In our continuing celebration of International YA lit month, Deborah Iwabuchi reviews The Easy Life in Kamusari and Kamusari Tales Told At Night – Books 1 and 2 in the Forest Series by Shion Miura translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, published by Amazon Crossing.
by Deborah Iwabuchi
Prolific Japanese author Shion Miura now has three books translated into English. The first one, The Great Passage, was published by Amazon Crossings in 2017. Translated by the brilliant Juliet Winters Carpenter, it is a story centered around editing a dictionary, and includes all the details of the process together with the story of the lives and loves of the people involved. It was a book written for me, a word nerd with a passionate soul. When I learned about The Easy Life in Kamusari by the same author and translator, I got a hold of it immediately. I definitely expected something on the family tree of The Great Passage, and it took no more than a few pages until I was thoroughly, but not unpleasantly, disabused of this assumption.
The main character is Yuki Hirano—the name means “courage”—a boy who has recently graduated from high school. Far from being studious or career oriented, let alone courageous, Yuki ends his formal schooling without goals, interests, or a job. He is so unconcerned about the situation, that the reader is totally on board when we find out his parents and high school advisor have conspired to send him away.
Thus our hero, armed with a little cash from his father, is sent off to the mountains, to a place without cell phone reception, where he is expected to learn forestry on a program subsidized by the government. The people in the town of Kamusari are eagerly expecting the new recruit when he arrives. He is to live with Yoki, a forester with seemingly superhuman strength and a well-above average libido. Miho, his wife, prepares the lunches the two men take to work: not the beautifully prepared boxes you’d expect in Japan, but huge rice balls filled with whatever is on hand—or nothing but rice when she suspects her husband of fooling around. Yoki and Miho live with Granny Shige, Yoki’s grandmother. With introductions made, Yuki goes out to work with Yoki, Seiichi, the head of Nakamura Lumber, and the other foresters in their group. As Yuki learns the ropes of climbing and felling trees, we learn alongside him. (This is where we finally got a glimpse of the Miura of The Great Passage. The techniques and skills of foresters and the watchful eye they keep on their mountains are explained in the same detail the author used to describe in the first book how dictionaries were compiled and edited.) Yuki, forlorn and overwhelmed, takes it all in while at the same time trying to figure out how to escape.
The book’s climax is chockful of testosterone. It involves a festival held every three years on a sacred mountain, cutting down a huge tree and inserting poles in it, and more. In short, it’s men on a hair-raising mission with a promise of food, drink, and female company at its successful conclusion.
Next we come to Kamusari Tales Told At Night. After making it alive through the festival on Mt. Kamusari, the reader expects that Yuki has entered a more grown-up stage of life. Sure enough, his forestry skills have improved, the villagers have accepted him, and now he’s doing his best to get his girl, Nao, who teaches in the local school.
Yuki continues to record the story of his life in Kamusari on his computer, now pretending he has readers—while at the same time reminding himself that he has none. This device works remarkably well and stays funny all the way through, speaking to the skill of both the author and translator. Despite his measure of maturity, Yuki retains the hilarious insensitivities and observations of ignorant youth, always reacting and opining in adolescent cliches that suit him and the situation perfectly.
Yuki’s artless narration of Tales Told at Night takes the reader deeper into the background of the foresters and their families, describes more village customs, and offers more details and background of the Shinto mysticism woven into all aspects of life. Yuki, finally able to operate on his own initiative and armed with a newly minted driver’s license, is able to go out and investigate when he has questions. In fact, there is much less emphasis on the details of forestry (Miura perhaps trusts we’ve learned what we need to know in Book 1), although it remains the backdrop for everything.
The second book in the Forest Series has all of the qualities of Book 1: humor, tragedy, romance and mysticism. Along with Yuki’s observations, Granny Shige provides more than her share of the comic relief. Although she looks like “a bean jam bun” and her legs are weak, she has a skill set that catches Yuki off guard. Tragedy comes from the deaths of sixteen inhabitants of Kamusari who all died on the same day. Romance is woven throughout the book as Yuki tries and begins to succeed in winning over Nao. Mysticism is an important part of my favorite chapter, “Night Five: Lost and Found in Kamusari.” Everyone in town knows you can find lost items by taking an offering to the Inari shrine.
Shion Miura starts out The Easy Life focused on forestry, a dying industry that apparently her grandfather was part of. By the time she has taught us how to fell a tree, we begin noticing the role the Shinto religion plays in livelihoods dependent on nature’s whims. The gods are the glue that connects the community, a soft, cushiony sort of glue that absorbs blows, helps maintain friendly, cooperative relationships, and keeps everyone happy with festivals heavy on eating, drinking, and the occasional wink and nod.
By the end of Tales Told At Night, Yuki has grown up enough to see his role in the community, but his observations still reveal his cluelessness. Indeed everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and life in the village goes on because of and in spite of them. In Japan, this sort of rural village is dying out. Young people have left in droves for the freedom and opportunities in big cities. I believe Miura wants us to take another look at the warm but proscribed life in secluded villages where survival depends on consensus and cooperation, but also offers leeway for quirkiness and freedom of self-expression, places where even youth as naïve as Yuki can navigate the boundaries to make a living and find happiness—a place where they belong and are treasured.
The Easy Life in Kamusari (Amazon Crossing 2017) was shortlisted for the 2022 Translated Young Adult Book Prize of the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative (GLLI).
Kamusari Tales At Night (Amazon Crossing 2022) is on sale May 10, 2022.
Deborah Iwabuchi, a longtime resident of Japan, translates from Japanese to English and enjoys blogging on children’s books in translation. Deborah works out of her Minamimuki Translations office (https://minamimuki.com) in Maebashi, a beautiful town just far enough away from Tokyo.