A large extended family gathers for the funeral of the patriarch, who has died at the age of 85. The action centers on a wake held the night before at a country meetinghouse near the old man’s home.
Among those gathered to remember the old man are his three sons and two daughters; eight of his ten grandchildren, including four of his six grandsons and all four granddaughters; and three great-grandsons. With spouses, the assembly comes to some 30 people. Given the increased focus on the nuclear family, as well as the trend toward having fewer children that has prevailed ever since Japan’s period of rapid economic growth following World War II, the gathering is of a size rarely seen today, but there is nothing ostentatious about the ceremony.
The dead man’s wife Shinobu pre-deceased him by 14 years. Otherwise, the narrator divides his attention more or less evenly among the man’s survivors, from the 60-year-old eldest son Haruhisa down to the three-year-old great-grandson Shūto, illumining each individual’s views on family, and on life and death.
Perspectives differ from generation to generation. Each younger generation feels less of a tie to the deceased. Second son Yasuo further divides the family between the “respectable” and “not respectable.” Haruhisa’s eldest son Hiroshi (the deceased’s first grandson) ran out on his family five years ago and is not in attendance; his two sons are being raised by Harushisa, but have apparently inherited their father’s fondness for alcohol, and are already drinking at the ages of 12 and 13. Another in the “not respectable” category is second daughter Tae’s eldest boy Yoshiyuki, 27. He became a stay-at-home while in middle school, and although he subsequently went on to complete high school, he never found a job afterwards, choosing instead to move in with his grandfather, who was living alone. He knows the deceased’s final years better than anyone else, but he has shut himself up at home, refusing to come to the meetinghouse or to share memories of his grandfather with the others.
A man who grew up with the deceased, who is the only non-family member attending the observance, symbolizes the effect of age on memory: the growing number of details that refuse to come back when trying to remember; the growing number of memories one doesn’t even remember having any more; and the eventual loss of the very self.
With an often humorous touch, the work portrays the sometimes vexing, sometimes tantalizing relationship we have with our ever unreliable memories.