Akira Yoshimura, “On Parole”
I realised that a book should be reviewed fresh. I finished it on the 25th December but my memory of its details has already started to fade. Hence, I thought that we should fold the Christmas laziness neatly and store it in the drawer until the next year and get cracking with the review.
Try as I might, I could not find a comprehensive biography of Yoshimura. Well, maybe apart from the rudimentary information that he was born in 1927, received the Yomiuri Prize and was a president of the Japanese Writers’ Union. It would be interesting to find out a bit more on the background of a writer whose books are such a good and peculiar read. Having gone through “One Man’s Justice” and anxiously moved through “Shipwrecks,” I was quite happy to see “On Parole” in the post one day so I could see if it lives up to the quality of his other two, much-revered novels. And I must say it did not disappoint!
“On Parole” is a story of Shiro Kikutani, an ex-Japanese teacher who was given the life sentence after committing a murder. The act, whose details we are not given away until about one-third of the book, was murdering his adulterous wife and her lover, before moving on to burning the lover’s house with his mother in it. The story begins with his conditional release for good behavior.
This is the moment we start accompanying Kikutani in his journey through much-changed Japan he hasn’t seen the true picture of for fifteen years. We experience his awe with great concrete skyscrapers, ticket machines in train stations, love hotels in Tokyo. Despite his crime, we get to know Kikutani as a righteous man who through gratitude to his parole officer, Kiyoura, feels obliged to try his utmost best and assimilate within the new reality he was released into. He is offered a position in a chicken farm which he accepts and where he fulfills all his duties diligently. We see him through the process of getting an apartment and dealing with all the peculiarities of it. One cannot help but notice that prisoners released after a long time seem to be in a similar sort of predicament to children, who having lost their secure day-to-day routine of waking-up and bedtimes, meals and spare-time activities, are thrown into an increasingly complex reality with a mounting number of duties, oversaw by the parole officers as their parents/supervisors. Even a prosaic thing like an automatic umbrella elicits a vivid reaction in Igarashi, Kikutani’s fellow inmate released at the same time:
The woman behind the counter pushed a button on the handle, and the umbrella unfolded in front of them. Igarashi’s eyes danced, and he laughed out loud like a small child.
As paroled ex-convicts they are required by law to meet their supervisor twice a month for a casual but detailed chat providing the account of all their doings from the preceding two weeks. Another testimony of this is provided in the part where Kikutani is encouraged by Yoshimura to leave the halfway house (where all parolees are put and which serves as sort of a buffer zone between the prison and the real world) and find an apartment of his own. As much as Kikutani trusts his parole supervisor as someone with a large baggage of experience on the matter of dealing with convicts, he is insistent on staying in the nearest proximity of the halfway house instead of moving somewhere farther away to gain a bit more independence. This seems to illustrate how strong are the relationships of the parolees with their supervisors who act as parents, guardians introducing the newcomer to the world to the real life context.
Kikutani’s story seems to be composed of two parts, the above being one of them. The other, and more important one, is the reason why the entire story happens in the first place. We witness how Kikutani struggles with forgetting the fact that he actually took somebody’s life. The entire re-assimilation into the society serves the role of a therapy, not only of becoming a law-abiding citizen again, but also to break free from the perception of himself as a murderer. This is the aspect of the story that binds the entire plot together. We are guided through the obstacles of his professional and personal life but truly it is his effort that his past remains hidden which he most focuses on, of which we see numerous examples:
– I just wanted to ask you before I start there: does the boss know that I killed someone?
– Of course he knows. I didn’t go into details, and he didn’t ask, but I did tell him that there were extenuating circumstances.
– Do you think he’ll tell other people who work there about me?
– Did he know that I just got out of prison?
– Probably, almost certainly. I’m sure what sort of place I run. But if there’s one thing you can say for this realtor, he’s tight-lipped. He won’t say a word to the landlord or the manager. Otherwise, I wouldn’t use him.
As brutal as his crime is, Yoshimura never judges Kikutani, does not evaluate his deed. All that is done through the eyes of the character himself, reminiscing about the event. Whether it’s work, interaction with others, or a simple stroll through the city, initially everything brings the memories of that night. Yoshimura is very scrupulous in describing the process of reintroducing Kikutani back into the society, being very particular with describing his thoughts, fears and desires. Just like “Shipwrecks” and “One Man’s Justice”, here too the author managed to create a psychologically plausible transition of the protagonist from the constrained, gray world of metal bars into the (relatively) free existence in a modern metropolis. The reader feels along with Kikutani, experiences his anxiety, his surprise when a woman leaving a love hotel in downtown Tokio strikingly resembles his wife, his panic when a co-worker asks him about his private life, his pleasure from successfully looking after his pet fish.
Fundamentally, the novel is a story of grief and repentance. The descriptions of Kikutani at work, moving to his new apartment, shopping, feeding his fish provide the background for what is really the core of the story. At the beginning of the book and in several further points we learn that the primary condition for a man to be paroled is to truly regret committed actions so that one’s re-socialisation can be successful. Kikutani tries his best, just and righteous as he is, to enter the society again, worthy of being able to call himself a citizen. He puts a lot of effort into pulling his life together and reinstating all its elements so that his existence is as complete as possible. However, we learn how hard it is for a man who robbed another of his life to move on, and how much discipline is required to break free from the real self.
Thanks for reading and as a newbie reviewer I would like to encourage you to comment, provide your thoughts and criticisms. Thanks a lot! 🙂