Contemporary Japanese Writers

Keizo Hino*

Keizo Hino* 日野啓三

Keizō Hino (1929–2002)  often turned a reflective eye on his own life through both his novels and his essays. Two experiences had a particularly formative influence on his development as a writer. The first was his presence in Seoul, then under Japanese colonial rule, at the time of Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War; the second was a stint in Saigon as a foreign correspondent during the Vietnam War. Hino started out as a literary critic, but upon his return from Vietnam he took up fiction writing. He made a relatively late literary debut in his forties, but went on to publish a number of ambitious awardwinning works and also served as head of the selection committee for the Akutagawa Prize.

Sakyū ga ugoku yōni (Like the Movement of Dunes), Hino’s major novel, is set in the San’in region that faces the Japan Sea. A village that has long suffered from sand blowing from the dunes gets relief when the planting of a stand of trees succeeds in preventing the sands from shifting. As the dunes, seemingly dead, begin to stir again, the story focuses on four villagers?Ghost, a freelance writer from Tokyo who is captivated by the dunes; Vicky, a handsome transvestite who is producing a video with the intent of reviving the dunes; a boy with supernatural powers; and the boy’s blind older sister, who is Vicky’s childhood sweetheart. Strange things begin to happen: the magnetic field over the dunes changes, a UFO comes to town, unusual atmospheric conditions persist, and a mysterious inorganic substance known as “kinchi” proliferates. As the boy lays his life on the line to bring the dunes back for the sake of Ghost, the story weaves its way through the shifting of people and concepts, natural and artificial, inorganic and organic, conscious and unconscious.

After Hino was stricken with kidney cancer at age 61 and underwent a kidney transplant, his interests turned inward, that is, to the mental and emotional universe within him. In order to shore up a sense of reality made tenuous by immunotherapy, he declared, “I relived scenes of my past when I felt strongly that I was alive, recalling them in intimate detail, in chronological order.” The novel Taifū no me (Eye of the Typhoon) marked this turning point in his career. The narrator, a man modeled on Hino himself, is undergoing treatment for cancer. As he contemplates his death and engages his own ghost in dialogue, he revisits his father’s house and other former residences. While he struggles to maintain a grip on his flickering consciousness, his thoughts turn to past sojourns. When he was 15, he spent the “final spring” and the “best time” of his life in Seoul. Middle school classes had been canceled, and he was scheduled to work in a military factory expected to be targeted by U.S. bombs; meanwhile, he became romantically involved with a pair of sisters who lived in the same lodging house. After savoring this peculiar freedom, at the end of the war he fell into deep despair. And later in Saigon, watching the public execution of a Viet Cong soldier unnerved him entirely.

Hard experience leads the narrator to conclude that “life is not like a stream that flows moment by moment, or a tale that is told; rather, it is a peculiar spherical body where the present is constantly reborn, growing and expanding little by little.” He arrives at the further realization that the center is empty, like the eye of a storm.

After completing treatment for cancer, Hino had another close call when on New Year’s Day, 2000, he was rushed to the hospital with a subarachnoid hemorrhage. The posthumous collection Ochiba―Kami no chiisana niwa de (Fallen Leaves: In God’s Small Garden) consists of short stories written month by month during his recovery. In the afterword he wrote, “I kept thinking that as long as I didn’t finish writing these, I wouldn’t die,” adding that he was “overcome with joy” at his reprieve. In the title story, the author recalls his first post-surgery memory: a conversation with his surgeon, who told him, “When I opened up your head, it was full of fallen leaves.” This impossibility seemed “crystalline in its reality,” the fallen leaves spilling from “a great divide between the two millennia.”

The collection is rich with profound meditations as well as remembered images that are vivid, even if hazy and ill-defined. Particularly memorable is Aratana Manhattan fūkei o (A New Manhattan Scenery), written immediately following the September 11 attacks in New York. In the rubble of the fallen Twin Towers, the author envisions a new landscape, one that is “delicate and pliant and full of myriad shadows, tinged with the ineffable melancholy of life itself,” in which he finds hope.

* Sakyū ga ugoku yōni (Chuo Koronsha, 1986, 263 pages)
* Taifū no me (Shinchosha, 1993, 277 pages, Noma Prize for Literature)
* Ochiba―Kami no chiisana niwa de (Shueisha, 2002, 227 pages)