Contemporary Japanese Writers

Miri Yu*

Miri Yu* 柳美里

Miri Yū ( (1968–)  ), a writer from the population of Korean residents in Japan, is popular and critically acclaimed in both Japan and South Korea. Often classified as an author of “I-novels,” she distills much of her own life experience into her works. In Inochi (Life), the first volume of a long nonfiction memoir, she tells of falling in love with a married man and giving birth to his son. Subsequent volumes focus on the head of the theater group she once belonged to, who discovered her writing talent and was also her lover; after he was stricken with cancer, she cared for him until his death. This four-volume series became a phenomenal bestseller.

Yū began her career as an actress and then a playwright; her first novel was published in 1994. She quickly displayed talent, and her 1996 novella Furu hausu (Full House), published with one other work, won two literary prizes. Full House tells the story of a house “where people suddenly appear and disappear.” The narrator is Motomi, a member of a theater group in her mid-twenties whose father has been promising her whole life that he would build a house, often describing his plans to her. He finally goes into debt to build it, but no one in the family will go near the finished house?not Motomi, who is now living on her own, nor her younger sister Yōko, nor their mother, who left home 16 years before. One day the father opens up the house to a family of four who lost their home and livelihood following a business failure. The narrator is appalled at this outlandish idea and feels a visceral dislike for the four newcomers and their reckless behavior, but in the end changes her way of thinking. As long as she herself has no intention of ever living in the house, nor any desire to inherit it, “What difference could it possibly make if another family comes to live there?”

The novella Kazoku shinema (Family Cinema), which won the Akutagawa Prize, symbolically captures the state of the family in contemporary Japanese society. In this work the author deepens her exploration into the themes of family and home. The main character is in charge of the planning division of a garden company. The story begins in her apartment, where her parents and younger brother and sister?the whole family?have gathered to celebrate her 29th birthday. Then a voice rings out: “Cut!” In fact, everyone is here to make a documentary film about family members getting together under one roof for the first time since the mother’s departure 20 years ago. The younger sister, an actress in pornographic films, had planned the documentary with a director acquaintance of hers and then strong-armed the others into participating.

The mother is seeing Fujiki, a married man five years her junior; the younger brother lives with the narrator, the younger sister with the father. Two years ago the father went into debt to build a new house, but then was fired from his job at a pachinko parlor. The mother is now attempting to use the house as collateral for a loan to start a real estate agency. As shooting progresses, the father shouts, “Let’s all live together again!” but the schisms in the family only widen. At work, the narrator asks an elderly sculptor named Fukami to make a vase. In return he asks permission to photograph her bottom, and for some reason she ends up living in his house. When she was in middle school the narrator had been molested by Fujiki; her life has been unsettled ever since, and she is emotionally unstable.

The biographical novel Hachigatsu no hate (The End of August) is based on the turbulent lives of Yū’s maternal grandfather, I U-Cheol, and his younger brother U-Geun. Both were well-known long-distance runners and potential Olympic athletes, U-Cheol having competed against the eventual marathon gold medalist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. To understand them better, Yū ran in a marathon herself. The onomatopoeic su-su-ha-ha?capturing the disciplined intake and expelling of breath in running?that is repeated throughout the novel is grounded in her hard-earned experience.

U-Cheol was born in 1912 in Korea under Japanese colonial rule, and belonged to a generation that never knew an independent Korea. Forced to speak Japanese and adopt a Japanese name, he lived only for running; but when the planned 1940 Tokyo Olympics was canceled, he lost interest and fell into a dissolute life, fathering ten children by four different women. U-Geun, who devoted himself to the Communist student movement, was executed during the Korean War when he was barely 20. After U-Cheol moved to Japan and became a successful owner of a pachinko parlor, he began running again in his sixties in memory of his brother. The novel also includes a passionate account of the life of a nameless woman from the same village who was abducted by the Japanese at age 13 and forced to become a “comfort woman” to troops in China. This is Yū’s representative work, and a landmark contribution to contemporary literature in Japan and South Korea.

 


* Furu hausu (Bungeishunju, 1996, 189 pages, Noma Prize for New Writers, Izumi Kyōka Prize)
* Kazoku shinema (Kodansha, 1997, 159 pages, Akutagawa Prize for the title work)
* Hachigatsu no hate (Shinchosha, 2004, 832 pages)