‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburō Ōe (Review)

IMG_5384In the course of my J-Lit travels over the first seven years of the blog, I read and reviewed three books by Kenzaburō Ōe, one of the biggest names in modern Japanese literature.  While that might sound a respectable total (and is probably three more than many readers have managed), let’s put that number into perspective.  Fellow Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata appeared six times, with eight of Yukio Mishima’s books covered.  Eleven reviews of works by Natsume Sōseki, one of the pioneers of modern J-Lit, have been posted so far (with more to come), and as for Haruki Murakami… well, let’s just say that he’s a frequent flier 😉

In short, Ōe has been shamefully neglected, and today’s post shows just how much of an oversight that has been.  Making predictions is always risky, but on the basis of my latest read, I’d like to think that there’ll be far more reviews of his books here before 2016 draws to a close…

Death by Water (translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm, review copy courtesy of Atlantic Books and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) marks a return to the world of Kogito Choko, a recurring character in Ōe’s fiction, and a thinly-veiled alter-ego.  Choko’s output has slowed down somewhat as he moves into his later years, but two unexpected events combine to galvanise his desire to write.  The first is when he (literally) bumps into a young woman, Unaiko, an actress and playwright, while walking near his Tokyo home.  The second is a call from his younger sister, Asa, in which she decides the time has come for Kogito to receive a part of his inheritance, a red leather trunk.  The importance of the trunk lies in what it contains, important documents which might help the writer begin a project he’s been planning for decades – a book about his father’s death:

So why didn’t I go ahead and start to draft the book?  Because I realized clearly that I didn’t possess the literary finesse to pull it off.  But even while I was floundering around, not at all certain that I would be able to survive as a young novelist, I remained essentially optimistic.  Someday, I vowed, I will write the drowning novel.
p.7 (Atlantic Books, 2015)

With the appearance of the trunk, the time has finally come to begin work on the novel, and Choko sets off for Shikoku to visit the family home once more.

However, it’s fair to say that things don’t go as planned.  The trunk doesn’t have the documents he needs, something his sister and late mother suspected all along.  Disappointed, he returns to Tokyo where things suddenly fall apart.  Kogito has a major argument with Akari, his mentally-disabled son, and before he can make things right, he is struck down by illness.  Recovering slowly at home, the writer senses that he may be gradually approaching the end, not just of his career, but also of his life.  Does he have time to resolve his unfinished affairs?

The over-arching theme of Death by Water is of a writer desperate to create a late-career classic, so it is only fitting in this meta-fictional world that this is exactly what Ōe has achieved with his novel.  The slow, innocuous start belies the complexity of what is to unfold, a story spanning a whole life (and others before).  Ōe focuses on his country’s dark history, intertwining his own family background with that of Japan, before turning towards an examination of gender issues and the way women and war are inextricably linked on both a local and national level.

Large parts of Death by Water take place at Choko’s family home on Shikoku.  For anyone who has read his early novel The Silent Cry, Ōe’s description of the house, located in the middle of the woods, will be very familiar.  There are also echoes of the earlier book in The Caveman Group, a self-sufficient theatre troupe planning an adaptation of the writer’s final book when it’s completed.  In the vaguely militaristic way the group organises its activities, we see the heirs of the bored youths looking for a project in The Silent Cry, but also of the frustrated locals during the war wondering what they can do to halt their country’s decline.

Choko has been obsessed by his father’s story his whole life, haunted by a dream of seeing him float away in a small boat at night, and the absence of his father’s papers in the red trunk is a severe blow to his hopes of completing his novel.  However, slowly other viewpoints of the fateful night do appear;  he finally gets to hear his mother’s side of the story (second-hand from Asa) as well as the testimony of Daio, one of Choko senior’s followers:

The truth is, Kogito, by the time your father reached the stage of talking about dispatching a kamikaze bomber to target the center of Tokyo, where the palace is, I think he had already resolved to end his own life, one way or another.  I didn’t have the courage to tell you this before, but I never thought Choko Sensei was the type of man who would live a long, uneventful life and die a peaceful death in his own bed.  To be honest, I don’t believe his drowning was an accident at all. (p.309)

These accounts have the effect of stripping the mystique surrounding the deceased, disillusioning the writer.  Just what kind of man was his father, really?  Has Choko been chasing a ghost all along?

