‘The River Ki’ by Sawako Ariyoshi (Review)

Having exhausted ourselves on an epic seventeenth-century voyage of discovery, we should probably take things a little easier today, and fortunately our latest #JanuaryInJapan trip is a much gentler journey.  This time around we’ll be spending most of our time in Wakayama Prefecture as we make the acquaintance of several generations of a well-to-do family.  Nothing out of the ordinary there, then – except that where most Japanese novels would focus on the men, today’s choice is very much a book about women.

Sawako Ariyoshi’s The River Ki (translated by Mildred Tahara) begins as the nineteenth century ends.  We meet the beautiful Hana Kimoto and her grandmother, Toyono, visiting a temple before Hana’s impending wedding.  At the relatively advanced age of twenty, Hana is finally off to be married to the hard-working, ambitious Keisaku Matani, and very soon we are witness to an elegant and ostentatious procession as the new bride is leisurely taken downstream to her new home.

From this event, the story unfolds unhurriedly in three parts.  The first focuses on Hana and the events of her entrance into the Matani family, while the second skips on, showing her daughter Fumio growing up disgracefully, before we finally switch our attention to Fumio’s daughter Hanako in a time of great change.  Over the course of fifty-odd years, people are born, grow up and die – and in the background, the grand old river rolls by unchanged…

Ariyoshi is best known for her historical novel The Doctor’s Wife, and The River Ki is another engaging tale set mainly in the countryside.  It’s a story of times gone by that gradually brings the reader up to what was, at the time (1959), almost the present.  We’re presented with a charming mix of tradition and history, with some things being lost and others surviving through the generations.

While there are three heroines in The River Ki, it’s Hana who’s undoubtedly the star of the show.  Raised by Toyono, herself an imposing matriarch, her legend goes before her when she joins her new family, and she proves herself to be a match for anything that should arise, including her new relatives, infidelity and wars.  As he husband remarks:

Your mother is a good example of a strong woman.  You can compare her to the River Ki.  Its blue waters, flowing leisurely, appear tranquil and gentle, but the river itself swallows up all the weak rivers flowing in the same direction.  It also possesses the energy to pour its waters into a strong, promising river.
p.111 (Kodansha International, 1986)

Part of the appeal of the story is seeing Hana develop from the quiet but assured bride to the accomplished wife of a politician, and then a family leader in the vein of her grandmother.

As the generations change, Ariyoshi introduces new protagonists, contrasting them with Hana.  Her daughter Fumio is a very different character, full of energy and almost too vibrant for a Japanese woman of the time.  Larger than life, she’s determined not to be tied down by tradition, which causes conflict with her mother.  Interestingly, the pendulum swings back in the next generation, as the more placid Hanako shows an interest in the Japanese culture that Hana reveres but Fumio found superfluous.

As much as it’s a family novel, though, The River Ki is also one that takes a close look at society.  As the years pass, life changes slowly, even when the Matanis move from the countryside to the city.  However, outside the family sphere, we show how Japanese politics are changing, from the Russo-Japanese War to the aggressive, militaristic mood of the twenties and thirties.  We all know what’s on the horizon, but in truth, these events roll on by without really making their mark on the narrative.  Ariyoshi is far more interested in the circumstances of the family members, and the turmoil of the outside world serves merely to allow her creations to develop further.

Of course, when I say family members, what I really mean is the women.  The River Ki is very much a female-driven story, and Ariyoshi is mainly occupied with examining women’s role in society and within the family.  Interestingly, while the men do go out to engage with the outside world, looking for jobs and trying to climb the political or corporate ladder, the writer is far more concerned with how her female protagonists enable this.  Even if Hana and Fumio are very different characters, they are united in their ambition and the efforts they make to enable their husbands to succeed.  By contrast, Hana’s eldest son, Seiichirō, for example, who leads a comfortable life, is shown (when he appears at all) as a man devoid of all ambition, a failure in the eyes of the Matani women.

It may all sound impressive, but there is an undeniable issue with The River Ki.  As was the case with another of Ariyoshi’s novels, The Twilight Years, the writer can’t help but dump information all over the place.  This is meant to inform the (presumably ignorant) reader of people and events of the times, but it can act as a major obstacle to the flow of the narrative:

The custom of celebrating the old Lunar New Year was still being followed in the provinces, though the Western calendar had been officially adopted in 1872. (p.39)

It’s certainly informative, but I can’t say it’s particularly elegant, and there are many passages which come off as rather stilted.  The book is full of these little nuggets of information, and I wish the writer had integrated them more skilfully into the story – or done without them.

It’s a shame because when Ariyoshi focuses on what she does well, the relationships between characters and their interactions, the work flows beautifully.  And, of course, that word ‘flow’ is a vital one as it evokes the titular river, a body of water each of the three main characters sees in different ways at different times.  It’s the one constant in the novel among the changes caused by war, or simply time, and the image of the waters gently rolling along towards the sea is one that will linger with the reader.

The River Ki won’t be one of my favourite choices this month, but it’s still an enjoyable read, an intriguing look at Japanese society and family life over the first half of the twentieth century, providing an insight into the importance of women to that time.  Even Fumio eventually remarks to her mother:

“It was quite natural to have a matrilineal family in primitive society, don’t you think?  After all, it’s the woman’s family one can rely upon in an emergency.” (p.207)

And that could be taken as Ariyoshi’s message to the reader:  although it’s the men who are remembered in history, it’s really the women behind the scenes who keep things running smoothly, generation after generation….

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