The title story is the winner: a long novella whose title could be translated “Holy Water.”
The book contains three other stories, which I haven’t read yet (!).
The narrator, Hidenobu, is a single male in his 20s or perhaps early 30s, on his second career. He worked in a bank for a while, but is now working for Sagari, a friend of his father’s. Over the course of the story Hidenobu meets and starts a relationship with Kayano, who also works for Sagari. Tension in the love affair is provided by the fact that Kayano’s mother thinks Sagari might be after Kayano, and in fact he kind of is; by Hidenobu’s passive, charmless approach to wooing her; and most importantly by the fact that Sagari seems to be on the verge of starting his own religion, and Kayano’s mother is a charter member. Hidenobu’s father turns out to be a believer, too, and Hidenobu doesn’t like it.
Belief is the theme of this story, and boy, I’ve just scratched the surface of how it’s explored. The story is set in a village behind Nagasaki that overlooks the city, in particular the Urakami Cathedral and Ground Zero; the village itself is defunct, but was once a hidden-Christian enclave. Hidenobu’s father grew up there, and now that he’s dying of cancer he moves the family back there, to a little house he’s had built especially to remind him of the old days in the village. He spends most of his time on a lounge in the garden under a magnolia tree.
The village’s history touches everything in the story. It involves betrayal as much as it does fidelity; as the village emerged into the Meiji period one of its sons, Unosuke, betrayed them to the authorities as Christians. And yet he’s hailed as an illustrious forebear, even as the village’s Christian past is also celebrated. That “Christian” should probably be put in scare-quotes – not my judgment, but the characters’, as many of them refuse to be assimilated into the new mainstream Christian churchees that have come into Nagasaki, but instead cling to the catechism that was passed down in their midst over the centuries, the “oratio,” even though they readily confess to not understanding more than a few words. They don’t think of themselves as Christians, but as hidden-Christians. It’s more about cultural identity than belief.
And yet belief is constantly problematized in this book. The narrator’s father, a longtime unbeliever, a practical man of business, asks that the oratio be recited at his deathbed; he claims to see the spirits of the dead, or their reincarnated form in birds and bugs in the garden. And he starts to believe in Sagari’s new religion.
The narrator’s father runs a chain of supermarkets, while Sagari runs a chain of thrift shops and a mineral-water business; a lot of the plot of the story revolves around the father’s attempt to merge the two business, bringing Sagari in as his successor, using Hidenobu as a kind of stalking-horse. There’s resistance, not least from Hidenobu, because of the quasi-religious nature of Sagari’s business. That consists of this. His mineral water is marketed under the name Holy Water, and comes (but not really) from a grotto that he found in a fishing village – when he found it he was suffering from lesions in the mouth, and one drink healed him. He placed a statue of the Madonna in the grotto, and started selling the water. It has more than a few true believers, and it started spawning irregularities in his chain of stores: he started issuing scrip based on the water that could be used in lieu of cash in his stores, or in a flea market that he starts. Essentially setting up a parallel secret economy, outside of the real one, getting people to work in his stores for the scrip, to repair and sell things in the flea market for the scrip. All for the satisfaction of it, or because they believe. Hidenobu’s father, the hard-headed man of business, used to scoff, but now that he’s dying of cancer he believes the water is taking away his pain, and is content to allow his business to be placed in the service of the holy water.
As if all of that weren’t enough, the whole thing is set against a hibakusha backdrop. It’s not clear that the father’s cancer is related (but it’s a safe bet); it’s not really clear which of the old people in the story have what ties to the bombing, but it’s always there, and near the end the father attends a memorial service.
