Akira Yoshimura's Shipwrecks (translated by Mark Ealey) is a piece of historical fiction set on an isolated part of a remote Japanese island in mediaeval times. Our guide through the story is Isaku, a nine-year-old boy forced into the position of the man of the household after the departure of his father. In a village perpetually on the brink of starvation, the only way to stay alive at times is to sell yourself as a bonded worker, and Isaku's father is in the middle of a three-year stint at a fishing port.
With a mother and three brothers and sisters to support, the young boy quickly learns how to master the skills needed to keep the family in food, soon becoming a valued member of the community. However, crossing the threshold of adulthood also means becoming aware of the village's traditions and secrets, including that of o-fune-sama. With food in short supply, the villagers pray for ships to founder off the treacherous coast - but Isaku learns that there's more to these shipwrecks than he might have thought...
Shipwrecks is a fairly short novel, clocking in at 154 pages, and it's typically, recognisably Japanese with its emphasis on description over action and depth over surface, with nature playing a prominent role. However, it also evokes other fringe cultures; the isolated coastal settlement is reminiscent of the Faroe Islands setting for The Old Man and his Sons, and the hardship is similar to that faced by the villagers in Jón Kalman Stefánsson's Heaven and Hell and Sjón's From the Mouth of the Whale.
The key to the story is the phenomenon of O-fune-sama, the hope that a ship carrying cargo will wash up on the shore, and the lengths the villagers go to in order to give the gods a helping hand with the task. Rites and prayers (such as a pregnant woman kicking over a bowl of food) are all well and good, but sometimes God helps those who help themselves:
"Rare though it might be, the coming of O-fune-sama was looked upon in the same light as unexpected schools of fish appearing near the shore, or unusually large quantities of mushrooms or mountain vegetables being found in the forest. O-fune-sama was part of the bounty offered by the sea, and its deliverance barely saved the people in the village from starvation."It takes a while, but the reader eventually becomes aware that the villagers are actually luring these ships in. Later, like Isaku, we find out more about what actually happens when their ship comes in...
p.94 (Canongate Books, 2002)
At first, the story is fairly pedestrian, albeit extremely descriptive. We are treated to descriptions of daily life, and the writer skillfully portrays the changing of the seasons, both on land (with plum blossoms and autumn leaves) and sea (the coming of octopus, saury and sardines). In truth, the first half could almost be mistaken for non-fiction, such is the lack of plot development. Later though, Yoshimura slowly ratchets up the tension, to the extent that we can tell there's a tragedy in the offing. We're just not sure where it'll come from (although there's a fair chance that it'll be brought by the sea...)
While the fate of the village is the major concern, Shipwrecks is also an individual story, describing Isaku's path to manhood. At the start of the story, he's only nine (and in Japanese years, that's probably eight), but these are different times where the children need to mature early. Near the start of the novel, he is summoned for an interview with the village chief, receiving confirmation of the responsibility to be placed on his scrawny shoulders:
"His face flushed with excitement as the tension disappeared. The order to work through the night on the salt cauldrons meant that he was recognised as an adult. Ever since he had been allowed to help with the cremation he had felt that this might happen, but knowing that it was actually about to come to pass filled him with irrepressible joy." (p.20)Having long left childhood behind, it's time for Isaku to grow up even more. He has to go out and fish for his family, gather bark in the woods to be made into cloth - oh, and there's the small matter of a developing love interest too.
Overall, it's an interesting story, simple, stark, but with powerful messages and a sobering conclusion. Many reviews I've seen use the word 'bleak' although I don't quite agree (having read a lot of J-Lit, perhaps I have higher standards for that adjective!). It's not perfect though; the writing is a little too plain at times, and the first half was very slow. There was also a lot of unnecessary repetition, and several other reviews pointed out some inconsistencies in vocabulary use which I agree with.
While these points may put some off, I suspect most people would enjoy Shipwrecks. It's an interesting story with a nice, easy style of writing, and the history and traditions of an isolated village (hundreds of years behind the times) are fascinating. I doubt it'll be my best read this month, but it's definitely got January in Japan off to a good start :)