Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Friends

夏の庭 The Friends (natsu no niwa, The Summer Garden, 1992) is the first book by YUMOTO Kazumi (湯本香樹実, born 1959), a Japanese children's writer. It was translated into English in 1996 by Cathy Hirano as The Friends (the subtitle of the Japanese original) and made into a film by SOUMAI Shinji  (相米 慎二) in 1994. The Friends won prizes for children's literature both in the original and in Hirano's translation, including the Boston Globe-Horn Book award in 1997. Hirano has also translated other books by Yumoto: The Spring Tone (2001), The Letters (2005), and The Bear and the Wildcat (2011).

The story follows three twelve year old boys over the summer holiday of their last year at junior school, KIYAMA (木山), the narrator, YAMASHITA (山下), and KAWABE (川辺). The three friends have their various problems: Kiyama's mother is an alcoholic, Yamashita, who is overweight (called 'fatty' by his friends), is clumsy at sport and shows little talent at schoolwork, Kawabe, from a single parent family, is nervous and intense, given to telling lies about his missing father. Kawabe has heard from neighbours of an old man living alone, who looks like dying any time now. 

'Kiyama, you've never seen a dead body have you?'
'Er no.'
'Same with me.'
'So what are you asking for?'  
'What I mean,' Kawabe's eyes glittered. Scary. 'What I mean is this. An old man living alone, one day he dies, what do you reckon will happen?'
'What will happen? If he dies on his own —'
What would happen? With no friends, no family, even if he had last words to say, with no-one to hear them those words would drift through the air or the room and finally disappear, perhaps. As if he had never said anything. 'I don't want to die.' 'Bitter.' 'It hurts.' 'It was a good life.' Whatever.
'I'm talking about discovering him.'
'When the old guy dies alone. Find him.'
'Us. Who else?'

This may not sound very promising. The assorted social problems and a 'big theme' (death) may suggest to you the kind of slightly earnest children's books often aimed at ten to fourteen year olds. There are a lot of fairly bad books in that style, and a few that are good, but still not much fun to read. The Friends may sometimes give the impression of striving after seriousness, but it is not dull or earnest. The narrator Kiyama has a basically optimistic outlook, and the book's character comes from his lively and humorous description of the boys' friendship with each other, and then with the old man, who, aware of their vulture like observation, comes out of his lethargy to put his house and life in order. The 'problems' of the children are not allowed to dominate the narrative, they are just a part of their lives.

To some extent I was reminded of the English writer, Jan Mark. (Perhaps Betsy Byars would be the comparison that would come to mind if I was American.) The Friends doesn't feel quite as realistic or have the wit and depth of observation of the best of Jan Mark's books; but there is the same skill at getting the reader interested in sharing the interactions of 'normal' people's lives. As with Mark's books, the reader shouldn't expect too much action, though the story is eventful enough.

I haven't read the English version; but you can perhaps get an idea of it from an article where Cathy Hirano talks about her approach to translation here

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