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ASHES by Kenzo Kitakata
Charles Dickenson
English translation from the Japanese by Emi Shimokawa
Vertical, Inc., 219 pp, ISBN: 1-932234-02-0

icture 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 members–who 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

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