A collection of six stories linked by the common theme of family bonds—the strong and unbreakable ties between father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife.
The title story is set in a barbershop located off the beaten track and housed in a remodeled European-style home quite some distance from the train station and center of town. Though the exterior looks outdated and weather-beaten, the small shop inside is immaculate and orderly. The large mirror that reflects the ocean outside the window is a special attraction, generating word of mouth that brings customers from considerable distances away. Much of the narrative is taken up with the gray-haired proprietor recounting his checkered life story to one such customer from afar.
Born in an old shitamachi neighborhood in Tokyo, the proprietor represents the third generation of barbers in his family. He began his apprenticeship with his father as a schoolboy during World War II, at first being permitted only to sweep up after the haircuts his father gave. He was in eighth grade when the war ended, with the shop destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo earlier in the year. By the time his father was able to reopen for business, he was pursuing his dream of becoming an artist and had no interest in becoming a barber, but he eventually gave that up and returned to learn the family trade. A strict taskmaster, his father made him start over from sweeping the floor. Two years later he got to cut children’s hair, and it was going on another two years before he was permitted to take regular customers. Then his father dropped dead of heart trouble, and the shop fell on his shoulders when he was barely 20.
In spite of the family’s long-established name, his clientele began to dwindle. A distant cousin came to help with the shop, and they got married, but she left him after an episode of drunken violence. Resolving to turn over a new leaf, he hired skilled workers to do the haircutting and, training in the newest techniques as a masseur himself, reopened as a more upscale establishment. The makeover was a great success, attracting big-name actors, politicians, and businessmen among his clientele, and he was even able to open a second shop in the tony Ginza district. The following year he remarried, and he and his wife were soon blessed with a child. But the good times didn’t last. Removing himself from the front line so he could focus on managing the expanding business failed to work out as planned, and then he landed in prison when he angrily hit his store manager with a hair iron for saying he wanted to go independent, and the man ended up dying. After serving his time, he wanted to get a new start away from Tokyo in a place where nobody knew him, and that was how he had chosen this spot by the sea.
As he carefully combs the customer’s hair after finishing the cut and shave, the barber notes the scar with several stitches he has on the back of his head. “You got that scar from falling off a swing when you were little,” he says, as if he would somehow know. And then he adds, “It was the swing I bought for my son, which now hangs in the yard of this house.” The man in the chair is the son the barber has not seen since he was sent to prison. To spare his wife and son the stigma of being connected with a killer, the barber had unilaterally severed all ties with them. The son had tracked down his whereabouts and come to visit in advance of his wedding, planned for the following week.
This is a collection of heartwarming stories in which milestones in life awaken a panoply of thoughts about loved ones.