Last month’s Tokyo Weekender Book Club inspired this The Easy Life in Kamusari review. As well as a good book club choice, Shion Miura’s story would also make a great January in Japan read or one for the Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Dolce Bellezza. If you enjoyed The Great Passage, then I think you will also like spending time in Kamusari…
More so than the hero of the book, Yuki, anyway. Packed off by his family as an apprentice to a forestry company in the far countryside away from his home in the city of Yokohama, Yuki is the predictable fish out of water. As his mobile phone battery takes a swim in the local river soon after arriving, and his plan to escape on the back of villager Nao’s motorcycle meets her complete disregard for traffic rules, he has never felt so cut off from everyone he knows and such essential markers of civilisation as convenience stores and magazines.
Working on high slopes, at the top of tall trees and carrying a chainsaw does hold quite a bit of potential for disaster but Yuki has the years of collective wisdom from his teammates Old Man Saburo, Iwao and boss Seiichi to guide him. Human relationships are also on the curriculum, as Yuki learns to cope with the unpredictable Yoki and the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Miho. Granny Shige keeps a watchful eye on everyone’s goings on and at times it can all feel a bit like Yuki says,
It’s as if all the villagers stepped out of a folktale.
Yuki is the perennial outsider and it takes a long time before he even begins to feel part of the group. He also has that young person’s suspicion of being made to do anything that might make him look daft, like dressing up for festivals or joining in with rituals to gods that everyone knows about but him. It takes a visit home for him to realise that he actually misses the village he once couldn’t wait to escape. Like Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich, Yuki’s youthful way of speaking marks him out from the older people in the story and it has been captured perfectly in English by translator Juliet Winters Carpenter as exclamations like ‘I was legit eating wild boar stew,’ or ‘I seriously did not need to see that,’ remind you of how young he is. There is also some lovely playing around with words:
He’s got cedars on the brain,” said Old Man Saburo. “Brain’s gone to seed, I mean.”
Lucky for Yuki – or unluckily as he begins by seeing it – he is in town for a festival of great significance to everyone, one that happens every 48 years, and is based partly on the Onabashira festival, next due to take place in 2022, pandemic permitting. Like The Great Passage, The Easy Life in Kamusari is the story of a team of personalities that perhaps shouldn’t gel, working on a painstaking and involved task that has been forgotten by much of modern life, but which remains essential, featuring older mentors and young firebrands who need to blend their skills and personalities to make it work. With Yuki guiding us through a year in the village, The Easy Life in Kamusari would also be a good book for younger readers to enjoy, or for reading together. And as with The Great Passage, I found a lot of solace in Shion Miura’s attention to details that busy lives often overlook:
…here, deeper in the mountain, the forest was still more amazing. It was a mass of giant trees: nettle trees easily a hundred feet tall; oak trees, the white undersides of their leaves covering the sky; ancient katsura trees with cracked bark; enormous cedars and cypresses, the likes of which I had never seen on the mountains where we worked. Deciduous trees and evergreens, coniferous trees and hardwoods, all growing jumbled together without the least regard for human-devised categories.
There are lots of lovely moments in the story as Yuki discovers more about village life and what’s really important to him. I can’t wait for the sequel – Kamusari Tales Told At Night – which will be out in May 2022.
I wrote this The Easy Life in Kamusari review for the Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 15th year!
Have you been starting the year with any Japanese books? Let me know in the comments…