‘The Sheltering Rain’ by Hanmura Ryō (Review)

Having (finally!) got through all my posts wrapping up 2019, it’s time to move on to 2020 reviews, and as is customary on my site, the first month of the year has a special focus.  #JanuaryinJapan is now just a hashtag rather than a full-blown blogging event, but I do enjoy my month of Japanese reading, and I’ve got a range of interesting books lined up for my reviews.  Today’s first post, then, takes us off to Tokyo, as we plunge into the lives of people who do their best work at night.  I know you’re probably all still a little tender from the New Year’s festivities, but get dressed up – it’s time to go bar hopping 🙂

Ryō Hanmura’s The Sheltering Rain (translated by Jim Hubbert, review copy courtesy of Kurodahan Press), a 1975 release awarded the Naoki Prize, is set in and around the hostess bars of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.  Most foreigners now know the area for its busy railway station(s) and tall buildings, but Hanmura’s work is set in a time just before this development really took hold.  The Shinjuku of The Sheltering Rain is a location in flux, where old and new cultures are about to collide in the nighttime bar scene.

The first part introduces the reader to Senda, an experienced bartender/manager who has worked for years in the district.  As the book starts, he’s in charge of The Pot Still, helping build up the business for the inexperienced owner (or ‘Mama’), Yoshiko.  It’s not just his experience that makes him invaluable, though; he has certain special talents, including a knack for understanding the hostesses who work for him:

Senda’s gift was to take these little remarks seriously.  The hostesses were dragging a heavy weight called Life.  This was how they’d decided to feel.  Rather than stroll through Life with a light step, they liked to picture themselves tearfully dragging that heavy weight.  It made them feel deep.  All Senda had to do was see that weight they were dragging, and let on that he was dragging one too.
‘Pushover’, p.6 (Kurodahan Press, 2019)

However, such a talented man is wasted as a bartender, and fortunately his big break arrives when his long-time patron Nomoto finally comes good on a promise.  Finally, it’s time to open ‘Lui’ – his own bar.

From there, The Sheltering Rain moves in several different directions, branching out to introduce more of the characters making a living from the Shinjuku nightlife.  We meet Yoshie and Kyōko, two young hostesses who have set up their own small place, and share drinks with a regular known as the Sage of Shinjuku, a man with a detailed specialist knowledge of the area, before bowing to Satoko, Mama of The Golden Bear, the doyenne of the Shinjuku crowd.  Hanmura’s work is described as a novel, but in truth it has the air of a collection of magazine stories, with the characters being briefly reintroduced each time they appear.

Fans of Japanese literature will no doubt see echoes of other works in The Sheltering Rain, with many of the country’s writers taking an interest in society after dark.  I was reminded primarily of Nagai Kafu’s stories of the Yoshiwara water trade, such as Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale, as well as Teru Miyamoto’s trilogy of novellas, Rivers, which look at the entertainment industry in Osaka.  The focus in these books, as is the case in The Sheltering Rain, is on the community that exists in the areas that most people only pass through for a few hours of fun, one outsiders are curious about :

An unending succession of affairs, a free and rootless existence even in middle age, a life that’s always chic and stylish.  It’s a lifestyle we civilians can’t emulate.  We have partners, we have kids.  We have jobs that aren’t boring enough to grouse about.  Still what would it be like to be a denizen of the night?  It’s something we ask ourselves, especially when we hit middle age.  Longing for an answer, we drop in to chat with the barman and drink and feel the world get just a little lighter.
‘Night Train’, p.100

Of course, life here isn’t quite that easy, and Hanmura shows us the reality of life in Shinjuku, allowing us to see its residents by day, and setting bare their dreams, and woes.

Senda acts as the focal point of the book, with most of the stories featuring him at least in passing.  As an old hand, he’s someone people come to for advice, and he’s more than happy to lend a hand to bar owners and hostesses alike.  Far from fearing the competition, he’s willing to recommend hostesses who might fit in somewhere else, and (like many of the bar owners), he even goes as far as sending customers to new bars to give them the necessary kick-start.

While Senda may seem to float above petty problems at times, even he has his issues, though.  In the piece that lends the book its title, the habitual bachelor opens his door, and heart, to a hostess he sees getting soaked in a downpour.  A relationship ensues, and for the first time Senda considers settling down and leaving a life of casual flings behind.  Of course, this is Shinjuku, and happy endings are in short supply, so its little surprise that there’s more to his partner than meets the eye…

What comes across most strongly throughout The Sheltering Rain is the sense of community that exists in Shinjuku.  The bar owners and hostesses seem to forever be visiting each other and aren’t above helping out when business is too good.  In one part, the Shinjuku folk go even further, with owners and hostesses gathering to help out the son of a hostess who has passed away.  Her memory is enough to have them rally around in an attempt to stop the young man from getting a beating from a gang of radical students (this is 1970s Tokyo, after all).

Hubbert’s brief introduction sets the scene nicely, depicting a district on the cusp of change.  Japan’s economic boom is in full swing and land prices are soaring, so while the old post-war order is still intact, danger is visible on the horizon, with the small independent bars under threat from big businesses looking to muscle in and make a quick profit.  In many ways, The Sheltering Rain is a snapshot, or a series of snapshots, of the last days of a way of life about to disappear, Hanmura’s homage to what he senses is about to vanish.  This all culminates in ‘Back to the Old Days’, where, after Yoshie and Kyōko’s chance meeting with Satoko, the news of the arrival of investors from Osaka spreads throughout Shinjuku, leading to a gathering of the tribes to discuss how to react to the threat to Satoko’s cabaret.  It’s a seemingly impossible situation, but the troops aren’t giving up that easily and decide to rally one last time…

Those expecting a polished novel from The Sheltering Rain might be a little disappointed, but if you like stories that create a sense of place and mood, it’s a book you’ll surely enjoy.  The many links between the sections reflect the way the lives of the Shinjuku night folk interconnect, and in a way, Hanmura is acting more as a social historian than a writer, recounting the last days of a fading Empire:

“Listen to me.  It’s like the spirit of O-Maki brought us together.  I mean, look at us.  Say what you want, but we’re all heading into retirement or whatever you call it.  I don’t think we’ll be together again like this.  When we’re gone, the old Shinjuku will go with us.  Maybe tonight is old Shinjuku’s last night.”
‘A Man of Shinjuku’, p.93

If that’s the case, then Hanmura’s creations are determined not to go quietly into that good night.  Yes, it may be the end of an era, but this is most definitely a celebration, not a wake 🙂


9 thoughts on “‘The Sheltering Rain’ by Hanmura Ryō (Review)

  1. I like the sound of this, Tony. Not an author I’ve read, but I do love books which capture a particular place and time, and the episodic structure is very appealing. There seems to be more than one Japanese lit challenge about at the moment! 😀


  2. I’m not particularly familiar with night life in general, or bars in Japan in particular; when my husband and I were last in Tokyo we had a glass of wine in the evening on top of an elegant hotel overlooking the still light skyscrapers of office buildings. But, I like how you said there was a sense of community, and that those of us who enjoy atmosphere and mood would surely this book. I am surely such a reader.


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