This personal disappointment is eventually put to one side, though, as the story takes on a wider, more political slant.  One strand to the plot is of the menace of the right, with Choko senior’s crazed war-time plot to kill the Emperor merging into more contemporary concerns.  As Unaiko continues work on her recreation of a local feminist uprising, it becomes clear that the hard-line nationalists are still influential, willing to get their hands dirty to defend their values.

As the story progresses, this right-wing slant increasingly clashes with the feminist aspect of the novel.  Death by Water has a range of strong female characters, most of whom are far more vividly drawn than the main male protagonists.  There’s Kogito’s forceful younger sister, his wife and even his late mother.  Then, of course, there’s Unaiko, a woman who represents the focus of the female resistance to the mainly male right-wing tendencies.  Her battle to stage the play, a recreation of a real-life event in which local women rose up against oppressors, leads to an inevitable clash with those who want the past to stay hidden:

Of course Unaiko is absolutely determined to stand her ground and deal directly with the neonationalists’ catcalls and objections and so on, during the performance and afterward as well.  To that end, she added a couple of lines to the battle-cry recitative and tweaked the last line a bit.  So now it will be: Men commit rape – that’s nothing new / But countries can be rapists, too. / Women warriors, here we go / Off to vanquish every foe! (p.349)

Many of these ideas can be linked back to an early anecdote, when Unaiko falls ill on a visit to Yasukuni Shrine during her teens.  It’s only hundreds of pages later that we understand, and are horrified by, the significance of the illness – and the location…

While these gender and culture struggles dominate the second half of the book, though, Death by Water is still very much a reworking and reimagining of Ōe’s own life: as a writer (several of Ōe’s own books are attributed to Choko); as father to a musically-gifted, mentally-impaired son; and as the brother-in-law of a film-maker who committed suicide.  Choko is a writer preparing for death and starting to wonder what his legacy is, how he is seen.  Throughout the book, I found myself grasping to pull together allusions, constantly wishing I’d read all of his books, as Ōe borrows freely from his entire oeuvre.  In fact, this is Choko’s fifth outing (with a sixth recently appearing in Japanese), and while Anglophone readers can try his first outing (The Changeling), as yet the remaining books have not been translated – which is rather annoying.

Death by Water starts slowly, but by the end, I was racing through, enthralled by the way the writer manages to cover so many disparate themes over the course of 420 pages – and come up with a truly stunning climax.  This is a book which has you desperate to go back and read the writer’s back catalogue, and it’s hard to come up with higher praise than that.  Yes, I’ve definitely neglected Ōe a little over the years, but if Death by Water proves anything it’s that it’s never too late to make up for lost time…

12 thoughts on “‘Death by Water’ by Kenzaburō Ōe (Review)

  1. I have to say this is a book I did not get at all. I read it before it came out here last fall and was so underwhelmed I did not write about it. I figured it had to be me, I don’t seem to get on with much contemporary Japanese lit.


    1. Joe – J-Lit can be like that; I’ve had many people say they don’t like it. This is definitely a book where the more you’ve put in, in terms of Oe’s previous work (and J-Lit in general), the more you’ll get out. Also, the links between male aggression, right-wing politics and the war is very well done, with Oe tying it all together in the shape of Unaiko.


  2. I loved this one he seemed to be gripped by legacy I felt either through a last great book or how his works are seen like the other book I reviewed by him it all seems very autobiographical


    1. Stu – I’m very keen to read more of his now (I have a couple on the shelves, and I plan to get more…). Definitely important to have an overview of his work to fully get this.


  3. Nice review, Tony! I love how thorough you are in your reflections on what you’ve read. It sounds like you’ve read quite a bit of Japanese literature, and correct me if I’m wrong, but a number of Japanese authors tend to borrow from their own works, yes? Or did I imagine that…? I’m trying to remember 🙂 I think it’s interested and a great way of world building that I appreciate in a lot of sci-fi books.


    1. Grab the Lapels – Yes, my personal J-Lit library is well into three figures now 🙂 Not only do Japanese writers traditionally borrow from their own works, they also write about themselves very often, albeit in a slightly disguised manner. It’s a tradition going back in the modern era to some of the first Japanese writers, and it may even have a basis in classical Japanese writing (not sure about that, though).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Grant – ‘The Silent Cry’ is a good one to start with, or possibly ‘A Personal Matter’. Whatever you choose, if you read enough, you’ll see the themes repeated (à la Modiano).


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