Based on the Chinese sexagenary cycle, Japanese custom has long considered a person’s 60th year to be a special one, marking the completion of one full life cycle and the gateway to one’s retirement years. But 60 is still quite young in an era when increased longevity and low birth rates are leading to a rapidly aging population: by 2025, 20 percent of Japanese are expected to be 75 or older. Many of the 14 stories in this collection focus on men and women for whom that 60-year milestone is growing near or is already past. Men who have spent their lives working for major corporations or for central government agencies have retired to a carefree life with their mortgages paid off and ample pensions to ensure they never have to worry about money, but find themselves at a loss what to do with all the free time they have on their hands, while their spouses and other women who have already lost their husbands are portrayed living life to the fullest as if reveling in their shining moment.
Kanashimi ga takusan (Plenty of Sadness) offers a representative example. The point-of-view character is a struggling 36-year-old artist name Tomoaki Mihara, who lives with fellow art-college graduate Asami. Asami has given up on her own dreams of becoming an artist and supports them both by working at an art museum, and they have recently moved into a luxury condominium for seniors that Asami inherited from her grandmother. Drawing illustrations for literary magazines is the only paying work to come Tomoaki’s way with any regularity, and his lack of a steady income has prevented him from officially tying the knot with Asami.
One day an elegantly dressed woman reading a book in the condominium coffee shop catches his eye, and he begins drawing a sketch of her. Noticing, the woman comes up to him and says, “Are you aware of something called portrait rights?” Thus begins something of a friendship between Tomoaki and the 76-year-old Reiko Fujikura, who formally asks him to paint her portrait. Tomoaki begins daily visits to her apartment on another floor of the building where he lives, and he and Asami become increasingly interested in Reiko and the life she has led.
They learn that Reiko is a still-active stage actress of considerable repute. Her father was killed in battle during World War II, and two brothers and a sister also died one after another, leaving just the seven-year-old Reiko and her mother to fend for themselves after the war. She got started on her way to a career in theater when she tried out for a child part with a theater company just to be able to eat. Then her mother fell ill and died as well, leaving Reiko an orphan. She eventually married an actor, but he also died from an illness, and her next marriage to a director ended with his suicide eight years later. “A good comedy needs plenty of sadness,” says Reiko, observing that her best performances are when her hidden sorrows somehow come out in her acting.
Reiko is rehearsing for a show to which she has invited Tomoaki and Asami when she collapses and dies of a ruptured aneurism. The much-anticipated chance to see her perform on stage is gone, and the portrait is unfinished, but it finally dawns on Tomoaki that Reiko’s purpose all along was to cheer him on in his work as an artist.
In a reflection of author Yūzaburō Otokawa’s own dedication to the creative life, the stories are filled with characters who have given their lives to art or performance.