To be honest I’m deeply torn about this story. It’s packed with sociohistorical detail, really well grounded in a place and its people. Any one of these threads would make for an interesting story. But all together it’s perhaps too much – hidden Christians and the atomic bombings and a new religion and dealing with a father’s death and a family-business successor dispute and a quasi-love story, all in a hundred-page story. Oh, yeah, and I left out Sagari’s shady student-radical past. It leaves you exhausted. Especially as, for all that plotting, the narrator is a maddeningly passive character. We never learn much about his feelings, only that he’s not particularly well-disposed to Sagari and his religion; and he never does or says a whole lot. He’s a cipher, and so rather than discovering this complex world through him as he navigates or explores it, we just feel it pressing in on us. Maybe that says something about the weight of culture and the paralysis of incipient grief. But I’m not sure it does justice to everything else that’s trying to go on in this story.
The language, too, leaves me ambivalent. Seirai’s style is dense and demanding, not particularly graceful, but at times can be quite striking in the specificity of its descriptions – at what feel like regular intervals he describes the vegetation in the garden, or the rooftops of Nagasaki below, with extraordinarily vivid detail. And yet in other ways he employs a curiously limited vocabulary – people never stand (tatsu) but always loiter (tatazumu), for example. Slightly unusual words used frequently enough to be quite noticeable. I’m not quite sure of the point, but it calls attention to itself.
It’s interesting to me that this won back-to-back with Chūin no hana – it reinforces my suspicion with that one that there was some kind of perception that it was a post-Aum moment, and therefore one in which literature that expressed both anxieties about religion and an attraction to belief, or best of all anxieties about the attraction to belief, was perceived as particuarly appropriate.
I got around to reading the omake stories.
“Jeronimo no jūjika ジェロニモの十字架” (Geronimo’s Cross). Earlier than the title story; Seirai’s first story, in fact. It suffers a little from the same surfeit of thematic matter, but not from a surfeit of plot. Very little happens, in fact, and most of that is in flashback.
The narrator, who has the same name as the author, is a guy in his 30s who has recently had his larynx removed – cancer – so he’s mute. That’s not the main thread of the story, but it’s important. The main thread concerns an uncle of his, Akiteru, who Yūichi thinks of by his baptismal name, Geronimo. The family aren’t Christians now, but were for a little while.
This story, like the title story, is very concerned with family history, and since it’s also set in Nagasaki, in Urakami, that means a family history intertwined both with the atomic bomb and with the hidden Christians. Yūichi’s (the narrator’s) grandmother was a survivor who lost her husband and a son to the bomb; after the war she remarried to a Christian, and converted, but then he turned out to be a con man and a bigamist who left her, so she left the church. Geronimo was his son, and in adulthood he is the black sheep of the family. The present moment of the story is Bon, and Geronimo shows up at his eldest brother’s home with everyone else, and is given the cold shoulder as he always is.
Geronimo has a checkered history. Among other things, he found an antique iron cross one day while helping move the family grave site and concluded, with no other evidence, that the family was once Christian, hundreds of years ago; he reverts to the religion of his birth and in fact for a little while ends up running his own sect, or cult – really just himself and three cronies who use it, the other family members think, as an excuse for sponging off strangers. He’s a skeevy guy, and the narrator recalls seeing him once as a homeless guy, or seeing a homeless guy who looked exactly like him, in Tokyo staring lecherously at high school girls in short skirts.
The climax of the story comes when, in the present moment, Geronimo whips out his cross, puts it on the Buddhist altar during Bon ceremonies, prays, and then challenges the narrator to pray. Promises a miracle. The narrator feels bullied, the narrator’s mother gets into an argument with Geronimo, and then Geronimo seems momentarily transfigured, and then he has a seizure, and when he wakes up he has forgotten what happened. He says his humanity is disappearing – whether this means he’s going insane or become a deity is never explained.
Time passes and Geronimo has disappeared; in the last scene the narrator, riding the city trolley during Bon, imagines he’s riding together with all the spirits of the dead tormented Christians and bomb victims…
It’s a very intense story, and I’m coming to like Seirai. There’s a whole lot in here to sink your teeth into. The writing is precise and rich, if demanding and sometimes repetitive. The setting and characters are so fully realized, or perhaps I should say so thoroughly grounded in history (I’m not sure they’re fully realized as characters), that they really stick with you. And the themes are important and intriguing ones.
