Kenzō Kitakata*

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Contemporary Japanese Writers

Kenzō Kitakata*

Kenzō Kitakata* 北方謙三

Kenzō Kitakata  (1947–)  experienced the student protest movement of the 1960s while studying law at Chuo University, during which time he also won a prize for new writers with Akarui machi e (Toward the Bright City). After continuing for a decade or so to write serious literature, groping to find his voice, he switched to hardboiled fiction and became a best-selling author. He went on to write novels based on Japanese and Chinese history from medieval times up to the early modern age, as well as martial arts novels full of swordplay. His epic 13-volume Sangokushi (The Three Kingdoms) and 19-volume Suikoden (Outlaws of the Marsh; awarded the Shiba Ryōtarō Prize), along with other works of similarly impressive scope, are new peaks in the history of Japanese fiction.

The novel Hagun no hoshi (The Star Alkaid) opens in the years leading up to the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (1336?92). Kitabatake Chikafusa is a powerful courtier of the Fujiwara family. His son Akiie is appointed civil governor at age 16, with responsibility over the vast province of Mutsu (now Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, and Aomori prefectures). Akiie sets off for his new post in 1333, accompanying the six-year-old Prince Noriyoshi (later Emperor Go-Murakami), and quickly captures the hearts of the people with his personal charm as well as political reforms. Then in 1335, when Ashikaga Takauji raises a rebellion against the ruling Kamakura shogunate, Akiie receives orders from the emperor to attack the rebels from behind. He heads west along the Tōkaidō highway, sets upon Takauji's forces, and succeeds in driving them to Kyūshū.

Despite this setback, Takauji recoups to defeat the army of Kusunoki Masashige at Minatogawa, afterwards taking control of Kyoto. Emperor Go-Daigo flees south to Yoshino, establishing what becomes known as the “Southern Court” with the support of loyalists including Chikafusa and Akiie. He again orders Akiie to attack Takauji, and Akiie leads his forces slowly west, fighting battles along the way from Mino to Ise before clashing with Takauji's army, now entrenched in and around Kyoto. Time, however, is not on Akiie’s side; despite putting up a valiant fight, he is killed at the decisive battle of Ishizu. This crisp and fast-paced tale is at once a military novel and the story of a youth coming into brave manhood.

When Shōji Tachihara, the protagonist of the hardboiled novel Gitai (Mimesis), turned 36, he felt as if an internal clock had stopped. Since then he has been going to a boxing gym to get himself into shape. Now that he is 40, not only is the interior finishing company he works for in a slump, but his failure to involve himself in office politics has made it likely he will be forced to quit. Then all of a sudden something snaps inside him. He unseats a rival who used dirty tricks and sets about reinstating himself in his former project, which however plunges him into a struggle with a gangster organization that has taken over the building. No longer an ordinary salaryman after the internal changes he has undergone, Tachihara becomes captivated by violence and murder. Chief Hamana of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department starts off as Tachihara's antagonist, but then he, too, begins to suffer a psychic breakdown. Tachihara takes him hostage in a car and tells him that in order to break through the police cordon, he has decided to fly the car over the mound of construction materials up ahead. Hamana agrees. Tachihara puts the pedal to the floor, and the car soars into the air . . .

The novel Sōmō kareyuku (The Grasses Wither) is one of Kitakata's works set in the Bakumatsu era, the time of civil war that ended the Tokugawa shogunate and ushered in the modern period. The "grasses" in the title refers to people who fought to bring about a new age, only to ultimately be forced out of the establishment that came into power with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. These obscure patriots played supporting roles alongside the politicians and thinkers who figured prominently in the new regime. The protagonist, Sagara Sōzō, is a samurai from the Sōma district of Shimōsa Province (today's Chiba Prefecture), a man so brilliant that at age 20 he lectured to a hundred pupils on Japanese classics and military strategy. Eventually, wishing to sacrifice himself for his country and the royalist doctrine of sonnō jōi, "revere the emperor and expel the barbarians," he joins in the movement to bring down the shogunate. Through his contacts with men such as yakuza boss Shimizu no Jirochō and Shinmon Tatsugorō, the head fireman in Edo, he builds a network of like-minded associates and forms the extremist group Sekihōtai, or "Red Patriots Division." The Meiji government declares this a "false army," and Sagara and his unit are sentenced to death by beheading.


* Hagun no hoshi (Shueisha, 1990, 392 pages, Shibata Renzaburō Award)
* Sōmō kareyuku (Shueisha, 1999, two volumes, total of 688 pages)
* Gitai (Bungeishunju, 2001, 477 pages)