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Who is M in The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon?

Looking in on the shut ins

NOTE: this article is choke full of SPOILERS for The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon. If you haven’t read the novel, bookmark this page and come back when you have.

The Shut Ins is the second novel by Melbourne based Australian author Katherine Brabon, following up her 2016 Vogel Award winning debut, The Memory Artist. Mainly set several years ago in Japan, The Shut Ins recounts five people’s varying experiences of hikikomori, a Japanese term used to describe those who, for whatever reason, feel compelled to cut off all contact with the outside world, and confine themselves to their room. Sometimes they stay locked away for years before leaving their self-imposed internment.

Through the thoughts of five characters, Brabon takes us into one person’s hikikomori journey, a man in his late twenties, called Hikaru Sato, who has stayed in a room at his parent’s apartment for three years. We first learn of Hikaru’s story through Mai Takeda, an old classmate of his, who one evening after work runs into his mother, Hiromi Sato, ten years after Mai last saw him at high school. Long story short, Hiromi asks for Mai’s help in persuading Hikaru to leave his room. But Mai has problems of her own.

She recently married a conservative salaryman, known only as J, who expects her to give up working and start a family with him. When we meet Mai, she is anything but enthusiast about the prospect, and seems, if anything, to have a closer emotional bond to the reclusive Hikaru, whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in a decade. In addition to Mai’s perspective, we hear from Sadako, a young woman working in Tokyo as a hostess, who entertains J – presumably without Mai’s direct knowledge – while he’s on week-long business trips to the Japanese capital.

The stories of Hiromi, and in the third act, her son Hikaru, are also explored, along with the thoughts of an unnamed Australian woman, who is travelling alone in Japan, and is interested in hikikomori. But perhaps the most intriguing character in the book, is one we don’t meet, a woman known only as M. The Australian traveller, who I’ll refer to as the Narrator, said she and M, who is Japanese, lived in the same share house, while they were studying at a university in Melbourne. But who is M, and why is she referred to only by the letter M? Is M a pseudonym for Mai, Mai Takeda? It’s tempting to think so for several reasons.

Mai’s name starts with the letter m, while the Narrator refers to her friend as M. How obvious. We also know Mai went missing at some point in 2014. Meanwhile the Narrator – who may or may not be an alter-ego of Brabon’s – writes that M, who becomes known to us through the Narrator’s notes, “no longer lives in Japan.” But unlike the stories of Mai, Hikaru, Hiromi, and Sadako, which are dated during 2014, we don’t know when the Narrator penned her notes. It may have been several years later. To illustrate this point, an ABC article tells us Brabon visited Japan in 2014, and 2017, while The Shut Ins was published in 2021.

It’s reasonable then to believe Mai made her way to Australia, as she created a new life for herself, and spent several years studying there. We later hear that M left Australia, and was working as a translator in Malta. She certainly didn’t seem keen to return to Japan. But there are other clues. At the time M and the Narrator were flatmates, we learn M had recently left a relationship. Could that be Mai’s marriage to J? M told the Narrator she had, until arriving in Melbourne, only seen herself through the “mirror” of other people.

Could this have been a reference to the expectations Mai’s family, and J, had placed on her? To marry – before she was “too old” – and have children. The Narrator also makes the comment that M’s long dark hair touched her elbows. We were also told Mai’s hair had been equally as long, when she was at high school. There really seems to be little doubt. M is Mai. And after reading about her somewhat cloistered life in Japan, we’re left hoping Mai did escape, and make a new start. But it’s not that straightforward.

In an interview at Theresa Smith Writes, Brabon said she has a friend called Mio who lives in the Japanese city of Shizuoka. In her notes, the Narrator tells us she stayed with M’s parents in Shizuoka. Mai, however, and her parents, lived in Nagoya, although Mai was born in the Gifu Prefecture. But it is possible Mai’s parents later moved to Shizuoka. What’s not so plausible perhaps is their “forgiving” Mai for leaving her marriage to J, something they had expected of her, to say nothing of her skipping the country to live as she chose.

Does it then seem likely her parents would go so far as to accommodate a friend of hers, such as the Narrator, who they may have viewed as aiding Mai in achieving her ambitions? At this point M and Mai are beginning to look like quite different people. But what then of M’s unnamed Japanese male friend, whom she suggested the Narrator meet whilst in Japan, as he could tell her more about achiragawa, a term meaning “the other side”. Achiragawa may be a place, one safer than their present environment perhaps, that hikikomori, in a sense, aspire to reach.

Could M’s male friend be Hikaru? If anyone could talk about achiragawa, that would surely be Hikaru. The male friend, who now lives in America (the other side?), happened to be visiting Japan at the same time the Narrator was there. We learned Hikaru liked America, it was one of the few topics he discussed with Mai, while they were at high school together. In emails to the Narrator, M’s male friend spoke of his “long new life” in America. This suggests the existence a previous “old” life, perhaps one he wanted to distance himself from.

But if the male friend is Hikaru, and M isn’t Mai, how does she know about Hikaru? Could that connection be through M’s mother, who was a social worker? Possibly her mother’s work involved helping rehabilitate shut-in people like Hikaru, after they decide to return to a more normal life. While M’s parents resided in Shizuoka, and Hikaru lived in Nagoya, it is possible M’s mother travelled to Nagoya for work, or it might be Hikaru stayed in a facility in Shizuoka after leaving, or more to the point, being removed from his room.

The Narrator also tells us “I was in Japan, alone, when the story of Mai Takeda came to me.” That also would suggest M and Mai are different people, but not necessarily. It could be M spoke more about her past life once the Narrator landed in Japan, since she was potentially meeting Hikaru. But in the end, we’re left with a satisfying mystery as to whether M is Mai, and M’s male friend is Hikaru. The Narrator and the male friend had planned to meet each other, but at the last minute, literally as she was approaching the appointed meeting place, the Narrator decided not to go ahead.

She had alluded to a reluctance to meet face to face, having become comfortable with her more anonymous, though in-depth, email correspondence, with M’s male friend. It is also a savvy outcome on Brabon’s part. Because the in-person meeting doesn’t proceed, we do not establish that M’s male friend is actually Hikaru, nor by extension do we ascertain that M is Mai. This looks to be a question we will continue wondering about.

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