Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Living through Paradoxes: Furukawa Hideo’s Horse, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

by Michael Tsang


Hideo Furukawa (author), Doug Slaymaker and Akiko Takenaka (translators), Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale that Begins with Fukushima, Columbia University Press, 2016. 149 pgs.


How does one write about a disaster? More to the point, how does one write about a triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident) that happened in one’s hometown? These are the questions that have haunted Furukawa Hideo since the major earthquake in Tōhoku (Northeast) Japan on March 11, 2011. A native of Fukushima, Furukawa was in Kyoto, western Japan, for work on the day the earthquake hit his home prefecture. Since then, a voice in his head constantly tells him to return and to see for himself the aftermath. Guided by this voice, he made the trip together with his editors. The resultant observation and thoughts from this trip is Horse, Horse, in the End the Light Remains Pure (Horses in short).

This was no easy task; for a triple disaster of such magnitude not only severs the flow of time—creating an abrupt break—but also compels one to pause and re-examine the meaning of everything. A disaster and its ensuing period of void is a time when paradoxes and contradictions are brought to the forefront. This is what this book is fundamentally about: living through paradoxes. Particularly for Furukawa, a novelist, the disaster forces him into a ‘spirited-away time,’ during which he is temporarily unable to write and undergoes a self-reflection on the meaning of writing, of life, of history.

He has reasons to ponder on the meaning of writing, because one of his earlier works, a ‘mega-novel’ of more than 700 pages called Seikazoku (The Holy Family, 2008), was set in the Tōhoku area. In this novel, the two protagonists, brothers, part ways in a convenience store in Sōma city in Fukushima Prefecture, very close to the nuclear plants. But there are also questions about the use of literature after a disaster: Does it do anything for the victims? Does everything have to be written in a ‘truthful,’ documentary style, or can one write fiction? Must fiction be ‘unreal’?

The author must contemplate the issue of life and death, not only because of the guilt arising from his escape from death, but also because survivors will always have to find a way to cope, to start again, to rebuild everything they have lost, even if complete recovery is impossible. In the meantime, to counter the anthropocentric assumption, one should also think about the animals. How do animals live through disasters?

Furukawa is compelled to consider the notion of history and time. The Tōhoku disaster marks a watershed, in a sense that things can be classified as ‘before 311’ and ‘after 311.’ It also triggers a rethinking about the history of Tōhoku: as the only region in Japan named after a compass point, did Tohoku always exist as a periphery in relation to the presupposed ‘centre’ of Tokyo? Also, the nuclear disaster makes Japan a country that has been twice affected by large-scale nuclear radiation. What is the significance of this fact?

Such are the questions explored in Horses. It is no wonder, then, that the book opens with scenes from the novel Seikazoku, and that half way through, the protagonist of Seikazoku, Inuzuka Gyūichirō, suddenly enters and takes centre stage. In fact, this book reads well as an addendum to the novel, and it is a shame that the latter has not yet been translated into English. Horses adopts similar literary techniques used in the earlier work, such as fragmentation and disjointed narratives; and it updates the relevance of many of the themes that had previously been explored. For example, the fact that the Fukushima nuclear plants are owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company to produce electricity for Tokyo means that the people in Tōhoku are suffering for the benefit of the metropolis. This centre-periphery conundrum is, of course, exacerbated by a recent controversy surrounding the Minister for Reconstruction, who commented that it was lucky that the disaster took place in Tohoku, not in Tokyo. This sort of ‘nimby’ comment and the underlying metropolitan arrogance is countered in Seikazoku, which retells the prosperous but bloody history of Tohoku and its role in shaping the Japanese nation. Nonetheless, the history of Japan itself was, for Furukawa, a history of killing people. This does not only refer to Japanese imperialism in the Second World War, but also the Warring States Period when different lords were killing each other, as well as, arguably, the dismaying handling of the Fukushima nuclear accident.

