Obituary: Kenji Nakagami

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The Independent Online
Kenji Nakagami, novelist, born Shingu Japan 1946, died Wakayama 12 August 1992.

EVER SINCE early childhood, he had known he was an outcast. But he was an outcast determined to make his way successfully in life, despite everything that was ranged against such an ambition.

Kenji Nakagami was born in 1946 in the small coastal town of Shingu on the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula, an isolated and deprived region whose main source of livelihood comes from the timber industry: it has the largest lumberyards in Japan. The whole region is part of a vast National Park, whose myths and legends, ever-present in the minds of its native inhabitants, are lost in the mists of time, and whose Shinto shrines are venerable altars to the goddesses of natural and supernatural forces. The nearest big city is Wakayama, 200 miles away, off whose shores the new Osaka International Airport is being incongruously erected. The Great Shinto Shrines of Ise are at the other side of the peninsula.

It is necessary to know something about this unique region in order to understand something of the extraordinary work and life of the novelist. He was born into a community of burakumin, one of the many such communities of ostracised 'untouchables' and outcasts from normal Japanese society numbering over three million - racial and social discrimination that, though officially abolished in 1871, is still perpetuated with the shameful complicity of the government and the vast majority of the Japanese people. The burakumin are helpless victims of prejudices that extend to every aspect of their existence.

All Nakagami's main works are directly enriched by this contradiction at the heart of Japanese life, yet without being either over-militant or merely regionalist. His powerfully written, dramatically composed fictions draw their inspiration from myths that are not just local but disturbingly universal, like the legends of ancient Greece or Native American civilisations. His work overflows with an inborn poetic apprehension of the mystery of seas, forests and mountains, and through these timeless elements he creates great works of modern literature far removed from the usual humdrum pace of social documentaries.

Nakagami escaped from the stifling world of the ghetto after leaving high school. He never attended university, that sine qua non of most young Japanese today. He moved to Tokyo and did all kinds of tough labouring jobs. For a while he was unloading cargo planes at Haneda Airport. He became an impassioned follower of modern jazz musicians, in particular John Coltrane, and later claimed that the dynamics of pure jazz, its inventive improvisations and teasing syncopations, influenced the erratic rhythms of his own style. He was often to be found in one of the numberless jazz kissa or jazz coffee shops of Kanda or Shinjuku, where in those days one could sit for hours over a cup of cheap, bitter black coffee and an eternal glass of iced water, listening to classics of the jazz repertory. It was in these coffee shops, too, that he began writing.

At first he tried his hand at short stories. These mainly autobiographical stories were collected in 1974 under the title Jukyusai no chizu ('The Map of My 19 Years'). But his real literary career began in 1976, when his novel Misaki ('The Headland') won the Akutagawa Prize. He was the first novelist born after the war to win this valuable prize. Inevitably, he was compared with a much lesser writer, Mishima Yukio but the comparison is totally false. Faulkner would be nearer the mark, but without the needless vain obscurities.

All Nakagami's subsequent works spring from this first great success, which was immediately translated into Korean and Chinese. In a 1983 interview he stresses that novels like Kareki Nada ('The Sea of Dead Trees') and Chi no hate shijo no toki ('Supreme Time at the Ends of the Earth'), the second and third parts of a trilogy, are situated in his native region, that had always been kept apart from centres of civilisation and commercial routes. Its inhabitants live from woodcutting and lumberjacking. Their geographic isolation and social segregation, he says, had always favoured endogamy, incest, murder, suicide, sexual aberrations of all kinds. Physical and sexual violence in extreme forms are ever-present, and the younger generations inherit their ancestors' conflicts and vendettas in a fatal chain of cause and effect that is a form of Buddhist karma.

In Kareki Nada the chief character murders his stepbrother, and its sequel begins with the murderer's release from prison three years later. He goes to work felling timber in the forests for his father, towards whom in the past he had been violently antagonistic. They live the harsh, animal life of lumberjacks in Kumano, the 'country of darkness' which is now being exploited and ecologically destroyed by Tanaka Kakuei's grandiose but dehumanising 'Plan for Rebuilding the Japanese Archipelago'. The more grasping members of the burakumin community are the first to capitalise on the sudden boom in their hitherto neglected region. The narrator is torn between this defection of his own people and his ineradicable love for his 'country of darkness'.

Many of these grand yet unpretentiously handled themes are incorporated in the script Nakagami wrote for a superb film by Yanagimachi Mitsuo, Himatsuri (1984), presented at the Cannes Film Festival and in its Western release as Fire Festival. Yanagimachi made another fine film from The Map of My Nineteen Years (1979), but this and other movie versions of Nakagami's novels have not been shown in the West. Himatsuri is set in the Shingu-Kumano area, and its hero is a lumberjack (Kitaoji Kinya). He is sexually frustrated and has homosexual yearnings for a teenage boy in the logging team. But he experiences a sort of mystical pantheistic marriage with the spirit of the forest, the local Shinto goddess. The climax is the annual fire festival in which he loses his mind completely. It is an awe-inspiring performance in a truly unforgettable film.

Nakagami's style skilfully blends crude vocabulary and earthy emotions with enchanting poetic rhythms and sublime natural imagery. A literary and film critic, Shigehiko Hasumi, qualifies the syncopated energies of the writing as 'a permanent stammering' in which suppressed emotion, animal rage and agonising sexual lusts for impossible loves seem both to impede and convulsively propel the erotically charged words and broken ejaculatory phrases. His last work bore the characteristic title of Keibetsu ('Contempt'), and it was serialised in the Asahi Shimbun throughout 1991.

Other writers have severely criticised Nakagami's perception of the post-war period as too modern and too crude. One is at a loss to explain the illogicality of these negative nit-pickings about a style that is all generosity and abandon. Nakagami would have no truck with reviewers in Japan's closely knit literary establishment. This was clearly demonstrated when he resigned from the influential Nihon Bungei Kyokai, the equivalent of the UK's Society of Authors, because they rejected the membership application of an unusual self-taught writer Nagayama Norio, a murderer who has now been held for over 23 years in a Japanese death row. Nakagami the outcast and underdog sprang to the defence of a man he recognised as one of his own class - and perhaps as one of his own tormented characters from that 'country of darkness' that exists in all our hearts, not only in Japan.

(Photograph omitted)