Ashes Hardcover – Jun 1 2003
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"Ashes is a fascinating look at the largely hidden world of the yakuza, Japan's mafia." --Japan Visitor
"This yakuza fable reads like a treatment for a Takeshi Kitano film, and its aging mobster Tanaka evokes Beat's sullen screen ennui." - Mary Jacobi , The Village Voice
About the Author
Kenzo Kitakata is the undisputed don of hardboiled and mystery writing in Japan. Immensly popular wiht mature readers both male and female, his works have won numerous literary awards.
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In any event, Kitakata seems to be trying to draw parallels between the life of a yakuza and the life of a typical Japanese salaryman. Tanaka is in the midst of a classic mid-life crisis, he's worked for the same boss for twenty years (including eight lost years in jail), and lives an emotional vacuum, has no home life, and has devoted his adult life to professional advancement. And like many men is such situations, he spends a great deal of time in a haze, questioning himself: "Sometimes I wonder why I've stayed in [the yakuza] world for so long.... There's a part of me that resists being a real yakuza. . .Why did I become a yakuza? Maybe I'd had no choice." Amidst all this angst, there's a bare bones plot involving the boss ordering Tanaka to branch off from the main clan and run a little crew on his own. We see Tanaka being violent, cruel, manipulative, and scheming as he plots his way into becoming the next boss. It's pretty standard issue yakuza stuff, with the attention to ritual and brand names one expects.
But without any action to move the story along, the book merely seems like an impressionistic collection of related vignettes. As a character study, it's just far to elliptical to have any power. A much, much better Japanese book about the inner life of an outsider is Akira Yoshimura's "On Parole."
The second half is written in the first person, the man from the beginning - called just "Tanaka" or "Brother" by his yakuza brethren. I can't say that I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the first half, but that could be my affinity for the style of the beginning talking more than the actual quality of either part. There is a particularly wonderful passage in this half about the death of Tanaka's goldfish - not for the faint of heart, but it illustrates that despite the usual failings and repetitive nature of many translations of Japanese literature, no metaphor is lost in Ashes.
I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys hardboiled fiction or is interested in looking into hardboiled fiction beyond the scope of perhaps Hammett and Chandler. It is decidedly not the detective vein so familiar to fans of the genre, but it is worth every page.