The narrator is still a bit of a cipher, though. His feelings are more foregrounded here than those of the title story’s, but still, given his suffering, and the way he’s put on the spot in the climactic scene, you might expect him to stand out a little more clearly than he does. Geronimo is the real focus here. He’s reminiscent of some of Endō Shūsaku’s characters – he liked to make his intellectuals skeptical of true faith, while situating belief in abject sinners and peasants, people weak in every respect, with a weakness that itself leads to the divine. Geronimo does offer some sort of godliness, even if it may be a scam, or may be the product of insanity; there’s something about him that suggests to the narrator the possibility of transcendence, or at least escape from self.
“Doroumi no kyōdai 泥海の兄弟” (Mud-sea brothers) is a little different. It’s also first person, but the present-day action is limited to a mere frame: the narrator visits a small fishing village in Kyushu where he used to live as a boy, and then we get a flashback to his first year there as a middle schooler. At the end we flash forward again to the present day, but just to close the story: nothing happens.
So the story proper is the flashback, and what’s more it’s told in strict chronological order, from when the narrator moves to the town and on the first day of school meets his new best friend, Yutaka, to the first day of school after summer break that same year, when Yutaka has transferred to another school.
The narrator’s father is a researcher of sorts who has moved to this town to study the mudflats. Yutaka’s father is a local, an ex-yakuza who has reformed and works manual labor jobs around the town. Yutaka and the narrator become best friends for a trifling reason – on the first day of school they both have bandaids on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. Outsiders both, they bond and spend the spring and summer playing in the extensive mudflats and reed beds on the edge of town.
The plot largely concerns Yutaka’s father, the ex-yakuza. Nicknamed Onigen (“demon,” for a tattoo on his back and his lawless behavior, plus “gen” from his given name), he has a younger brother nicknamed Kinrō who joined the mob with him, and who never quite reformed. Onigen married, had a son, went to prison, and his wife died while he was in the joint, so now he’s gone straight. Kinrō is making that hard for him. You can kind of guess where this is going: Kinrō crosses the local mob, gets killed for his troubles, and Onigen has to choose between staying straight and avenging his brother. He tries to stay straight, but it’s clear he’s lost Yutaka’s respect, so he tries vengeance, botches it, and is killed.
This subplot is straight out of any number of gangster movies, East and West (“they pull me back in…”), and I guess the only thing surprising about it is how predictable it is. How surprising it is that Seirai, having chosen to employ a genre-fiction plot, employs it with so little modification.
But of course he puts a literary slant on it. It’s all in the treatment, after all, it always is, and the treatment here is as careful and stubbornly literary as anything else in the book. It’s all told from the point of view of the adolescent narrator, who’s an observer more than anything. Yutaka doesn’t even tell him much – most of the back story we learn from An-san, a retired fisherman and distant relative of Onigen’s who spends most of his time puttering around on the mudflats now. So the boys are insulated from most of it, and as much time is spent describing their adventures on the mudflats as on detailing the vendetta.
Even there, the focus is on Yutaka’s feelings. He’s presented as a kind of primitive. His mother was a kind of naïve religionist who taught him that people’s souls went straight into animals, such as the shellfish who live in the mudflats, when they did. And his father has clearly, in spite of himself, passed on his atavistic code of honor. Yutaka wants his father to avenge his uncle, and has to be talked out of avenging his father when he dies. In fact we don’t know what happened to Yutaka in the end – the narrator thinks he’s talked Yutaka out of it, but then Yutaka is taken in by a relative in Kumamoto and moves, and that’s the last the narrator hears of him.
How does the narrator feel about all this? It’s not quite clear. So much is left unsaid. There’s an obvious parallel being drawn between Onigen’s loyalty to his brother Kinrō and the relationship between Yutaka and the narrator. They even call each other “brother,” and when Yutaka picks a fight with some older boys who are making fun of his father for not seeking revenge, the narrator is right there with him. They both get a brutal beat-down. And the narrator, being less of a fighter by nature, gets the worst of it. So with both sets of brothers we have loyalty to a brother in distress dragging the other down into the mud. Literally, in the boys’ case: the fight happens on the mudflats.
