THE CHIEF reason for reading The House of Nire is to become acquainted with Kiichiro Nire, founder and inventor of the house and its name. Kiichiro is an unforgettable character all right. Horrible, absurd and powerfully compelling, he sticks in the mind in the way that Sam Pollit, the father in Christina Stead's masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, won't go away, even as the more admirable characters fade into anonymity.

Kiichiro, offspring of peasants, has abandoned their name for one of his own invention. Having started as an ordinary general practioner, he studied mental illnesses in Germany, and returned to establish a hospital dealing with mental disorders. Once these facts are established, early in the novel, the reader begins to lick his or her chops: we are happily in the genre of The Magic Mountain, Ship of Fools, or even Grand Hotel, and settle back for a good read. But, curiously enough, the mental hospital barely figures in the novel. One wonders why the author sets the book in such a milieu without taking advantage of it.

But perhaps the author is correct in feeling that egomania is more interesting than mania, and certainly it is more rife with comic possibility. However, he makes the strategic mistake of killing off Kiichiro on page 246, and the heart goes out of the novel, as well as most of the comedy. We are left with a bunch of characters just as unpleasant in their various ways as Kiichiro without being as interesting. Tetsukichi, Kiichiro's son-in-law, begins to stir our sympathies, put upon as he is by his harridan wife, but his total indifference to his children, his emerging anti-Semitism and admiration for Hitler's Germany put an end to that. A hopelessly morose character, Tetsukichi is working, throughout most of the novel, on a history of psychiatry. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Kita's novel is the careful attention he gives to Japanese prejudices and opinions from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second. So we are painlessly fed a good deal of hitherto unfamiliar information. For example, in telling us about Tetsukichi's history of psychiatry, Kita says, "Despite the fact that Sigmund Freud was clearly the most famous mdeical man of his age, in Germany his ideas had been subjected to vilification and ostracism for years. Since the medical world in Japan was little more than an offshoot of the one in Germany . . . Tetsukichi to had never had the least inclination to take his psychoanalytic theories seriously" in 1939.

HOWEVER, Tetsukichi is not a fool. He realizes that his work, like himself, is simply ordinary, "an aspect of the trivial everyday." It aroused no sense "of something taking shape, of something cold and pure and hard within him," but was merely the product of his obstinate determination.

There is a wonderful passage when Tetsukichi finally finishes his book and sits vacantly at his desk for awhile. Then he goes out for some air and runs into a woman patient. As he is about to speak to her, "she suddenly bursts out laughing. The laughter was not only totally unexpected, but possessed all those pecularities one finds in the laughter of such patients: vacant, moronic, with no rise or fall, no heights or depths, a laughter that made nonsense of any human attempt to understand it." As he turned away from her, towards home, "shoulders hunched, there was something awkward and ungainly about him, the impression of a man trying perhaps to escape from something."

There are other beautifully handled episodes, particularly the death of Kiichiro. He is out in a meadow with an assistant, measuring the site of a new hospital (the earlier one having been destroyed in the great earthquake of 1923), and here, near the end of him, we begin to feel some sympathy for this vain, pushing, brash narcissistic fellow: ""It's all slant lines around here," said Kiichiro, a little old man whose shoes were covered in mud and who kept wiping the sweat from his forehead, but who showed no obvious signs of fatigue."It's no good measuring a place like this just up and down and across, you know. You need your diagonal and perpendiculars on a job like this' . . . The sky remained a brilliant blue. The larks still sang. The sun beat down now, inducing sleep. The expanse of corn seemed to be caught in a great silence. Some way off the figures of two or three farmers could be seen, but there was no sign or anything else moving. In this peaceful landscape, the little old man and his tall assistant, worked endlessly, stretching their long piece of string, walking, stopping, returning, writing their measurements on a piece of paper . . . Some distance away he [the assistant] could see the small figure of the Director squatting down on the pathway between the cornfields, no doubt making some eager calculations on the drawing paper. But after he had taken a few more paces, he noticed that Kiichiro was leaning forward in a peculiar way, with this forehead apparently touching the ground, like a toad with its head beaten flat by something."

Kiichiro, monstrously inflated until this scene by his powerful drives, his inordinate ego, has shrunk and shrunk, to a little old man, to a small figure, to the image of a toad. And now he is dead, in the golden field.

There is another lovely scene, where Tetsukichi's children go to a summer cottage built by their grandfather long ago, dragging their heavy luggage up a steep path to the hot spring, where "the clear-toned cicadas were singing in chorus from the dark cedar woods that lined the roadside . . . The cottage had been very modern when it was first built, but the damp of the mountains had taken a swift toll on it and now it looked decayed and old. From the side of the veranda, with its glass sliding doors where the putty had come off in a number of places, a partially enclosed walkway led across to the bathhouse where a constant spring of sulfurous hot water bubbled noisily. The children bathed a number of times each day, prancing about in the murky water and splashing it over each other. The hand towels which had been white when they arrived gradually changed color, becoming a dull yellow by the time their stay came to and end." That description seems to me to exemplify the Japanese sensibility, with its attention to the subtle attritions of daily life, and the small, vivid signs that indicate the seasons and their passing.

Such eminences as Yukio Mishima and Edward Seidensticker have billed The House of Nire as a humorous work. Perhaps humor, rather than poetry, is what is lost in translation. But, with the exception of the first 250 pages, I don't think so. It is a family chronical of an unlovable tribe, set in a fascinating period, with some fine set pieces. The publisher promises a sequel in a year. One will read it for the author's insights into his society rather than for any curiosity about his dismal characters. As one sees from the quoted passages, it is ably translated by Dennis Keene, except for some sentences that seem to indicate haste on his part. As usual, Kodansha has given us a beautifully produced volume and a handsome cover, which puts most of the products of our domestic publishing houses to shame.