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Kenzaburo Oe: 万延元年のフットボール (The Silent Cry)

In his introduction to the English-language version of this novel, the translator (John Bester) states that one of the key features of this book is the (to the Japanese reader) strange language Oe uses, which will likely shock Japanese readers but will, of course, not be apparent to those reading the translation. The book is shocking to this Western reader, but not for its language. It is, in some respects, a kind of Lord of the Flies, a portrait of a society run amok without formal control but it is much more than that.

The story concerns two brothers, the older, Mitsusaburo, the narrator, and Takashi. Their great-grandfather and his younger brother were apparently involved in what is translated as an uprising but seems to have been a running battle between the young men of the valley and the Korean immigrants, resulting in the apparent death or disappearance of the younger brother. Soon, parallels start to occur between the actions of Takashi and the young men of the time when the novel was written and his great-great-uncle and the young men of 1860.

Of course, it is all far more complicated, as family relationships have an important effect on the actions of both brothers. Their older brother, called only S, and their younger, mentally handicapped sister are both dead, the latter by suicide, in which Takashi seems to have been implicated. Their other sister, Jin, is the”fattest woman in Japan”, having a serious eating disorder. Takashi has been to the USA (where he contracted gonorrhea from a black prostitute) and this too has had an effect on him. Back in the valley of their childhood, it is Takashi that leads the young men of the football team (hence the Japanese title – The First Year of Football) against the (Korean-owned) supermarket, while Mitsusaburo seems to stand aloof, even when his alcoholic wife sleeps with Takashi. The parallels with the past continue. The young men of 1860 set out to rape the daughter of one of the rich men, but are thwarted, while Takashi may or may not have raped a young woman and killed her.

Family relationships, the past, traditions, the role of the individual in society, changing Japanese mores, racism, rural v. urban, dreams, honour, guilt – all these and many more are the themes of this book. It is not an easy read for gaijin but worth it.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Kodansha
Translated by John Bester