Cover image for The cape and other stories from the Japanese ghetto
The cape and other stories from the Japanese ghetto
Nakagami, Kenji.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Works. Selections. English. c1999.
Publication Information:
Berkeley, Calif. : Stone Bridge Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
191 pages : illustrations ; 18 cm
The cape (Misaki) -- House on fire (Kataku) -- Red hair (Akagami)
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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Portrayal of a community scarred by poverty & racism.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Three new collections offer variations on what one might call the "man's man" story--fiction written by men about those topics of enduring interest to men: drinking, sport, and women. Knee-deep in the muddy woods of Alabama, Franklin's unhappy men live at the extreme edge. They suffer, as Raymond Carver's people did, from lack of work and rest, leaving too much time for hunting and whiskey. Shotguns loaded and within reach, they are men fated--by biology and economy--to shoot themselves in the feet. Their wives and girlfriends, finding little sport in these overgrown boys, make tracks of their own. The title novella skillfully evokes the impoverished community of its doomed main characters: three orphaned brothers in their teens--poachers by nature--who find themselves hunted by a legendary poacher-turned-game warden. Fans of Harris' classic baseball quartet (including The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly) may seek out this new title, which comprises 11 stories published between 1946 and 1993. Harris' quirky humor lends itself naturally to the well-told anecdote and absurd situation. In "Touching Idamae Low," a businessman discovers that the key to landing a new job is pleasing a seemingly useless corporate "assistant." In "Flattery," a professor finds himself so susceptible to compliments from a long-ago student that he lends the stranger $500. The collection concludes with a moving account of an older Harris returning to the baseball diamond. Preparing for the big game, Harris reviews the life lessons the game has taught him, gleaning insight even after the game-winning fly ball drops from his glove. Political writer Nakagami (1946^-92) was born into the Japanese outcast society of the Burakumin ("village people") and spent his career documenting that subculture. Exploding the Western stereotypes of Japanese refinement and manners, his fiction exposes the crude and often violent world of construction workers, bartenders, and prostitutes--a world where alcoholism and pleurisy decimate families and where physical size matters ultimately. Like the naturalistic work of Zola and Norris, Nakagami's characters are motivated by the most basic human urges: hunger, greed, sex, and anger. Zimmerman's translation captures the coarse vocabulary and raw energy of this fascinating ghetto. --James Klise

Publisher's Weekly Review

Western readers often assume that Japan is one homogeneous culture, but Nakagami, award-winning burakumin writer, exposes the fissures behind this facade. Burakumin are outcast Japanese, marginalized and degraded by a centuries-old belief that they are mysteriously "tainted" with impure blood. Nakagami, who died in 1992 at the age of 46, was the first to achieve literary success while documenting this oppressive legacy. The title novella, "The Cape," introduces Akiyuki, like Nakagami himself an illegitimate son. The story, set in the Kishu region of Japan, centers around one extended and discordant family. A ceremony is held to honor Akiyuki's mother's first legal husband, while Akiyuki's biological father, "that man," is reputed to recklessly haunt the red light district's prostitutes. A man on Akiyuki's construction crew, Yasuo, has killed another worker on the crew, Furuichi, and the community turns on itself, in grief and blame. Akiyuki's conflicted feelings about his father merge with a desire for self-obliteration, and he seeks and beds the prostitute he believes is his father's daughter, his own half-sister. In "House on Fire," we continue with Akiyuki's story, and learn more about his father, Yasu, a violent pyromaniac. Akiyuki, in a new city and married, descends into alcoholic violence, beating his wife viciously after learning that Yasu has been fatally injured in a motorcycle accident. In these stories, Nakagami is unrelentingly grim, showing a Zola-like obsession with inherited traits. In the final entry, "Red Hair," Nakagami gives rein to his erotic side, depicting the frenzied and strange coupling of Kozo, a construction worker, and a mysterious red-haired hitchhiker. Nakagami's tough, ruthless prose is often abstruse, with a taut psychological subtext, while elsewhere the clarity is unassailable: his detailing of the desperate passions in a Japanese ghetto rupture American stereotypes of the peaceful, impassive "nature" of the Japanese. (May) FYI: The Cape won the Akutagawa Prize in 1976. