Today I’m reviewing a Haikasoru title: Harmony, by Project Itoh, translated by Alexander O. Smith. It’s set in a world of ‘totalitarian kindness’, where healthcare is perfect, disease has been eradicated and consuming things that are ‘bad for you’ is close to impossible. After the nuclear holocaust known as the Maelstrom, governments at last realised the value of human life, and the need to keep what remained of Earth’s population alive and healthy – now a medical monitor is implanted inside every adult to ensure a healthy and stress-free existence, and failing to take care of one’s own body is considered socially irresponsible at best, and criminal at worst.
The story is narrated by Tuan Kirie, a misfit who has never felt quite at home in this supposedly perfect world. At school, Tuan was deeply influenced by her charismatic, rebellious classmate Miach Mihie, who was given to lecturing her two friends about the stifling nature of their society and her own disgust at not being able to call her body her own. The three girls eventually decide to rebel and reclaim their bodies in the most extreme way they can – a suicide pact – but Tuan survives and is forced to face the world alone, without Miach and Cian at her side. The narration alternates between her memories of high school and her present life: she now works for the World Health Organisation in one of the few remaining ‘wild’ areas of the planet, where she provides medical aid to a tribe of nomads and secretly barters with them for forbidden cigarettes and alcohol. But when a return to Japan and a reunion with an old classmate ends in tragedy, Tuan is compelled to revisit Miach’s theories about the society they live in, in an attempt to solve a mystery which threatens all of humanity.
Itoh constructs this utopic/dystopic society beautifully – it’s a perfect world in theory, but the philosophy upon which it is founded has some deeply disturbing implications, and the sense of oppression Tuan feels is palpable and unrelenting. For me, the best parts of the book were where Tuan is recalling her schooldays – her relationship with Miach and Cian, their slow realisation of the true nature of their society, and their decision to reclaim control of their bodies through suicide, recall the intense friendships and self-destructive urges of real-life teenagers in a way that is genuinely chilling. I felt that the second half of the book didn’t fulfil the promise of the first, as a gripping, high-stakes quest to uncover a world-threatening conspiracy turned into a rather incongruous meditation on the nature of consciousness, and a series of revelations about Miach Mihie’s background stretched my suspension of disbelief past breaking point.
Overall, though, Harmony was an intriguing and disturbing read, and I’d definitely like to read more by Project Itoh. Sadly there isn’t that much more – this was the last book he wrote before passing away from cancer in 2009, at the terrifyingly young age of 34. The author bio on the back page tells me that he worked on Harmony from his hospital bed.