Lonely Children in the Mirror: Isolation, Young People’s Mental Health and Literary Chronotopes.
Mizuki Tsujimura’s award-winning novel, Kagami no Kojou, was published in Japan in 2017 and translated into English as Lonely Castle in the Mirror by Philip Gabriel in 2021 (Tsujimura, 2021). The novel is a fantasy adventure which begins when the protagonist, Kokoro, finds her bedroom mirror alight with an uncanny, screen-like glow. She stumbles through to find herself in a castle guarded by the self-styled Wolf Queen (a child in a wolf mask) and inhabited by other young people. Like Kokoro herself, the other children are futōkō, home because of school refusal (Young Minds, 2021); the novel explores the individual reasons behind this.The English translation of Lonely Castle in the Mirror includes a publisher’s note which draws attention to the acknowledged poor mental health of adolescents in Japan despite the country’s economic resources. The book was a hugely popular bestseller in Japan and has now been made into an anime film.
Children and young people’s mental health has also been of concern in the UK. A longitudinal cohort study (NHS Digital, 2022) was run in person in 2017 and then repeated online in 2020, 2021 and 2022. This study showed a rise in the prevalence of mental illnesses from 2017 (12.1 %) to 2020 (16.7%), a figure which remained high during the subsequent years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Isolation from friends, general anxiety about family and the future certainly played a role, with similar findings reported elsewhere in the world. Socioeconomic factors, digital exclusion and prior health issues increased the adverse impact of school closures and other measures.
Although written prior to the pandemic, Lonely Castle in the Mirror became eerily prescient as schools closed and millions of children and teenagers worldwide were confined to their homes, able (for those with digital access) to connect only through screens. Indeed, a small proportion of children in the above study (4.4% of 11–16-year-olds) even felt that lockdown restrictions had made their lives ‘much better,’ a possible indication of difficulties at school.
During the pandemic, parental concerns about screen-time were disregarded in the face of entire school days spent at laptops and key family events conducted over Zoom. Concerns remain, however, particularly over social media usage in girls: according to the same NHS study, almost twice as many girls as boys (21.1 % vs 12.1 %) state that social media likes, comments and shares impact their mood. Recently, Seattle Public Schools filed a lawsuit against technology companies, alleging that their lack of regulation and unfiltered content are implicated in the crisis in young people’s mental health.
Loneliness and isolation—whether due to illness, school refusal, or pandemics—has long been a theme of children’s literature. In Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr (Storr, 1958), Marianne, confined to bed by illness, draws a picture of a landscape with a house. In her dreams, she discovers the same house, oddly similar to a child’s drawing, with a boy at the upstairs window. Mark, the boy in the house, is also in reality bedbound, recovering from polio. The two of them meet and become friends only in the virtual world that Marianne creates through her drawing, which they visit in their dreams.
The chronotope is described in Bakhtin’s essay Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel (Bakhtin, 1981) as follows:
We will give the name chronotope (literally, ‘time space’) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature.
In Lonely Castle in the Mirror, the virtual world of a fairy-tale castle serves as a chronotope, located outside conventional time-space. Here, the characters connect free from past school traumas and difficult home circumstances, so they are able to form the friendships they find challenging in the ‘real world’. As in Marianne Dreams, these interactions take place in an imaginary world created by one of the characters. Within the castle, the children are directed by the Wolf Queen to find a key, which will grant them a wish. However, on learning that this will make the castle disappear, they decide not to attempt this, instead spending their time talking, drinking tea and eating snacks, as well as playing video games on a vintage console and television.
Bakhtin and others have proposed that genres have distinct chronotopes each with particular time-space constraints. The castle in Tsujimura’s novel has discrete dimensions, unexpected glitches (electricity but no bathrooms) and it allows for the regeneration of its inhabitants, like in a gaming-world or virtual space. Unlike in many other literary fantasy worlds, time for the characters within this castle passes at the same rate as it does in the real world.