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One THE CAPE The night insects were just beginning to hum. If he listened hard he could hear them far away, like a buzzing in his ears. All night long, the insects would hum. Akiyuki imagined the smell of the cold night earth.     His sister came in with a large plate of meat.     "Hey, how `bout a drink?" Kan asked her, holding up a beer bottle.     "I don't drink," said Mie. She set the plate down beside the charcoal grill. "I'm scared to. We've got this thing in our blood. It kills our brains. Just the sight of him drinking worries me," She spoke intently, looking not at Kan but at Akiyuki, his face red from a single glass of beer, his big body hunched over, his breath hot.     She smiled, on the verge of tears.     Kan didn't intend to press the sister to drink. He just wanted to thank her for supplying him and the other workers with beer and meat.     "Oh, have a drink," slurred Mitsuko from across the table, "Forget the boss every once in a while and live it up."     "I can't. I can't." Mie, smiling, shook her head.     "C'mon, go for it." Mitsuko shifted into a cross-legged position. Akiyuki could see her frilly peach underpants.     "Hey, cover yourself up, you," laughed Mitsuko's husband, Yasuo. Seated next to her, he was now tugging at the skirt that had risen up over her knees.     "There's still plenty left for you. Who cares if I show it off a little?" Mitsuko pushed Yasuo away. "Let me tell you, Yasuo, I'm not like Mie here. I've been around a little. More than a little."     Mie collected the empty beer bottles and went back to the kitchen.     The front door and the windows of the house were open. After work the men had started drinking in the six-mat office with the wooden floor where the boss had his desk. Curious, the neighborhood kids peeped in. The men sat in a semi-circle facing out onto the alleyway. A breeze sweeping down the alley carried away the odors of cooking meat, the iron and the dust from the boss's house. The air became suffused with the cold smells of the flowerpots tended by the old people and widows, and of the ditches and the quickly gathering night.     "Drink up, drink up, drink up. Who cares if we're short on brains?" said Yasuo, hoisting the beer bottle.     "Yeah, nobody here had much to begin with anyway." Akiyuki drained his glass. Yasuo poured him another.     "Well, my family's famous for its stupidity," said Mitsuko. The chopsticks she was using to turn the meat burst into flames. "My brother'll kill me for saying so, but it's true." She stuck out her tongue.     "The boss is no dummy. He's got brains," said Fujino.     "That's what you think. You say he's smart because he's your boss, but he's my flesh and blood. My second oldest brother, if you want to get picky about it. But when we were growing up I always thought he was an idiot. And who would know better than me?"     Mie yelled in from the kitchen. "Hey, stop badmouthing my old man!"     Mitsuko stuck out her tongue again.     "But no matter what anybody says," said Mitsuko, turning to Yasuo and rapping him on the head, "you come from the biggest line of idiots. You're even worse than I am. Wasn't it your father who slept with some lousy whore and got the clap? And you were the result, right?"     Yasuo gave a deep belly laugh. He showed no sign of being affected by the beer. A sober Yasuo was as docile as a cat. He was cheerful. He worked hard. He let Mitsuko poke fun at him. But a drunken Yasuo was another story.     It was barely a ten-minute walk from Mie and the boss's house. The mother was in the kitchen washing dishes. "You came at just the right time," she said, catching sight of Mie and drying her hands on a towel as she came to the door.     "I just had a call from Nagoya," scowled the mother. "It was Yoshiko, giving me a hard time again. `But I'm the eldest daughter,' she says in her big know-it-all way."     "Where's Father?" asked Mie.     "Gone to a meeting. Fumiaki went back to his apartment." Seeing Akiyuki, she added, "Akiyuki, hurry up and eat your supper, then take a bath. I left a change of clothes in there for you." Then, as if she had just noticed his red face, she continued, "Drinking with the crew again? Don't blame me if you ache all over tomorrow."     "He just had one or two," said his sister, covering for him.     "Just a couple after work," Akiyuki said.     "Ah, well then, if it's just one or two," laughed the mother. "You're twenty-four, not fifteen or sixteen, so it's no big deal."     "He's just Brother's age when he died," said Mie, scrutinizing him.     "You're right," said the mother as she sat down at the low tea table. Suddenly her strength seemed to leave her. Mie's eyes shone in the glow of the fluorescent lamp.     "On our way here a couple minutes ago, I felt Brother was with me. It was spooky." Mie sat down. "He's really come to look like him."     "You're right," said the mother. "I think the same thing whenever I see him."     