This bloody history concerns not only humans, but animals as well. Furukawa is known for writing about animals as much as humans, as can be seen in his 2005 novel, Belka, Why Don’t You Bark? (Beruka, Hoenai no ka), as well as in Seikazoku, whose protagonist Inuzuka Gyūichirō carries in his name the characters for dog (inu) and cow (gyū). Here, in Horses, the focus is obvious (Inuzuka Gyūichirō enters the book, for example, to describe the history of horses in Sōma city, ‘ma’ being the character for horse), although there are also mentions of seagulls and fish. But whatever the animal, Furukawa not only describes the deep bonds between them and humans, but also the ways they are affected and hurt by manmade disasters such as wars and, of course, nuclear meltdowns. Whereas Seikazoku mentions how dogs were killed to make furs for the military in the Second World War, Horses describes the animals’ helplessness as they are forcefully evacuated with no way of knowing what happened. However, Horses also ends with a scene focusing on a white horse successfully finding food and companion (a cow, not surprisingly).

Thus Furukawa writes: ‘All the grasses were gaining nourishment from the light. Light was falling, sunlight. […] nothing is dying. Death definitely exists, but in this moment, death is not at work. And at this point my essay ends, and begins.’ The immediate aftermath of a disaster is the moment where death and life exist together, but at this very last line of the book, the focus returns to humans, the ‘I’ author-narrator, who finds a sense of hope through animals. Earlier in the book, the author-narrator contrasts Japan’s 311 with New York’s 911, where he says, for the reason that ‘no mastermind [was] behind Japan’s tragedy,’ the only way is to, ‘With no thoughts of revenge, go forward. / With no thoughts of retribution, go forward.’ One has to believe that it will get better, and work towards making it better. Here, Slaymaker and Takenaka’s translation is spot on. The Japanese original uses the verb aruku, which literally means to walk, and which only hints at a subtle optimism. Slaymaker could have translated this as ‘walk on,’ but ‘go forward’ spells out the sense of hope more clearly. This is one illustration of how the translators have managed to, on the whole, negotiate with the difficulty of Furukawa’s prose. His syntax is particularly fragmentary in this work with a lot of broken and incomplete sentences. The translators have shown flexibility in altering sentence lengths and structures to capture the orality of the author-narrator’s deeply reflective tone.

I have been using the term ‘author-narrator.’ This is because the book’s first-person narrator strongly suggests the author himself—after all, this book is based on Furukawa’s reflections and road trip after 311. He is not the first person to write a work of prose mixing one’s reflection with observation of the surrounding environment—Natsume Sōseki’s short story ‘The Tower of London’ (‘Rondontō’) comes to mind—but Horses is special because it is a mixture of many different genres and defies any form of labelling. The first half of the book is part-memoir, part-metafictional essay, part-travelogue. Until this point the work reads more like a hodgepodge of nonfiction genres, a long experimental essay—both in the sense that the essay is a major but under-researched genre in Japanese literature, and in the sense that the original meaning of ‘essay,’ from ‘essayer’ in French, is to try, to experiment. The second half of the book, however, brings in fictional elements on top of disaster reportage, such as Inuzuka Gyūichirō’s intervention. Of course, an argument can be made that even here Inuzuka is described in the third person through the eyes of the first-person author-narrator. If this is the case, the former may be seen as dialoguing with latter—perhaps he was the voice in the author-narrator’s head, asking the latter to go to Fukushima.

However, for all its multi-layered, multi-faceted nature, it is interesting to see that the book is still marketed as a ‘novel’, or to be precise, as shōsetsu. In the Japanese understanding, shōsetsu is often understood as a fabricated narrative with coherence and continuity. There is little continuity here, since the narrative jumps back and forth; moreover, the author-narrator claims that there is no fabrication (uso in Japanese) in this work. Instead, what Furukawa admits to is the use of imagination, such as in the ending scene with the horse. He has also claimed that he wants to write a work of fiction where there is not a single fabrication. This seems impossible, but Furukawa pulls it off because ultimately, what a novel or shōsetsu depicts is neither a plot nor a character, but some kind of truth about our world, society, and life. Throughout the book, Furukawa engages in an exhausting process of self-examination, as if he is peeling off layers and layers of himself. The thoughts generated in this process are the sincerest. This is how he manages to weave together all the questions mentioned above in a mere 140 pages—through an untiring and honest reflection. When the book reaches the conclusion about the paradoxical and simultaneous existence of life and death, that is the power of the novel at full swing.

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