I’m definitely changing my mind about this author. It’s a very different story from the other two I’ve read, sharing only a setting (Kyushu) and the general theme of family. But what a setting – you can feel the mudflats, smell the reed-bed. I’m not sure that idea-wise the story delivers much, but in terms of intensity of feeling, it packs a punch.
“Nobunaga no shugoshin 信長の守護神” (Nobunaga’s Guardian Deities) is the joker in the deck in two ways. First, it’s utterly different from the others in terms of its themes and its style. Second, and not unrelatedly, I think it’s supposed to be a comedy.
It’s about a college-aged kid named Uichirō who is an extra in a film being made about Oda Nobunaga. They’re filming battle sequences in Kyushu, near Mt. Aso, and Uichirō is playing a footsoldier. Many footsoldiers, actually – he dies any number of times.
The Kyushu setting of course connects it with the other stories, but it’s not Nagasaki; the whole story takes place in the mountains, and the kid himself is from Fukuoka. The other commonality is that it’s heavily plotted, while the main character is curiously passive.
Uichirō is between schooling – couldn’t get into his first choice, and is doing the film-extra thing as a break from prep school. He’s thinking about film school, and this is his first brush with the industry. He’s also got a Family Situation. His mom and stepdad’s marriage is falling apart, and over the course of the story his stepdad turns violent. Uichirō’s not so sad to be out of the house for a while, staying in cheap inns with the rest of the extras.
The film is a mess; this is where the comedy comes in. The director is a video-game designer who had a hit with an RPG about Nobunaga; the studio hired him to film it, but it’s clear that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Later we learn that the video game itself wasn’t all his doing – a team of hackers put out pirate versions that were better than the original, and that fueled its popularity.
The stars, the guys playing Nobunaga and his Guardian Deities (a group of super-samurai tough guys who surround him in battle), are non-actors. This is one of the Comic Situations: pros in supporting roles (secondary actors, production staff) surrounding amateurs in positions of authority. Nobunaga and his crew are being played by gigolo-types from Kabuki-chō; also a drag queen, and an African-American former K-1 fighter named Anton.
Uichirō hooks up with Koroku, another extra. The reader notices that something’s wrong with Koroku before Uichirō does. Koroku has an unhealthy obsession with Anton – knows suspicious amounts about him, and seems to have been following him around. At the same time wherever the film crew goes there are suspicious attacks on local people by a guy in a cape and Darth Vader helmet. It’s obvious to the reader that this is somebody dressed in a Nobunaga-era samurai costume, and pretty soon we start to suspect it’s Koroku, because he’s so creepy. But Uichirō doesn’t notice until the end, when Koroku confronts him, club in hand, and confesses – before turning himself in…
This happens in the aftermath of a strange party that Uichirō and Koroku go to. They somehow wangle an invite to hang out with Nobunaga and his crew at their inn (which is much nicer than the one where the extras stay, of course), and once there the warlord starts passing around funny cigarettes. Things get strange, and Uichirō remembers nothing about the rest of the night. But Koroku later tells him, with barely-disguised jealousy, that Anton tried to rape him. The stress of this is what leads Koroku, in what seems like a hallucinatory state, to confess – and not just to the recent attacks, but to what may be murders going way back.
And then, like I say, he turns himself in. And Uichirō goes home.
It’s not a great story. In fact it’s a pretty resounding failure. The funny parts aren’t funny, and they don’t sit well with the crime-and-trauma parts. And the long party scene is actually offensive. It’s pretty clear that Seirai is inspired here by Murakami Ryū’s Almost Transparent Blue, but he doesn’t have that author’s self-awareness or irony. It’s also obvious that he doesn’t have much idea of what marijuana does. And, by far the worst, he indulges in horrible stereotypes about African-Americans. Right down to the fucking watermelon.