The Cape

The Cape, a short story written by Nakagami Kenji, appears at a glance to be a straight forward story: the sentences are short, descriptive and littered with dialogue. However, the story itself is much more complex. The narrative is split into small sections. Whilst this pushes the plot forward quickly, these sections don’t continue directly on from each other, creating a Pulp Fiction-esque type plot based on a Burakumin family. What’s more, at the heart of the story lies a very complex theme of family relationships and the need for personal identity and to break away from family ties.

Author Nakagami Kenji

Author Nakagami Kenji

From the beginning, the family is introduced as the important theme of the story. In some editions, there’s even a family tree at the start of the novel. Throughout, various family members are being introduced from the protagonist Akiyuki through to family members who are alive and dead.

The burdens and consequences of family in Japanese society are constantly criticised. Akiyuki and his relationship with his father for example isn’t ‘normal’. His father is absent from his life and his mother remarried, leaving Akiyuki not just with a step-father, but also with a half-brother. There is clear animosity between Akiyuki and his father (who he calls ‘that man’) and animosity towards how in Japanese society, and indeed most Asian societies, you are judged by your lineage, particularly through the male bloodline. Considering the characters are from the Buraku community, being judged based on lineage is even harder to escape.

This hatred and the need to degrade his father escalates at the end of the novel with Akiyuki discovering he has a half-sister through his father. On further finding that his half-siste is a prostitute,  he hunts her down and has sex with her to ‘violate the daughter of that man’. Not only very Freudian, but Akiyuki wishes to destroy the bond which ties him and his father together as well as degrade the Japanese family structure.

This also shows another theme in the novel: freedom and identity, which is something Akiyuki constantly fights for. He longs for an identity outside of the family. Not only is he tied to his absent father, he is constantly compared to his dead brother – to the point where he’s denied his own personal identity. Akiyuki’s only escapism is through his job – manual labour – something which his body can easily do, allowing his mind to be free.

By mentally breaking his family ties with his father at the end of the novel, he is also forging a new identity. Although, he bases his new identity on the attributes of other men who feature in the novel. He breaks the rigid family structure, but does not completely escape his world.

the cape

For a detailed look at the restraints of the family in Japanese society, especially from a Buraku point of view, The Cape is worth a read. Whilst complex, it does highlight the lives and difficulties facing the Japanese with regards to rigid family structures.

The Cape won the Akutagawa Prize in 1975 and can be read in Nakagami Kenji’s The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto.

Author Focus: Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami, born in 1952 in Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan, is an award-winning author whose work looks into contemporary Japanese society. A cult writer, his novels usually contain male protagonists who are involved in violence in some way or another. Some characters thrive off it, others are the victims of it. All of the characters are a product of a new Western-influenced Japanese society, which conflicts with the peaceful, Oriental image which many have about Japan – including older generation Japanese.

Author Ryu Murakami

Author Ryu Murakami

Ryu Murakami moved to Tokyo where he enrolled in Musashino Art University on a sculpture course. Whilst studying he wrote his debut novel, Almost Transparent Blue, which won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976. The novel looks at modern Japanese youth culture and the influence upon it of the United States – the protagonist, a young Japanese boy, even lives near a US naval base.

His books have often been turned into films. The most famous of which, Audition, was adapted for the screen by Takashi Miike and is known as being one of the best Japanese thrillers in the movie industry.

Scene from Audition

Scene from Takashi Miike’s Audition

Which Ryu Murakami books should you read? I recommend Audition. If you liked the movie, you will love the book. If you’ve not seen the movie, you should read the book anyway! It’s fast paced and the tension, which is subtle at first, builds up and up until it explodes. The book isn’t great towards women – in fact, non of Ryu Murakami’s books are – but for those who love thrillers, you will love Audition.

Another novella worth reading is In the Miso Soup. It’s violent, it’s grotesque, it’s everything you imagine Japanese cult literature to be. None of the violence is committed by a Japanese man, but by an American. A slight nod to whom East Asians believe to have changed Eastern society for the worse (Koreans and the Chinese also criticise American influence upon society), but it’s also a way for the Japanese to engross themselves in violence and be rest assured that there’s no way a Japanese man could have done it.

Ryu Murakami’s works might be the ideal ”man” novel, but for those who are interested in modern Japanese youth culture, how Japan has changed, pop culture, and indeed, political influences (Ryu Murakami’s From the Fatherland, With Love is about a North Korean invasion of Japan) then Ryu Murakami’s work ticks all those boxes.

from the fatherland, with love audition almost transparent bluein the miso soup

Snakes and Earrings

Earlier in the week I wrote about Zhou Weihui and her novels Shanghai Baby and Marrying Buddha. Kanehara Hitomi is the Japanese Zhou Weihui and her novel Snakes and Earrings is similar to Shanghai Baby – about a young woman who’s passive and easily influenced by others.

snakes and earrings

The themes however do differ. Instead of shopping and sex, the character Lui explores body art (tattoos and piercings) and sex and uses these to explain her life along with other literary themes which litter contemporary Japanese literature (such as violence and death).

The novel focuses around the character of Lui, a young girl who battles with depression and wishes to create feeling in her empty life. Lui meets Ama, who has a forked tongue and immediately becomes obsessed and starts a relationship with him. Ama introduces Lui to the life of piercings and tattoos and she begins the process of getting her tongue forked as well.

Lui is obsessed with pain. Her piercings, tattoos and alcoholism are all a form of self-harm for her. They enable the character to feel. Pain fills up the void Lui is feeling, and it’s pain and the need for physical pain which draws her into a relationship with Shiba-san, a sadist who is often violent towards her.

Lui doesn’t realise that it’s not pain which makes her happy. It’s love which fulfills the void and it’s not until Ama protects her from violent men which she realises this. This feeling is further reinforced when Ama goes missing, and after a few days the police reveal that he was brutally raped and murdered.  It is here that Lui recovers from the numbness she was previously experiencing and sets about changing her life.

The novel, like Shanghai Baby, is poorly written and has a sloppy and immature feel, but this adds to the characterisation. It’s not elegant, it’s not perfect – just like Lui.

The novel, by embracing topics such as alcoholism, sex, and the very taboo tattoos (which are still associated with the Yakuza in Japanese society), shows Japanese youth culture changing. It’s breaking away from traditional Japan and becoming radical and rebellious due to the pressures on youth from society. This all creates an unstable youth population who use this new youth culture to vent out its frustration.

Snakes and Earrings is a cry for help on behalf of the young people of Japan.

Author Kanehara Hitomi

Author Kanehara Hitomi

The novel won the Akutagawa Prize in 2003 which has cemented its importance in Japanese literature. Like Zhou WeiHui’s novels, I am not a fan of Snakes and Earrings, but I can appreciate it in comparison to other Japanese novels.