Let’s Talk About Japanese Books: 石黒くんに春は来ない

Ishiguro-kun ni Haru ha Konai (Spring Will Never Come to Ishiguro-kun)
武田綾乃 (Takeda Ayano) | 320 pages | イースト・プレス East Press

When the writer of Euphonium mentioned she had finished writing a mystery book in the fanbook, people were ecstatic and surprised. How can an adorable woman who loves Cities: Skyline and all things cute write a mystery? Some speculate it would be along the lines of the 古典部 series (the actual series name for Hyouka) where she could write a Kumiko and Reina into a “life is interesting and filled with mysteries” (日常の謎) deal. But if you read on the interview, she said that it was refreshing to write a cast of unlikable, awful characters.

She is underestimating her ability to make even her unlikable characters likable. But it is true: none of 石黒くんに春は来ない’s characters is a good person. Long gone are the fluffy days of the Euphonium franchise, hello poetic justice.

Kitamura Megumi (北村恵美) is an average high school girl who respects her place in the school caste. People can only hang out with other people in the same caste. Anyone who goes against this tacit rule will be punished by the leaders of the system.

But her crush, Ishiguro Kazuya (石黒和也), isn’t aware of the school caste system. He doesn’t know that he is considered one of those lowly guys, so he asks his best friend Ushou Masayoshi (宇正正義) if he should confess to the queen of the school caste Kusumi Kyouka (久住京香) to be his girlfriend during a school trip to the ski cabin. Masayoshi, also dull with his world, thinks it will be okay. Kyouka rejects him. One of Megumi’s friends, Sasaki Hana (佐々木花), sees Kazuya moping in the construction yard. The next day, Kazuya goes missing. He is later found by rescuers days after near the construction yard and is hospitalized ever since. Hana, traumatized by the guilt that she could have stopped Kazuya from killing himself, becomes a hikikomori in her own house.

So Megumi and everyone else feel a void in the classroom. They think Kyouka is behind this, but they can’t do a thing about it.

When the new school term begins, Megumi is doing her typical everyday stuff while Kyouka mentions to her friends that she has been molested on a train. Nothing seems to have changed except Kazuya isn’t here. But Megumi’s friend Tajima Yuuna (田島優奈) says to her that she should join this new LINE group by the class.

The group is called 石黒くんを待つ会.  Everyone is waiting for Ishiguro Kazuya to come back and it is started by, of all people, Kyouka. Megumi has to join. It is too ironic to ignore.

This is a book about Megumi’s conflicted feelings. She feels defeated and helpless throughout the book. Self-deprecation and her hatred of herself color the narration. So she just observes and grumbles in her internal monologues about her surroundings.

Every time she looks at Kyouka, for example, she finds herself observing that “looks are power”. Kyouka is beautiful, so people look up to her even if she is a bitch. But Megumi, at least to herself, doesn’t look pretty. She criticizes her own average looks. This is why she doesn’t have a large circle of friends.

Even her friends feel distant from her. She doesn’t seem to know who Yuuna is because Yuuna has her own close friend. There is no one she could really trust. Not even her family. Maybe except Hana.

In true Takeda fashion, any scene between Hana and Megumi is yuri. Megumi gets high from smelling Hana and feels comfortable, almost drugged whenever she visits her friend. This moment where she feels okay is the strongest part of the book. She doesn’t feel like she is being pushed around by the caste, critical of herself, or doing anything negative. Being with Hana is like taking a hot bath to relax.

Which is why Megumi connects strongly with Hana in feeling betrayed by society. These two “outcasts”, average as they may be, used to have expectations of what they think were just and fair. But circumstances came about and their belief in institutions and authority have crumbled.

Their yuri relationship becomes a central element to the plot. It is actually the most explored aspect of the whole book alongside Megumi’s introspection that stays with me after reading the book months ago.

But when Megumi is alone, she wants to remain passive much like a certain Kumiko. Her cynicism returns after she leaves Hana’s room and she is intoxicated by the cruel irony of the LINE conversations.
These conversation logs are written into the book. There are some private logs between friends that Megumi would ordinarily be unable to see — one of the few instances of a more “omniscient than usual” narration in this book — but for the most part, you are reading the log alongside Megumi’s thoughts.

Every character has their own voice in the LINE sections. Even throwaway characters and those that don’t appear in the cast of books have their personality shine through their word choice and slang.

And unlike most attempts at emulating chat lingo but failed, the conversations here don’t get heavy in the netspeak. They speak like anyone would on IRC or Discord — like normal human beings. People throw jokes and go off-topic. You always have the brooding feeling that you are lurking and reading what should be private conversations between friends. And you really do feel like you’re Megumi, angry that the stuff these people are proud of doing are borderline wrong.

So on the one hand, she finds herself entangled into a drama that conflates the virtual space and reality and wants to leave. On the other, she wants justice to be served.

This is where Masayoshi comes in. His name, 正義, can be read as せいぎ/Seigi which means “justice”. This obvious as hell pun is actually played on; friends actually call him, “Justice”. Kyouka is head over heels for him, which is funny because Megumi thinks he is quite a nerd who reads books but it’s okay since he’s handsome. Masayoshi and his ideas of what it means to be an ally of justice (正義の味方) are actually important to the book.

Except that’s when the book gets kinda weird.

There has always been strange parts with the book. Takeda’s writing doesn’t feel like reading — until she is forced to explain how LINE works and I believe that comes from editorial intervention. Everyone in Japan uses LINE, so there shouldn’t be any need to talk about how to join a group. Certain aspects of the book feel toned down when situations should be over the top.

For a book that deals with the twisted conception of poetic justice and a catchphrase that talks about how regrettably fun it is to punish people out of justice, 石黒くんに春は来ない shies away from dealing with the problematic worlds of school castes.

Characters like Masayoshi and Kyouka are important to the book, but they are severely underutilized and unexplored. It is bizarre to read Masayoshi explain the concept of justice, something he believes and connects with strongly, in an infodump of around ten pages that don’t read well. But the sadder part about the book is with Kyouka who the book hints has a vulnerable character. She becomes a character worth empathizing for in the end, but she remains a “villain” and you never get into her head or anything when she falls down from the school caste — something you would expect reading a school caste book.

School caste novels are after all looking at the symptoms of a failed education and society. It examines everyone affected in this system and asks its readers why we’re allowed to have this system exist. A school caste isn’t built in a day. Certain conditions have to be fulfilled for such an apparition to exist.

And 石黒くん honestly comes close to being a readable study of what goes inside classrooms. It is up to the date with how students use technology to communicate with (and hurt) one another. Instead of being a didactic novel on cyberbullying, it has assumed that the worst has been done and we are now seeing the consequences.

But editorial intervention and maybe Takeda’s unwillingness to explore beyond writing polar opposites of Euphonium seem to have made this book fall short of its goals. It is a great thriller and I recommend it for the great writing and observations. But the incompleteness of it all just makes me want to read more. What happens inside Kyouka’s mind? What makes certain characters tick? All that stuff because otherwise, the book is so lacking. If it had a hundred more pages to fill in the gaps, I would be satisfied.

At the very least, this book has introduced Euphonium fans to the darker side of adolescence. It isn’t all pretty flashbacks. It can be nihilistic, painful, or even misanthropic.

And if you read it not as a school caste novel but a thriller mystery, it does its job extremely well. The structure closes off well and it is surprisingly tightly plotted barring some gaps in characterization.

I just want more.

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