Sunday, 29 May 2011

Distant Thunder by Wahei Tatematsu

Noticing that another of Tatematsu Wahei's novels appears on a recent JLLP list, (Hidaka, 2002, translated by Philip Gabriel), it prompted me into a reading of Distant Thunder, originally published in Japan as Enrai in 1980, translated by Lawrence J. Howell and Hikaru Morimoto and published by Charles E.Tuttle Company in 1999. The novel was also adapted for a film directed by Kichitaro Negishi, released through ATG in 1981. Described on the cover as A Novel of Contemporary Japan, the novel is now a little over thirty years old, although it's plotting and characters still resonate on into the present day, Tatematsu passed away early in 2010, hopefully Hidaka and more of his novels and writings will be picked up in the future. As well as being a novelist Tatematsu was an environmental activist and his concerns about the environment can be read throughout Distant Thunder, as it studies a small farming community, (the Wada family in particular), whose lives are transformed after they have sold their land to developers.

Most of Distant Thunder is seen through the eyes of Mitsuo, the second youngest son of the Wada family. Mitsuo's father, Matsuzo, has sunk the majority of the money he made into his mistress's unsuccessful bar and also rents an apartment for them. Mitsuo's older brother, Tetsuo, has moved out to Tokyo leaving it just Mitsuo, his mother, Tomiko, and Matsuzo's mother living in the house. Tetsuo calls asking for money to put down on a house, but as Tetsuo left the family home Mitsuo feels Tetsuo is not entitled to any of the money. Mitsuo spends most of his time cultivating tomatoes in the family's remaining hothouse, he sells them at the lowest rate to the local supermarket and also cheaply to the housewives of the newly built apartment complex. Tomiko, his mother, works directing traffic at a construction site along with Mitsuo's friend Koji, Mitsuo is surprised when Tomiko returns from the supermarket one day, her bags full of daikon, What's the world coming to when the farmer buys vegetables from the supermarket?, Mitsuo ponders out loud. Grandma who seems to be largely ignored by Tomiko and Mitsuo is a constant source of stories on how much better things were in the old days, but on the whole her assertions seem to be proved right, and Mitsuo's resentment at the developers increases when two men appear who want to buy the land that the hothouse is on and turn it into a used car lot. Mitsuo has a one night fling with a woman, (Kaede), from the apartments who tells him that she's divorced but later her husband turns up with a warning for Mitsuo, despite this Mitsuo agrees to meet a woman, (Ayako), through omiai, (arranged marriage), Mitsuo feeling that it's time his life begins to take on a more definite shape agrees to the marriage to the relief of both sides. Ayako, at first is uncertain about the match, but seeing how hard Mitsuo works, Ayako's opinion changes. The novel follows Mitsuo as he ambles between time spent with his friend Koji, fishing in rivers full of rubbish and vomit, and time spent in the hothouse cultivating his tomato crop, the flimsy vinyl sheeting spread over it acts as a transparent barrier between himself and the external world, Koji also works his parent's tanbo, (rice field). Mitsuo's father and his mistress, (Chii), is a source of consternation, Matsuzo tries to convince the family that he's made up his mind to return to them and leave Chii, and in what seem to be an earlier attempt to rid themselves of his father's side of the family Mitsuo dumps his Grandma at his father's apartment, but his father brings her back to the family home.
Reflecting on the old days, and remembering how hard she and her husband worked the land Grandma asks a rhetorical question, 'Who was it who turned sand into the richest paddies in the village?', seems to provoke the reader into contemplating the difference between the developers make a quick profit philosophy and the farmers who cultivate the land out of necessity, and are part of a continuous tradition. Many moments in the novel sees Mitsuo appointing blame at the development, when Koji also takes up with Kaede and things take a tragic turn, Mitsuo remarks that none of it would have happened if the development hadn't happened, many of the villagers reflect on their life before the complex arrived, the novel is a detailed and well thought out portrait of the effects of modernisation and it's expansion into the country way of life. The novel ends with a lengthy description of Ayako and Mitsuo's wedding ceremony and Mitsuo has a prophetic vision of an uncertain future.


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