Chorus of Cicadas

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Chorus of Cicadas
Author: Shūhei Fujisawa
Specifications: ISBN  978-4167907730
572 pages
10.6 x 15.2 cm / 4.2 x 6.0 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 1988
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Even 20 years after his death, Shūhei Fujisawa remains one of Japan’s most popular authors of fiction set in the Edo period (1603–1867), with many of his titles continuing to enjoy strong sales today. This novel, which was adapted to film in 2005 (English title: The Samurai I Loved), embodies all of the qualities that make Fujisawa’s fiction so appealing, and is considered by many to be his marquee achievement. His unparalleled storytelling skills are at their sharpest as he unfolds his tale of a low-ranking samurai’s ill-fated setback at a young age, of youthful friendships, of dedication to the Way of the Sword, and of star-crossed childhood sweethearts—never allowing his reader’s interest to flag for so much as an instant.

Set near the end of the Edo period in the fictitious feudal domain of Unasaka somewhere in the Tōhoku region, the story centers on the young samurai Bunshirō Maki. Bunshirō was born into the Hattori family as the second son, but at the age of 15 is adopted by the Maki family to become heir to the Maki house. The bulk of the narrative traces the turbulence-filled life of Bunshirō from then until a little more than five years later, when he is 20.

The main unifying thread is the love story between Bunshirō and a girl named Fuku, the daughter of the samurai family next door who is three years younger. Although they have never explicitly promised themselves to each other, he clearly has feelings for her and she for him, and when they are separated, they never stop being concerned about the other’s well-being until their climactic reunion five years later.

As the story begins, Unasaka domain is in the midst of a succession struggle. Heir apparent Kamesaburō, the 19-year-old son of the lord’s wife, has already had an audience with the shogun in Edo, and the matter was considered settled. But current mistress Fune has used the lord’s favor to gain political influence, and a group of clan elders who support the naming of her 12-year-old son Matsunojō as successor is now in the ascendant.

As a supporter of Kamesaburō, Bunshirō’s adoptive father Sukezaemon is accused of treason and ordered to commit ritual suicide. The Maki house is spared dismissal, but the family’s already limited stipend is reduced to a quarter of what it was, and they are also forced to move to a lesser residence. Although Bunshirō resolves to uphold the Maki family name and look after his adoptive mother Toyo in accordance with Sukezaemon’s last wishes, he must contend with being regarded as the son of a traitor by all those around him.

Bunshirō copes by going to the swordsmanship dojo and throwing himself into his training. He also has two close friends—the openhearted Ippei Owada, and the scholarly Yonosuke Shimazaki—who continue to stand by him through all his troubles, offering encouragement, passing on valuable information and warnings, and helping him in any other way they can.

Of the three friends, Bunshirō is a clear standout at the dojo, and he begins to gain a name for himself as he further hones his swordsmanship skills. A former clan elder named Oribenoshō Kaji, who retired from his post at a young age in spite of being acclaimed as a sage counselor for his contribution to a series of important reforms, agrees to teach Bunshirō a secret sword technique known as Murasame, said to be undefeatable. It was developed by the elderly founder of the dojo, who has passed the secret on to no one but Oribenoshō. Both the secret technique and Bunshirō’s connection to Oribenoshō play crucial roles in the climactic denouement of the novel.

Meanwhile, in order to have one less mouth to feed, Fuku’s impoverished family places her in service at the Unasaka residence in Edo, where the lord currently resides. She catches the attention of the lord, who showers her with affection, and in due course she becomes pregnant. The pregnancy ends in a miscarriage, and there are concerns about the effect this will have on her future, but she is soon with child again, and this time she is sent to the lord’s private villa back in the domain for the duration of her pregnancy. When she gives birth to a healthy baby boy, it further complicates the politics surrounding the succession.

Bunshirō, who has by this time regained a place of some importance in domain administration, is now put to the greatest test of his life. The leader of the Matsunojō faction orders him to kidnap Fuku’s baby from the villa. He declares that Bunshirō owes him for having saved the Maki house from complete dismissal following his father’s disgrace and seppuku. It is a trap: if Bunshirō refuses, his career in domain administration is finished; if he accepts and successfully brings back the child, both he and the child are sure to be killed, and Bunshirō will be labeled a traitor just like his father.

Bunshirō goes to the villa, where he sees Fuku for the first time in many years. They meet as the lord’s mistress and a married man. As Bunshirō had anticipated, the villa soon comes under attack by partisans of the Matsunojō faction. After wielding the Murasame technique to cut down the attackers one by one, Bunshirō escorts Fuku and her child to a boat, and they start down the river toward the castle, hoping to reach the residence of clan elder Yokoyama, leader of the Kamesaburō faction. Unfortunately, the entire castle area has been blockaded by the Matsunojō faction. Bunshirō and his two charges manage to make it to Oribenoshō’s residence instead, and the evil machinations of the Matsunojō faction come to light, leading to their utter disgrace and destruction.

A younger generation that includes Bunshirō ushers in a new era for the Unasaka domain. Twenty years later, Bunshirō, now a village magistrate, visits the nunnery Fuku has joined. She confesses that she had been in love with Bunshirō, and they finally consummate their relationship. However, what awaits them, yet again, is separation.