Akiyuki ate supper listening to the women talk. They were discussing the father's memorial service. On the phone a few moments before, Yoshiko, who lived in Nagoya, had been complaining that it was strange to hold a memorial service for her father in the stepfather's house. Akiyuki wasn't related by blood to either the father or the stepfather. His only tie to his siblings was through the mother. His real father was a man who wore workman's breeches and sunglasses, even though he didn't work in construction. A man with the snout of a lion and the body of a giant. Whenever his mother and sisters used the word "father," Akiyuki thought about the man. Every once in a while, he ran into him in town. The man spoke to him. They exchanged one or two words. And that was it. The man's face and body resembled his own. But what the hell did that mean? He'd heard a rumor--supposedly, the man was keeping some young woman in the red-light district. But Mie said the woman must be Akiyuki's half-sister by a different mother. Among all the man's children born to different women at just around the same time, she would be the daughter of the whore. Then after she'd grown up she'd come to the red-light district. Overnight the man had gotten rich. There were rumors that he'd swindled mountain property and other land out of a landowner. Every time Akiyuki thought of the man, he remembered what someone had once said: "There are terrible people in this world."     The women were still talking when Akiyuki finished his supper. As he entered the bathroom, the discussion showed no sign of ending. His body felt gritty from the dust. From the waist down, his skin was milky white. From the waist up, he was black from the sun. He doused himself with hot water. * * *     Akiyuki lived in a four-and-a-half-mat room detached from the rest of the house. On one wall was a poster of an actress. That was it. His friends had stereos, their own televisions, even sideboards in their rooms. If he wanted to he could easily buy such things with the salary he got twice a month from the boss. But he wasn't the type to decorate or buy furniture. In high school he'd been the same. When he graduated and went to work for the construction company in Osaka for six months, he'd kept nothing in his dorm room but a futon, underwear, and some work clothes. His dormmates eyed him suspiciously. He went to bed in his room and woke up in his room. It was the same now. And women? They didn't even cross his mind. He would remove all impurities. Come home from a hard day's work, take a bath, eat supper, go to sleep. Get up the next morning, wash your face, have breakfast. In the morning when the sun shone in, or as long as it wasn't raining, Akiyuki would put on a cotton shirt, his work breeches, and his split-toed tabi shoes. Every day he did the same.     The sun was beating down. In the main part of the house Akiyuki's stepfather and Fumiaki, the stepfather's son, were eating breakfast.     "What site are you on now?" asked Fumiaki.     Akiyuki didn't answer. Instead he did twenty push-ups and twenty sit-ups in his underwear. Then, still breathing hard, he washed his face in the sink next to the bathroom. His mother looked on.     "Did you pour concrete yet?"     "We're digging," he answered. He dried himself with the towel. "How about your crew?"     The stepfather didn't answer. Fumiaki responded instead. "We pour concrete today. If we don't work our asses off and finish it up, we'll fall behind. The weather looks good, too. We went to all that trouble bailing out the water, and we'll just have to do it over again if it rains."     Fumiaki's mouth puckered as he crunched on some pickles. Akiyuki's mother appeared from the room that had the Buddhist family altar. She was carrying clean breeches.     "The tabi are on the new side. I washed them, so wear them," she said testily.     The stepfather was sitting cross-legged in his work clothes, drinking tea. Streaks of gray in his hair rounded out the shape of his face. When had the gray hair become noticeable? In fact, when had his whole being become softer and kinder? It was a mystery to Akiyuki. He couldn't remember exactly when it had all started. It must have been around the time he and Fumiaki got into an argument at the concrete works. Relations became strained, so Akiyuki had quit his stepfather's crew to go work for his sister's husband's crew.     That day he wouldn't give in to Fumiaki, his stepfather had said, "You know he's two years older than you."     "I do know," was Akiyuki's answer.     The stepfather had just stared at him, without becoming angry. Back when Akiyuki had returned from his six-month stint with the construction company in Osaka and begun working for his stepfather, he and Fumiaki had occasionally got the back of a shovel. Fumiaki always got the worst of it. The stepfather would chase him around the yard.     "Don't bother coming back, you rotten shit," the stepfather would yell at Fumiaki as he fled. He wouldn't ever allow a child to speak back to him. Copyright © 1979 Kasumi Nakagami.