Akiyuki Nosaka*

« Back to list

Contemporary Japanese Writers

Akiyuki Nosaka*

Akiyuki Nosaka* 野坂昭如

Born in Kamakura in 1930, Akiyuki Nosaka was adopted immediately into the Harimaya family in Kobe. In 1945, his adoptive father died in an air raid, and in 1947 he was placed in a Tokyo reformatory for juveniles until his actual father, who was living in Niigata, came for him. At age twenty, he entered Waseda University and studied French literature, taking on a variety of part-time jobs, among them writing commercial jingles, humorous sketches, and TV scripts. In 1963 he published the novel Erogotoshi-tachi (The Pornographers), which was received with great acclaim by critics, including the writers Yukio Mishima and Junnosuke Yoshiyuki. In 1967, he was awarded the Naoki Prize for Hotaru no haka (The Grave of the Fireflies) and Amerika hijiki (American Hijiki). As a writer who examined Japan's postwar prosperity through the lens of his experience in the burned-out ruins of cities, he became identified with the yakeato yamiichi-ha, literally "those brought up in ruins and black markets." He also served in the House of Councillors, and was a professional singer and a kick boxer, displaying a versatile set of talents.

His representative work, Hotaru no haka, is a classic that was made into an animated film and continues to be read widely. On September 21, 1945, a homeless fourteen-year-old boy named Seita dies in Sannomiya Station, in the heart of Kobe. On his person is a candy tin; when a station worker tosses it into a field, three tiny bone fragments roll out. They are the bones of his little sister, Setsuko, who died in a Nishinomiya bomb shelter on August 22nd in Nishinomiya. She was four and so malnourished she was unable to stand up. The story flashes back to the Kobe air raids of June 5th. The children's father, a lieutenant in the navy, is away from home, and their ailing mother is killed. With nowhere to go, Seita puts his little sister on his back and sets off for the home of distant relatives, but there they are treated cruelly and Setsuko does not want to stay. Seita decides that they will live by themselves in a dugout bomb shelter, but at his age it is impossible for him to obtain food. Setsuko dies, and with a bundle of charcoal, Seita cremates her body. A cloud of fireflies gathers around her ashes.

In "Ganmen," a short story in the collection Tomuraishi-tachi (The Undertakers), Ganmen, who like his father before him is an onbo (a derogatory term for a crematorium employee), is so taken with the dignity of the dead that he comes up with a plan of to have a funeral exhibition. He enlists Jakkan, who works in the family register division of city hall; Rakkyo, a hearse driver; and Doc, a former plastic surgeon. To raise money, he displays death masks. Eventually a new religion called Shinigao-kyo comes into being; Ganmen is its leader, and the death masks sacred objects of worship. To demonstrate to the faithful the miracle of resurrection, he enters a grave alive, but suddenly communication is lost. When he returns to the surface, Ganmen finds piles of dead bodies everywhere. It looks exactly like the aftermath of an atomic bomb.

The short story "Honegami toge hotoke kazura" (Dead Man's Vine on Skeleton Pass) is set in the Taisho era (1912?1926). In the steep mountains of Kyushu, Sakuzo Kazura digs a coal mine, inside of which he discovers a plant winding itself around grave markers. It is "dead man's vine." Charmed by the white flowers, Sakuzo's daughter Takao says wistfully, "I wish I had more dead man's vine. I've never seen such pretty flowers." Whenever a miner dies, Takao gently buries the body and plants a vine. As if responding to her passion, the vines produce rich and nourishing fruit.

There is no shortage of bodies. The first is that of her brother Setsuo, who makes love to her repeatedly and who buries himself to make the vine grow. Then there are the miners who are killed in accidents; then there are Koreans forcibly brought to Japan and hired as guards at POW camps?they are slaughtered at the end of the war by Australian POWs. When Sakuzo dies, Takao becomes leader of the community and encourages promiscuous sexual behavior in order to guarantee a supply of infants to feed the vines. Miners with no recourse commit incest; in the end, villagers kill one another indiscriminately. In later years, the city makes a new culvert to regulate the water level, and in the middle of the dedication ceremony the change in water level causes dozens of bodies that have transformed to adipocere, "grave wax," to rise to the surface; with them comes swaying dead man's vine, seeking a new place to blossom.


*Tomuraishi-tachi (Kodansha, 1967, 198 pages)

*Amerika hijiki, Hotaru no haka (Bungei Shunju, 1968, 230 pages, Naoki Prize)

*Honegami toge hotoke kazura (Chuo Koronsha, 1969, 224 pages)