I hate my brain…

Tag: Shipwrecks

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?

or

– 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! ūüôā

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“One Man’s Justice” and “Shipwrecks” by Akira Yoshimura

The therapy is ongoing…

Just finished reading “Shipwrecks“, which I liked. A lot, even. Yoshimura’s style perfectly reflects austerity of lives of the people who are in the foreground of the novel. Without anchoring us in time or space, apart from giving out a hint that the village may be situated somewhere in the south of Shikoku, we get to know the people as leading simple, religious lives, filling their days with working less-than-generous soil and fishing. Almost¬†every event takes place thanks to, for, through, against, and because of “gods.” Decency and composure brings happy life and prompt reincarnation, while the opposite sentences the soul for eternal banishment.

Everything revolves around the laborious every day life of the villagers and their one desire – so that fate sends them O-fune-sama.¬†These are ships, unfortunate enough to have found themselves in the middle of a storm and desperately seeking shore to save themselves and the cargo. The villagers, being fully aware of sailors’ mind-frame while at uneasy sea, light fire under cauldrons whose role, supposedly, is to extract salt from sea water but in reality act as a lure for the crew to direct the ship right at the off-shore coral reef. Once that happens, the ship is looted and the crew’s lives taken away. Grim as it may be, O-fune-sama’s appearance is time of great joy and festivity for villagers as the cargo takes them far away from the prospect of certain starvation. However, as it turns out, not every stranded ship brings the ever-coveted salvation.

One Man’s Justice” in turn, takes place in more contemporary times, subsequently to Japan’s capitulation. ¬†Takuya, a middle-ranked officer from the imperial air force is on the run due to being involved in the execution of a crew of one among many American bombers taking part in the bombardments of Japan. ¬†Having been relieved from duty, he finds out that all soldiers suspected of involvement in executions are sought by the American and Japanese police to stand trial and face possible death penalty. The book is a very geographically detailed record of Takuya’s journey around Japan seeking shelter. He visits his comrades from the army who initially are very hospitable but due to food shortages and poverty soon become quite hesitant towards the prospect of having another mouth to feed. Throughout the entire story he’s being tossed between two conflicting thoughts, of giving in and accepting that beheading two American pilots was fundamentally a crime and remaining a fugitive whose act was a loyal and patriotic thing to do. Traveling across the country Takuya also has to face difficult reality, whereby Japanese girls not only do not contempt American soldiers for their deeds, but openly flirt with them in the public eye. Also, we see how the nation’s perception of those involved in the executions is changed with the aid of the media, from deeming them national heroes to condemning them as murderers who should be given the death sentence.

To me, the first thing which strikes me how both stories are structured. Yoshimura first presents the protagonists in a not very favorable light, to later on, with the provision of some historical background, justify the actions and explain that in reality there was no other choice, along the pattern of “one man’s poison is another man’s cure.” The villagers in “Shipwrecks” did loot the ships and kill people but that was determined by their will to survive, whereas Takuya, being fundamentally a murderer, became one by taking vengeance on those who invaded his land and killed his people.

While “One Man’s Justice” is closer to a ‘conventional’ narrative in third-person, ¬†“Shipwrecks” looks more like a tale or a parable. The entire action is very linear, with no side-plots, full of descriptions of the nature surrounding the village, spanning across three years when the protagonist’s father is away for his indentured service. It reminds the reader of a cautionary tale, where the bad karma always comes back to the wrong-doers, however justified their actions are.

I reckon that both these stories will appeal to readers who are after some non-pretentious reading, with no blazing-fast and dramatic twists-and-turns. In turn, these are full of deep emotional explorations of the protagonists’ psyche in search for rationalisations of their actions. Yoshimura is great at discerningly describing state of minds, and instead of making his plotline overly complex, he focuses on giving us realistic and moving reasons why people are sometimes forced to do frightening things.

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SONG OF THE DAY: Zu – Obsidian

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