. Tsujimira has managed to preserve the most precious thing from childhood: wonder. Kokoro herself is fascinated by the world of fairytales, and all of the children in the castle are fascinated by a world that promises escape. We should allow ourselves that world. If we see each other through, we might just be able to build it.
Lonely Castle in the Mirror is written by Mizuki Tsujimura and translated by Philip Gabriel. It is available to purchase here.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor