Last year, we wrapped up the First Night stories of Higanbana No Saku Yoru Ni. Naturally, this year we’re beginning with The Second Night. Now, the stories in The Second Night are distinctly less driven by the central theme than The First Night stories were, as the whole bullying theme shrinks into the background in a lot of stories, but a result of this is that the central themes of each individual story are allowed to branch out a lot more. And we’ll be seeing a fair bit of that in the stories we look at this year. With that in mind, let’s begin.
The first story is The Lunar Festival, which is definitely the least horror-centric story of the lot so far. It centers around Marie attending a party to celebrate the full moon and the blooming of underworld cherry trees, and primarily serves to introduce the other four Yokai who will be playing roles in later stories. There isn’t much thematic undercurrent to this one, though the ending where it’s revealed Marie wasn’t actually there yet somehow experienced everything anyway was quite unusual. Not really much to say about this story, except that it provided some much needed quiet time in between the previous story of horrific bullying and the next story of a long and grueling chase. Speaking of which…
The main story to talk about is Reaper of the Thirteenth Step, revolving around a girl named Ayako Souma as she is chased by Izanami, Reaper of the Thirteenth Step, second ranked of the school Yokai. The story behind his existence is fascinating. Every stairway in the schools has twelve steps, but sometimes, just sometimes, a human who has lost the will to live will climb up a thirteenth step, and that is the beginning of the curse. Those condemned to the curse will, upon the ending of the school day, be transported to a different dimension, where a Shinigami will chase them, and if he catches them, he will drag them to a hell resembling a giant stomach, where they are digested into horrid lumps of flesh resembling Junji Itou creations for eternity. There is only one way to escape, and that is to run, until the clock strikes twelve. On the first day, it’s only five minutes of running, on the second, it’s ten, and so on. However, Izanami has two rules. One, he will always walk, never run, to give his victims a chance to stay ahead of him, and two, he will never kill anyone until he catches them. The curse wears out after forty-nine days, and if you can outrun him for all that time, you survive. This premise alone would make for a tense and exciting story, but it doesn’t end there. Izanami only targets the losers, the people who see no point in living, as he finds their souls the most appetizing. There’s one more twist to him, that a keen eyed reader can figure out if they pay attention to the clues sprinkled throughout the story. His latest victim is Aya Souma, a girl who spends all her days in a depressed and hazy state, with a kind of philosophical nihilism that causes her to see no point in living except she doesn’t want to feel the pain in dying. If she could die peacefully, she would. One day, she hears the rumor of a Shinigami chasing people who step on the thirteenth stair and killing them, which she assumes will bring her the peaceful death she seeks. And, one day, when climbing the stairs to her class, she takes a thirteenth step, yet when she looks back, there are only twelve stairs. Perturbed, she continues on, convincing herself that she’d just miscounted, but that night, she has a dream about a girl being chased by a man in black, who catches up to her after she collapses from exhaustion, and sends her to the hell of a giant demonic-looking stomach. And, the next day, as school ends, Aya finds herself in the same position. Run, or be killed. This becomes a daily pattern, until she encounters another person cursed by it, who tells her that Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday for him are shorter than Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, which leads to her noticing that she has shorter times as well, though on different days. The next day, he is gone, presumably having been killed by Izanami, and Aya instead encounters Higanbana, disguised as a student, who mentions that her class (the same as the disappeared boy) has PE that Saturday, which leads to Aya noticing that their PE days are the same as the ones that had shorter times for the boy. She herself has PE that day, and due to her classmates pulling a prank, they have to run laps all class, and after school, during Izanami’s chase, she notices her time is significantly shorter. This is the secret to surviving. Every bit of running you do outside the chase shortens your time in it. Having found a glimmer of hope for survival, Aya takes to this with a vengeance, running between classes, during lunch, at recess, in PE, after recovering from the chase, and so on. And by doing so, she notices that her other unhealthy habits are slowly going away. For his part, Izanami does his best to taunt her, throwing her old lines of thinking back at her and trying to make her give up. He even offers her a chance at peacefully ceasing to exist like she had previously wanted, and she turns him down. By fighting for her life, she has found her reason to live. This is the moment where she begins to realize the truth. “If you have time to ponder such worthless questions, there are a thousand better things you could be doing. Running, speaking to friends, enjoying good food, and so on. You become so wrapped up asking why you’re alive that you forget to really live.” Finally, day 49 comes, the day of the school marathon, and for the first time, Izanami decides to run, alongside Aya. This is their final chase. If she reaches the finish line before he reaches her, she wins. In her bid to stay ahead of him, she ends up passing everyone and winning the marathon herself. At this point, she’s helped up by Izanami, who reveals the final twist. If you’ve been paying attention, it’s been pretty clear what he is. His whole thing has been motivating people who had nothing else by convincing them to find meaning in life through running, under grave threat. He is the school gym teacher. Aya has passed his curse, and now she has things of her own to live for. No longer will she waste her life away pondering questions with no answer, she has to actually live her life by experiencing it. This is the message of the story, and its delivered in a uniquely compelling way. Aya takes to running in her spare time so that she can avoid the painful hell of that eternal stomach, and due to her exhaustion from it, she gains a voracious appetite where she’d previously had none, she begins sleeping properly when the previously couldn’t, and as a result, she is no longer sleeping in class or pecking at her lunch, she has come alive and is seeing the world for what it really is, finding meaning in life through that. It is only when staring down death himself that she learns to live. And it is through her experience that we all learn the same lesson. That our reason to live is found in our everyday moments, whatever they may be. Enjoyment of good food, exercise, time spent with friends and loved ones, we live to experience the little things. Many of us, myself included, had to learn this lesson the hard way (though not as hard as Aya did), and it is among the most life changing lessons one can learn. For that reason, above all else, this story stands head and shoulders above most of the others.
As I did with the First Night, I will begin with covering two stories one year, then three stories the next two years. That brings us to the end of this year’s reading from Higanbana, next year promises to be excellent as well.