This is the only full-length novel produced by author Yasushi Satō, who took his own life in 1990 at the age of 41, and whose work began undergoing a broad reevaluation nearly two decades later with the publication of the collection Satō Yasushi sakuhin-shū (The Works of Yasushi Satō) in 2007. The rekindled interest in his work has led to multiple film adaptations, including of this title, which garnered a Best Director nod for Mipo O at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2014.
The story is a family drama set in Hakodate, Hokkaido, where the author grew up, and is divided into two main parts. In the first, the point-of-view character Tatsuo, 29, meets Takuji, 28, and his sister Chinatsu, 29. In the second, set three years later, Tatsuo and Chinatsu are married and have a two-year-old daughter named Nao.
Part one begins in the summer, several months after Tatsuo quit his job with a shipbuilding company in the spring. Although he’d been with the firm ever since graduating from high school 11 years before, his decision was prompted by the company’s declining fortunes as well as his disaffection with the union and its plans for a long-term strike. He gets to know Takuji at a pachinko pinball parlor, and when the gregarious Takuji invites him home, he meets Chinatsu. The house is a makeshift shanty on the outskirts of town, where other former shanty-dwellers have accepted relocation by the city to a newly constructed high-rise public housing complex nearby. But Takuji scoffs at the idea of letting city hall dictate where his family lives.
For many years Takuji’s father had operated a junk business he’d started after being repatriated at the end of World War II, but now he is bedridden with softening of the brain. In spite of his condition, he continues to have strong sexual appetites, which he satisfies not just with his wife but sometimes with his daughter as well. Chinatsu works as a cabaret hostess and prostitute to support the family. Takuji is an ex-con who served time for a knife attack, and has been running a nursery business of sorts since his release—stealing alpine plants from the mountains and potting them to hawk in a night-fair stall. Smitten with Chinatsu, Tatsuo lets none of what he has learned about the family stop him from taking up with her. Even when he is brutally beaten by Chinatsu’s ex-boyfriend, who remains possessive of her, Tatsuo takes the beatings in silence, and his determination to spend his life with Chinatsu only grows stronger.
In part two, Tatsuo has taken a job with a company that processes seafood. With Chinatsu’s father now dead, her brother and mother remain in the shanty, while Tatsuo, Chinatsu, and their daughter live in a rented apartment nearby. Chinatsu quit her work at the cabaret when they moved in together and has become a full-time homemaker. Tatsuo revels in his new family but remains less than happy with his work situation. One day Takuji introduces him to a new acquaintance named Matsumoto, who runs a small mining operation, mainly mining crystals. When Matsumoto sells Tatsuo his old car for a giveaway price, the deal cements a growing friendship. Takuji is back from working road construction jobs in Tokyo during the winter, and is strongly interested in working for Matsumoto, dreaming even of striking gold. Matsumoto would prefer to have Tatsuo join his operation and is inclined to steer clear of Takuji, but at Tatsuo’s urging, agrees to take Takuji along to his mining camp for just one season. Though initially hesitant, Tatsuo eventually decides to go along as well, and quits his job as soon as Matsumoto sets a firm departure date. But before the chosen day arrives, he returns home one evening from an impulsive assignation with Matsumoto’s ex-wife to learn that the police have been there looking for Takuji: a tout for the cabaret where Chinatsu used to work taunted him that there was no telling whose child Nao actually is, and he had angrily stabbed the man with a kitchen knife. Going in search of Takuji, Tatsuo finds him sleeping in a boat on the beach. Takuji already knows he has no choice but to turn himself in. As the story comes to a close, Matsumoto sends word to Takuji in jail that he’ll be waiting for him when he gets out, and Chinatsu and Tatsuo are still trying to persuade her mother to leave the shanty behind and move in with them.
The story portrays in a matter-of-fact tone the trials and tribulations of a man who feels trapped in a depressing life but never stops hoping to find and reach a more agreeable place.