Backstage at the Festivities

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Backstage at the Festivities
Author: Miho Shimao
Specifications: ISBN  978-4120016035
265 pages
14.2 x 19.8 cm / 5.6 x 7.9 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Chuo Koron Shinsha Inc.
Tokyo, 1987
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This collection of seven linked stories portrays mid-20th century life on the tiny southern Japanese island of Kakeroma, where author Miho Shimao spent much of her life. In many of the tales, the narrative voice is that of an elementary-school girl named Miho, apparently modeled after the author herself. The daughter of a prominent family on the island, she functions as a shrine maiden–like figure detailing islander’s lives from a perspective that transcends good and evil.

Prominent themes include the ills of poverty and the deeply insular nature of island life and its culture of shunning anything that seems the least bit different. Human passions run amok. There is ostracism of those stricken with Hansen’s disease, which was epidemic on the island at the time. Such social issues blend with aspects of island culture as well as elements of folklore and mythology in sometimes phantasmagorical ways.

The title story tells of events during the island’s “Fifteenth Night” summer festival on August 15. The festivities include a sumo tournament held as a rite for bountiful harvests, and this particular year the championship bout is between Tōsei, heir to the wealthiest family on the island, and Hirohito, an unrecognized illegitimate son of the same father. The latter emerges victorious. The two friends are as close as brothers but unaware of their common parentage or the circumstances surrounding it: their father had refused to acknowledge Hirohito as his own and married another woman, who immediately became pregnant with Tōsei. Hirohito’s mother Usumi had then been left to raise him entirely on her own. Having been insulted once too often about the circumstances of her son’s birth during the festival, Usumi decides it’s time to settle her long-held grudge. She binds the drunken Tōsei with rope and urges Hirohito to slice him up with a kitchen knife. When Hirohito balks at harming his friend and flees, his uncle, who suffers from Hansen’s disease, steps in and rubs his purulent face against Tōsei’s. According to islanders’ beliefs at the time, Hansen’s disease was transmitted as a curse by those suffering from it. In sharp contrast to the high-spirited merriment of the festival, the story brings into relief the messy personal relationships and deep-seated prejudices that dominate island society.

The pages are filled with the bright colors and sounds of life on Kakeroma, from green groves of bamboo, crimson sunsets, beaches of sand mixed with crushed white coral, the cerulean sky, and rouge-colored clay, to the singing voices of children, the repetition of island sayings, the lilt of island folk songs, and the cadences of the dialect spoken by the islanders—so different from standard Japanese that a running translation must be printed alongside. On the one hand the colors and sounds evoke a rich sense of the exotic, while on the other they highlight the diversity that exists even within the confines of Japan.