Friday, 28 August 2009


'Shipwrecks', first published in Japan as 'Hasen' in 1982 is set in a remote village by the sea, where the austere existence has forced the locals into selling themselves into servitude. The village is seen through the eyes of Isaku, a boy who's father has just sold himself for three years servitude, leaving Isaku to fend for the family, 'Make sure your brother and sisters don't starve' are his parting words. Isaku takes on this responsibility, and he soon starts to learn to fish, one day he is summoned by the village chief who tells him that it is his turn to watch over the salt cauldrons (a ritual that continues today),ensuring the fires don't go out over night. Isaku learns that the fires serve a double purpose,that they are also part of 'o-fune-sama', the fires are also lit to tempt ships in distress to turn in toward the shore, and get caught on the reef in the hope that they will spill their cargo. Time passes and you see how much the villagers rely on there being a good catch of squid and octopus, with maybe enough leftover to take to the next village to trade for rice, the villagers live season by season. They pray that 'o-fune-sama' comes and that they can live off the wrecks cargo. The catch of fish is poor and there are hard times, Isaku's sister catches a fever and dies, his cousin Takichi marries Kura, and she falls pregnant. Kura is chosen by the village chief to perform the ritual for 'o-fune-sama',which involves kicking over an effigy of a vessel. One night Isaku is awoken by his mother that 'o-fune-sama' has come and they rush down to the beach, to find that a ship is stuck out on the reef and is full of bales of rice, and stocks of vinegar, soy-sauce, Kura's good performance at the ceremony paid off, the villagers agree. Later Isaku learns that some of the sailors on board the ship drowned, and some were killed by the villagers.

After hearing at the next village of two men asking questions about the ship, the village chief orders the villagers to hide the rice away in the forest, there must be no sign that the ship run aground here. If they are caught they could face torture and death, but time passes and the men never visit their village, and life becomes a little easier for the villagers. One day two men are seen approaching the village, and for a moment they are suspected of being the men investigating the missing ship, but they turn out to be men from the village returning from a period of servitude, the men had worked at the same place as Isaku's father, and they tell him that his father is doing well.

The seasons change and Isaku has become an experienced fisherman, time passes and again its time for the 'o-fune-sama' ceremony, surely it couldn't happen two years in a row, the villagers surmise, and to their astonishment it does, although this time there appears to be no sign of life aboard the ship, as the villagers stare out at the vessel from the beach. A small boat goes out to the stricken ship and when one of the villagers gets on board and goes below, he discovers that all the men on board are dressed in red, and have rashes and blisters on them and all are dead. After some consideration about what has happened to this ship and it's sailors the village elder thinks it safe to at least strip the bodies of their clothes and set the vessel out to sea again. Make sure to wash the garments before using them and it will be safe, the village elder advises the villagers. But even after washing the clothes the village is hit by a terrible disease, Isaku's brother, mother and surviving sister are struck by the disease. Huge rashes appear on their bodies, and they suffer from terrible headaches, bedridden and nearly too weak to eat. Isaku fears that they will die and his father will return from servitude to find that Isaku is the only surviving member of the family. Their condition deteriorates, and many in the village die, the village chief also catches the disease. You'll have to find a copy to find out what happens to Isaku's family, and if his father returns from servitude, and if the village will survive.

'Shipwrecks' blends fable, morality play, pathos into a highly readable novel, it also gives an interesting picture of religious ritual set in a remote village, where the spirits of the dead travel across the sea, and eventually return to the village, sheltering in the wombs of pregnant women. I think this is the first novel I've read that features traditional Japanese time, a description here. Canongate publish Akira Yoshimura's 'One Man's Justice', also translated by Mark Ealey. Akira Yoshimura also wrote the book 'Yami ni Hirameku' which was adapted into a film by Shohei Imamura called The Eel/Unagi.

1 comment:

mel u said...

I love One Man's Justice-it is a brilliant universal study of the returning soldier-I hope to read Ship Wrecks in 2010