“This is that rarity in Japanese literature, a work portraying an intellectual youth.” ―Akira Honda, critic (from the commentary in the paperback edition)
Ever since its publication in 1954, this work, which critic Akimasa Kanno called “a psychological novel that sheds light on shadows deep within the soul, entwining issues of loneliness, love, egoism, and faith,” has been read by generations of Japanese readers as a classic novel about youth.
The setting is an era when tuberculosis was fatal. Outside Tokyo, a sanatorium in the village of K has a six-bed ward which the narrator, an aspiring poet, shares with a student of linguistics and a budding writer named Shiomi. Never revealing his psychological scars, the stubborn and unfazed Shiomi undergoes a ten-hour lobectomy in what is tantamount to an act of suicide. The reckless plan fails, and he dies.
Two notebooks turn up in the bedsheets. The novel unfolds as the narrator reads the notebooks, asking himself if Shiomi’s death was suicide or not.
The first notebook contains an account of Shiomi’s high school years, when he lost his mother. He feels a strong homoerotic attraction to Fujiki, a boy in the class below his, but suffers when his feelings are not returned. The archery club holds a training camp in a seaside village on the Izu Peninsula, where Shiomi confesses a pure and platonic love for Fujiki. Saying “I can’t be responsible for myself, so I’m not fit to love anyone,” Fujiki rejects him. And then dies of sepsis at only 19.
The second notebook contains an account of Shiomi’s love for Fujiki’s sister, Chieko, just 20. Grieving the untimely loss of her brother, Chieko joins a Christianity study group. Shiomi and Chieko go together to concerts, listening to Chopin and sharing artistic pleasures. In time their feelings deepen to love, and they become intimate. But to Chieko, her heart torn between spiritual love and romance, Shiomi’s love is a burden. He receives a draft notice to go to war and, as a last gamble, invites her to a concert the evening before his departure, but she doesn’t come. The notebook ends with words of despair: “Fujiki, you never loved me. And neither did your sister. I’ll die alone.”
Fukunaga himself spent seven years recuperating from TB in the immediate postwar
era and drew on his own experiences to create a fully realized portrait of a young man of fastidious intelligence. The courage of the protagonist, who looks at reality from the side of death and despair, and yet chooses life, was enormously moving to members of the author's generation.