‘You people have no imagination. At all. Can’t you simply be satisfied that you’ve been chosen as heroes in a story?’
Buy for the tributes to fantasy classics, stay for the dissection on what it means to be a teenager facing bullying-induced social isolation. This is a book that works together with the fantasy genre and its making of “new realities” to create a young girl’s escape from loneliness and fear. Through the focus on Kokoro (a girl now refusing to attend her high school out of fear of her former classmates), the reader gages the centre of this struggle: why is Kokoro not venturing outside of her house? Why is she withdrawing from everyone? Why is she making herself appear smaller in any social interaction? As the plot advances so does Kokoro’s seeming trust in the reader: her story then begins to unravel.
The tale begins with Kokoro and soon opens up to six other teenagers brought together in an otherworldly castle. From there, six other perspectives are provided, giving light to how easy it is to judge others for their differences and other social no-no’s. Kokoro, along with the others, must find a hidden key within this castle before the next ten months pass. And, like most assignments thrust upon young students, they really do leave it all to the very last minute.
Lonely Castle does particularly well on the subject of bullying, which is a prevalently discussed topic throughout contemporary Japanese literature. Japan Zone writer Ollie Poole contributes the problem of bullying in Japanese high schools to a few things, mostly attributing it to Japan’s culture of conformism and homogeneity. Poole discusses that this “pack mentality” in Japanese classrooms promotes a culture of students who are reluctant to address bullying in fears of being the next target. This culture is so far embedded, Poole suggests, that even teachers are not reporting bullying, not wanting to also pull themselves from the pool of congruity within the school. The teachers in Lonely Castle dip into this notion as well, particularly in the case of putting the onus on Kokoro to rekindle things with her tormenters.
The creation and unravelling of Kokoro’s story was masterfully done and endears her towards readers—and that is where the true centre of the book lies. The events behind Kokoro’s trauma are not cracked open like egg into a frying pan. Her story is gathered gently and without force. In getting her to open up about her trauma, it is done through a series of quiet moments: gentle glimpses into an experience that has caused her pain and confusion.
Lonely Castle communicates that bullying can be a frightening thing for those newly experiencing it. Readers understand a few things:
firstly, Kokoro is new to this experience
secondly, she is still learning about the world and how to handle it
and lastly, she is getting to know how others very different from her can also feel this same way.