Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1013
The novel opens just before midnight in a Denny’s restaurant in downtown Tokyo. There, Mari Esai sits at the front window by herself, reading a textbook; she intends to wait out the night before taking the train back home. A lanky, amateur jazz trombonist named Takahashi soon enters the restaurant, passing Mari for a few steps until he remembers her face: two years earlier, they met; Takahashi knows her older sister, Eri. Mari consents to him sitting down with her but remains annoyed at his presence during their initial conversation. In discussing their previous encounter, the reader learns that Mari, shy and “different,” is antithetical in character to her older sister, who is sociable and “a real beauty.” “We live two different lives,” she says. Takahashi eventually leaves to join an all-night band practice.
Twenty minutes later, however, a large woman bursts into the restaurant and approaches Mari. Takahashi has told the woman, Kaoru, that Mari speaks fluent Chinese; Kaoru needs a Chinese speaker to deal with an injured patron at the Alphaville, a “love hotel” she manages. Once there, Mari finds that the woman, a prostitute, was beaten and robbed by a customer; broken furniture litters the room and blood is everywhere. After finding the correct footage on the hotel’s security cameras, Kaoru uncovers the perpetrator: a night office worker who works nearby.
The novel intermittently offers several short vignettes of Shirakawa, the man who beat up the prostitute: a computer industry worker for a company named VERITECH who prefers to work alone in the middle of the night. He “does not look like the kind of man who would buy a Chinese prostitute in a love hotel—and certainly no one who would administer an unmerciful pounding to such a woman.” The reader learns he is “impeccably dressed” and listens to classical music; he is married and has children.
Mari and Takahashi are reunited hours later, and his connection to Kaoru is revealed: he visited the Alphaville hotel once with a girl, possibly Eri. During their conversation, Takahashi further reveals that he and Eri met two months prior and that Eri told him she “wishes she could be closer to [Mari];” he also tells Mari of her Eri’s abnormal intake of prescriptive medications. Mari bemoans the “history between us” that has caused their distance. Takahashi suggests that Mari’s sister, metaphorically or literally, is in a place where she is “raising wordless screams and bleeding invisible blood.” Mari offers a vague reply: “she’s in a really deep sleep. She doesn’t want to wake up.”
Interludes between Mari’s narrative describe the surreal experiences transpiring in Eri’s bedroom. The reader learns that Eri is in a particularly deep sleep—her pulse and respiration barely measure; she doesn’t move—and that her room has been manipulated in such a way to “hide her personality and cleverly elude observing eyes.” At midnight, a TV flickers on and begins to display an image of a large, furniture-less room; it’s only significant feature is the presence of a man, his face covered by a “translucent mask,” sitting in a chair. The man is motionless, fixated on looking through the TV into the room, watching Eri sleep.
Hours later, there are no signs of Eri in her bedroom. The “Man with No Face” is now staring at something within his room, revealed to be Eri “sleeping soundly” in the “exact same bed.” “She is not aware that some hand has carried her into the TV screen.” As time passes, the man vanishes and Eri begins to awaken very slowly, her “consciousness accustoming itself to the waking world.” She slowly becomes aware of the changes in her surroundings but cannot comprehend what has happened; she is numb all over. She soon learns she is stuck; no one can hear her. It is revealed that the room bears a striking resemblance to the office of the man who beat the Chinese prostitute; Eri even finds a pencil on the floor with VERITECH stamped on it.
Thinking it over, Eri dismisses her current state as death or a dream but as a “different kind of reality” that has left her “shut up entirely alone…with no exit.” As Eri begins to “transform what her eyes grasp and her sense perceive into the simplest and most appropriate words she can find,” the image of Eri on the TV breaks up and fades out.
Mari returns to the Alphaville and converses with Korogi, a young maid at the hotel. It is revealed that Eri has been sleeping for two months; doctors and psychiatrists believe she is alive and healthy, but she only experiences brief moments of consciousness. Mari, unable to deal with living in a house where her sister is “out cold for two months,” has turned to wandering the streets at night; she cannot sleep. Mari shares that her sister is particularly beautiful when she sleeps: “She’s transparent.” “Like Sleeping Beauty,” Korogi replies.
As dawn approaches Takahashi escorts Mari to the train station. He asks Mari for a date, though she demurs: she is leaving for Beijing on a six-month internship the following week. Mari resists Takahashi’s advances, incredulous that he would be interested in her—but consents to letting him write her. She tells Takhashi of the last time she “drew closest to Eri”: as children they were trapped in an elevator, and Eri held on to her so tight that “our two bodies felt as if they were melting into one.” Takahashi holds her hand.
Eri is now sleeping in her own bed again, lying “utterly still.” The sequence of events that occurred in this room has “ended once and for all…things have returned to their original state.” By sunrise Mari has returned to the house and enters Eri’s room. She kisses Eri and curls up to sleep beside her to “exchange signs of life with her.” As sunlight fills the room, Mari falls asleep beside her sister. Eri, meanwhile, begins to show faint signs of consciousness.