Book review: 夜市 (Night Market)

I’ve recently finished reading Night Market as part of the WaniKani book club and wanted to write up some thoughts. This was my second-ever completed Japanese novel (the first being Hyouka, which I didn’t care for too much despite having very much enjoyed the anime adaptation) and we read through it at a pretty leisurely pace; just about exactly three months for a short 200-page book.

In retrospect, Night Market would have been the perfect introduction to the world of Japanese prose. Compared to Hyouka, which seemed to revel in its vagueness and non-committal narration style, the writing here is snappy and straightforward. Some of the sentences feel even a bit too easy, like they were plucked from the pages of a textbook. While I think it’s still broadly true that novels are more difficult to read than manga, comparing Night Market to Hyouka is enough to show that the difficulty is still a spectrum.

There are two short stories in this book, of which only one actually focuses on the titular market — a setting which, counter to my expectations, has nothing to do with bright lights and street food vendors. When the Night Market opens, those who visit will find themselves unable to leave without making a purchase — and anything, from weapons, to talents, to years of life, can be bought and sold here.

The second story, “The Old Wind Road”, was where the book really took off for me. It follows a nameless boy who is separated from his parents in the park and ends up stumbling into another world for an afternoon. This “old road” has entrances and exits here and there across our own world, but they open and close according to their own rules — and when the boy decides to revisit it years later, he discovers that the exit he had planned to use is only open while the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

The worldbuilding in this second story is fantastic. The Old Road is home to all kinds of strange creatures and spirits, and most of it is unmapped and shrouded in mystery. Even so, there are other humans here too; some simply passing through, others eking out a living by providing services to those brave or foolish enough to venture in. You get a real feeling of the scope of this world, its denizens, and the possibilities for what else might be out there, but the details are left intriguingly vague.

The conflict in both stories is simple yet compelling — you’ve found yourself in a dangerous world that plays by rules you don’t understand, and you can’t leave. In each case, there’s a great tension between wanting to leave as quickly as possible, and the knowledge that the only way to get out is to push deeper and learn more about what you’ve gotten yourself into. It works really well and kept me engaged throughout the entire book.

When I realized that Night Market was published by Kadokawa’s horror imprint, I was expecting something…a bit more grotesque than what I actually got. I’m actually happy about the reversal though. It reminded me of the kind of lingering existential dread you get by watching the Twilight Zone…rather than trying to shock or horrify, it aims for a sense of unease that sticks with you after you finish the story.

Night Market has no English translation, and considering it was published in 2005, I wouldn’t hold my breath. As I always say, the best time to start learning Japanese is three years ago — the second best time is right now.