Kenji Nakagami*

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Contemporary Japanese Writers

Kenji Nakagami*

Kenji Nakagami* 中上健次

Kenji Nakagami (1946–1992)  was born in the city of Shingū in Wakayama Prefecture. He went to Tokyo at 19 and worked as a manual laborer while also becoming a contributing member to the literary magazine Bungei shuto and publishing a quick succession of novels, poetry, and essays. His novella Misaki (tr. The Cape), which was awarded the 1976 Akutagawa Prize, creates a distinct world of its own set in the roji, or "alleyway"?the author's term for the ghetto where he grew up. Nakagami's birth region of Kishū, a rich storehouse of myth and legend, had a decisive impact on his writing. His wide-ranging interest in music, theater, folk arts, film, and other creative genres also gave multilayered depth to his works, marking a turning point for Japanese literature and making him one of Japan's most influential modern writers.

The area along the Wakayama coast from Cape Shiono to Shirahama is known as Karekinada, literally "withered tree sea," since trees at the water's edge grow twisted in the constant ocean wind. Twenty-six-year-old Akiyuki Takehara is the protagonist of Nakagami's novel Karekinada (The Kareki Sea). Akiyuki’s mother, Fusa, is unable to forgive the unfaithfulness of his father, Ryūzō Hamamura, and when Ryūzō returns from prison, she refuses to see him. Akiyuki does not look on Ryūzō as his true father either, preferring to work in the construction company run by his stepfather, Shigezō Takehara. Akiyuki finds meaning in hard physical labor. Meanwhile Ryūzō forcibly obtains a plot of land in town, thus gaining local influence. He declares himself to be the descendant of Hamamura Magoichi, a medieval warrior, and expresses a desire to live with Akiyuki. Akiyuki gets into a fight with his own half-brother, Hideo, the product of his father's remarriage, and pummels him to death. He then surrenders himself to the police. Ryūzō looks on Akiyuki, knowing he will be released in six years, and remembers himself coming home from prison and drinking water straight from the tap in front of the station.

Nichirin no tsubasa (Wings of the Sun) is a wild, cinematic novel filled with strange humor, and it lays bare all sorts of problems in modern Japan. Seven old women from the twisting roji of Kishū prevail upon Tsuyoshi and three other young men from the same ghetto to take them in their stolen, souped-up refrigerated truck on a tour of famous spots around Japan. They arrive first at Ise, Japan's most sacred Shinto shrine, and then cross the Seta no Karahashi bridge, heading north. Along the way, the young men have sex with girls they meet at every stop. One of the old women sickens and dies; another disappears. The rest of them finally reach Osorezan in Aomori, the northernmost prefecture on the island of Honshū. Three girls appear as if in exchange for the two missing grannies, and soon the truck is heading south for Tokyo's Imperial Palace, home of the emperor.

Sennen no yuraku (One Thousand Years of Pleasure) is also set in the roji. In this place people's ages are not always clear, and there is one very old woman named Oryū no Oba, a midwife who has delivered every child ever born there. Not only that, but the illiterate old woman can recite from memory the story of each one's life. The novel relates the saga of the Nakamoto family, who casually break all the rules of human decency; for some reason, everyone with Nakamoto blood either dies young or is born with some abnormality. The story begins with Hanzō Nakamoto, who, perhaps because of a rumored tinge of nobility in the Nakamoto blood, was one of the handsomest and most virile youths in the roji. Too good-looking for this world, as Oryū no Oba tells it, he was always carrying on with women. At 25, he made moves on a certain woman and was stabbed from behind by her jealous boyfriend. With blood spurting like a flame, he ran as far as the entrance to the roji, and collapsed and died, his body shrunk to half its former size?so ugly that it was hard to believe this could be the splendid Hanzō. He symbolizes the Nakamoto blood lineage, at once sullied and?for that very reason?pure.


* Karekinada (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1977, 296 pages, Mainichi Publishing Culture Award, Ministry of Education Award for New Artists)
* Sennen no yuraku (Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1982, 243 pages)
* Nichirin no tsubasa (Shinchosha, 1984, 312 pages)