Temporality is still central to Lonely Castle in the Mirror, but in a different way: the high school students, all from the same district of Tokyo, have been summoned from different chronological eras in the real world. School refusal is the common experience over which they bond, their real-life ages separated by gaps of seven years. At the outset, Kokoro was being bullied by a group of girls and reluctant to attend the ‘alternative’ school her mother enrolled her in, becoming almost agoraphobic. Painfully aware of missing out on her education, she regains confidence and agency through the world of the castle and eventually decides to return to school.
Towards the end of Lonely Castle in the Mirror we discover that the castle was created by the Wolf Queen, in the face of illness and death, just as the world in Marianne Dreams is formed by Marianne’s own drawings. In each case, the artifice of the constructed world is apparent, both in terms of its aesthetic qualities (the childlike house drawn by Marianne, the fairy-tale castle) and its limits. For example, Marianne must draw in a particular notebook with a particular pencil, and the castle is accessible only between 9am and 5pm and exists for the exact length of a school year. Unlike chronotopes in fantasy literature, the topology of these worlds does not extend beyond the realm of the story, neither do the characters experience it as authentic reality.
Elana Gomel, in Narrative Space and Time, (Gomel, 2014) has referred to similar fictional worlds as ‘impossible spaces’ and pointed out that in our era, “video games, movies, the internet and global transportation constantly reconfigure our spatial perception.” The geographies of childhood and adolescence, too, are inevitably reconfigured by the existence of digital worlds.
Young people can not only enter digital spaces, including social media and gaming sites, but they can also enact and create virtual worlds within these spaces by sharing and building content. According to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child report (Third & Moody, 2021), young people feel that the use of digital technology is of key importance for their self-expression and creativity, as well as the commonly acknowledged benefits of social connection, education and access to information.
A UNICEF-funded literature review (Kardefelt-Winther, 2017) conducted prior to the pandemic concluded that digital technology might in fact have some benefits:
In terms of impact on children’s mental well-being, the most robust studies suggest that the relationship is U-shaped, where no use and excessive use can have a small negative impact on mental well-being, while moderate use can have a small positive impact.
The castle in Lonely Castle in the Mirror, with its tangible artificiality and limited dimensions, may reflect for digital natives the experience of digital spaces as chronotopes: worlds that are defined rather than boundless; that are colourful and nostalgic rather than frightening; and which function as ‘impossible spaces’ where inhabitants derive joy from hanging out with friends just as much as from fighting battles or journeying on quests. Although Tsujimura’s novel also supplies plenty of mystery, tension and threat, in the end it is the cocooning domesticity the castle provides that allows Kokoro and the other characters to face the real world once more.
Bakhtin, M., 1981. Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel. In: M. Holquist, ed. The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Gomel, E., 2014. Narrative Space and Time: Representing Impossible Topologies in Literature. 1st Edition ed. London: Routledge.
Kardefelt-Winther, D., 2017. How does the time children spend using digital technology impact their mental well-being, social relationships and physical activity? An evidence-focused literature review. [Online]
Available at: https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/Children-digital-technology-wellbeing.pdf
[Accessed 22 March 2023].
NHS Digital, 2022. Mental Health of Children and Young People Surveys. [Online]
Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/mental-health-of-children-and-young-people-in-england
[Accessed 22 March 2023].
Storr, C., 1958. Marianne Dreams. 1st ed. London: Faber & Faber.
Third, A. & Moody, L., 2021. Our Rights in the Digital World. [Online]
Available at: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/1845497/Our_Rights_in_a_Digital_World_-_Full_Report.pdf
[Accessed 22 March 2023].
Tsujimura, M., 2021. Lonely Castle in the Mirror. 1st ed. London: Doubleday.
Young Minds, 2021. School Anxiety and Refusal. [Online]
Available at: https://www.youngminds.org.uk/parent/parents-a-z-mental-health-guide/school-anxiety-and-refusal/
[Accessed 22 March 2023].