With the new year already a few days old, it’s high time for my first review for January in Japan 🙂 I’m kicking off my series of posts with a look at a writer whose work I’ve tried once before. Today’s book, however, is where he made his name, an excellent collection of three works which, for the first time, are now available in one volume in English. Let’s take a walk down to the river…
Teru Miyamoto’s Rivers (translated by Ralph F. McCarthy and Roger K. Thomas, review copy courtesy of Kurodahan Press) brings together three of the writer’s most famous pieces. ‘Muddy River’ won the Osamu Dazai Prize in 1977, while ‘River of Fireflies’ was awarded the 78th Akutagawa Prize the following year. These two novellas run to about about fifty pages each, but the third story, ‘River of Lights’, which also began life as a novella, was later expanded into a 150-page short novel. The three parts of Rivers are unconnected in terms of characters and plot; however, as you’ll see, there’s a lot which links the stories together and justifies the decision to collect them in one volume.
The first story, ‘Muddy River’, is set in the mid-1950s, with eight-year-old Nobuo living above a noodle shop by a river close to Osaka Bay. It’s a working-class area, fairly removed from the aesthetically-pleasing settings of some well-known Japanese fiction:
“A patch of sunlight fell on one corner of the boat’s decaying wooden roof. Nobuo turned his eyes to the river. He’d lived his entire life next to those muddy waters, but now, for the first time ever, they struck him as filthy and repulsive. The horse-dung-littered asphalt, the jumble of sagging gray bridges, the soot-blackened houses – everything seemed hopelessly dismal and dreary.”
‘Muddy River’, p.14 (Kurodahan Press, 2014)
The story focuses on a short period of Nobuo’s life, one in which he meets Kiichi, a boy living with his mother and sister on a houseboat. The two boys quickly become friends, but Nobuo gradually comes to realise that Kiichi’s circumstances are very different to his own, learning a few lessons about life on the way.
‘River of Fireflies’ sees us leaving the Kansai region to head to Toyama, on the Sea of Japan coast. It’s now 1962, and a fourteen-year-old schoolboy, Tatsuo, is coming to terms with the impending death of his ageing father and his growing feelings for childhood friend Eiko. Over the course of a few months, the teenager goes through a pivotal time of his life, facing up to death, responsibility and confused emotions, the story culminating in a summer day to remember – a search for the elusive fireflies…
The final part of the trilogy draws us back to Osaka, but this time the focus has shifted from the bay to downtown. It’s 1969, and university student Kunihiko is working at a small coffee shop called ‘River’ to make ends meet, a café located in the middle of the red-light district:
“All at once crowded, then as if by prior arrangement all at once vacated, River fell quiet as it emptied. The rain that had begun early in the evening was falling harder. A waterlogged drunk went staggering by. With the colors of neon lights reflected in the puddles, the surface of Soemoncho Avenue glistened in various hues. Hostesses plucked up the hems of their dresses as they held umbrellas for customers getting into taxis.”
‘River of Lights’, p.128
Starting slowly, the story gradually reveals the different facets of the Dotonbori area, introducing the reader to drag queens, strippers, billiard halls and the neon lights dominating the quarter.
The greater scope of ‘River of Lights’ allows Miyamoto to spread his focus, and the second major character of the story is Takeuchi, the owner of the café. He becomes a kind of guardian to the parentless Kunihiko, despite the fact that he has a son of his own, a billiard player working his way up the ranks of the Osaka hustlers. In the floating world of Dotonbori, the café owner eventually decides that it’s time for him to intervene in the lives of both young men, either with financial help or with his trusty billiards cue.
While I enjoyed my previous look at Miyamoto’s work, the short-story collection Phantom Lights, Rivers is a far better book. All three of the stories provide intriguing glimpses into the Japan of the time, with traces of the post-war poverty evident in each of the pieces. There are old soldiers with visible war wounds, bombed buildings with people setting setting up stalls amongst the rubble and businessmen with an eye for profit taking advantage of the opportunities to make a quick fortune.
It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that the three books form a deliberate trilogy, one in which the writer explores his own youth vicariously. While the main characters are different, each time we move on seven years, as do the boys. Each of them is forced to contemplate mortality (with the first death occurring a matter of pages into ‘Muddy River’), and we move from a young boy with a sick mother, to a teenager with a dying father and then finally meet a young adult who has lost both parents.
Towards the end of ‘River of Lights’, Kunihiko looks out over his realm and realises how empty it all is:
“When I walk through Dotonbori at daybreak, I always get so depressed I can’t stand it. I feel like some kind of filthy stray dog and don’t give a damn about anything.”
‘River of Lights’, p.215
The words come from the mouth of his walking companion, but the sentiment could be his own. Having followed the progress of the youth of the time, the trilogy actually has an open end, where we wonder what will become of Kunihiko, or his next incarnation.
Miyamoto is a contemporary of the two Murakamis, and while he’s unlikely to achieve their level of fame and success, it’s definitely worth comparing the work of the three writers. In particular, with ‘River of Lights’ being set in 1969, there’s an obvious opportunity to read it alongside Haruki’s Norwegian Wood and Ryu’s Sixty-Nine. Three men on the cusp of adulthood, three different areas of Japan, three ways of coping with a changing society – these are books which all benefit from being read in a wider context. Here’s hoping that more western readers will put the Murakamis aside for a little while and give Miyamoto a try – I can assure you that you won’t regret it 🙂