by Kenzo Kitakata
translation from the Japanese by Emi Shimokawa
Vertical, Inc., 219 pp, ISBN: 1-932234-02-0
yourself in Japan, in Kyoto on a downtown sidewalk flooded with
pedestrians and your eye catches two men, slipping through the crowd,
walking with the uptempo of L.A. crack dealers, one having a pompadour
"do," the other, you notice, missing a knuckle on one
of his fingers.
These are yakuza, a Far Eastern edition of The Sopranos, or SiCi
mafiosi with soy sauce. ASHES by Kenzo Kitakata takes us into the
world of yakuza Tanaka-san, a forty-ish mobster, who is either in
a mid-life crisis or about to realize his life's ambitions.
Author Kitakata, known primarily as a mystery novelist (he's a past
president of the Japan Mystery Writers Association) has stepped
outside genre fiction to write this absorbing character study, part
Spillane, part Dostoevsky, but always hard-boiled.
A big risk
Kitakata takes in this novel is dividing the book into two parts: "The
Man Within" and "Within the Man," and telling the story
in two voices. The first part is authorial third person, with expressionistic
revelation of character in scene details reminiscent of good Hemingway.
For example, sitting on a park bench, yakuza Tanaka shows us beyond-redemption
cruelty by plucking feathers out of a live pigeon he's grabbed.
In the second part, we've jumped inside the mind of Tanaka with first-person
narrative piling up the rest of a compelling portrait of our outlaw
anti-hero. Somehow the jump from exterior to interior point-of-view--in
that order--works because the gangster we get to know, while not without
repulsive traits (the sexist observation, All women are the same once
you've had them, is typical), also has an appealing samurai-like code.
For example, real yakuza do not go to a doctor for knife wounds. With
needle and thread, Tanaka stitches bleeding wounds closed himself.
Moreover, ASHES is anything but a stop-and-drop action yarn. As might
be expected in formal Japan, the yakuza have their share of well-observed
rituals too (Pico Iyer has pointed out even yakuza carry calling cards).
Much of the drama in Tanaka-san's struggle has to do with the Boss's
decision to allow Tanaka to splinter off from the main clan and start
his own gang. Relations among gang memberswho may address the
other as "Brother," who deserves to be called Uncle, and other
niceties give this novel texture. That's yakuza honor--on the surface.
That Tanaka is a survivor owes quite a bit to his manipulative skill
at bluff and exaggeration as he gets the better of his fellow gangsters.
Tanaka comes across as tough to love, not capable of compassion for
women, in particular, or helpless animals (pigeons and goldfish fare
badly here). So in a bit of a surprise, Tanaka shows emotion, crying
in the presence of the ailing Boss of the main clan. As if Tanaka can
only respond emotionally to the father figure, who would have to do,
in this life.
While ASHES doesn't measure up to that master of the hard-boiled, American
James M. Cain (who in turn influenced French Albert Camus), this is
also not genre fiction one finds in supermarket or airport fiction racks.
No, it makes for a compelling portrait of a rogue, nihon-style, living
out a few twisted premises.
© Charlie Dickinson September 2003
A Charlie Dickinson Review of fateful tale of illegal immigrants from
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