'Dendera': Yuya Sato on his fable about old women battling a bear

Q&A with Yuya Sato, whose Japanese fable 'Dendera' is now available in English

The Japanese legend of ubasute -- the custom of abandoning elderly loved ones to die in the wilderness to benefit the young during times of famine -- is explored in stark prose in "Dendera" by acclaimed Japanese author Yuya Sato.

Originally published by Shinchosha Publishing in 2009, "Dendera" is now available to Western readers, with an English translation out this month from Haikasoru, a literary imprint of the anime and manga giant Viz Media.

The story follows Kayu Saitoh, a woman who has long looked forward to her 70th birthday and with it her turn to Climb the Mountain, a ritual that allows her to pass into Paradise. When her son carries her up the snowy mountainside and abandons her, she embraces the advent of what she believes will be an honorable death, especially when her progeny in the poverty-stricken village face starvation. Instead, she is rescued and taken to Dendera, a secret community on the other side of the mountain, built over decades by dozens of abandoned elderly women.

The women hunt and gather, eking out a paltry existence together, but tensions are rising between two factions in Dendera. The so-called Hawks seek revenge on the villagers who abandoned them to die, meeting daily to practice fighting drills and plan an invasion. Meanwhile, the Doves want to transform their meager camp into a utopia for abandoned women -- something that can't happen if an invasion alerts the superstitious villagers to Dendera's existence. But all their plans are halted and Dendera's precarious balance is toppled with the arrival of a hungry mother bear.

Yuya Sato's brutal and bloody fable was inspired by Shichiro Fukazawa's classic novel "The Ballad of Narayama," which has twice been adapted for the big screen. Director Shohei Imamura's 1983 film won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d’Or award. His son, Daisuke Tengan, directed a feature film based on "Dendera" in 2011.

The English release of "Dendera," translated by Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes, was published this month. Jacket Copy conducted an e-mail interview with author Yuya Sato, with translation provided by Viz.

What drew you to "The Ballad of Narayama"? How did you choose what to keep and what to ignore in your take on the classic novel?

I watched the movie version of “The Ballad of Narayama” by chance. I had a rather eccentric teacher in high school, and one day during class the teacher just put the movie on. It left a powerful impression on me. “Dendera” is the amalgamation of my own personality with the legend of ubasute — leaving the elderly to die of exposure — with the snowy mountain as the backdrop. “The Ballad of Narayama” has the depth of theme to allow for adaptation without having to pick and choose specific aspects of the plot to keep or abandon.

One of the most compelling parts of “Dendera” is the strange understanding between protagonist Kayu Saitoh and the bear. Why are they so connected?

I have my own answer, but I’d like for readers to ponder this for themselves. I enjoy reading their opinions and interpretations of my work and I’d prefer not to influence that. Additionally, it’s common in monster movies for there to be a woman who can somehow communicate with the monster, so it’s somewhat of a homage to that trope.

Parts of the story are narrated from the bear’s perspective. How did you inhabit the mind of the bear? How did you decide on the particular tone you used?

If it is impossible for me to understand the mind of a bear, it is also impossible for me to comprehend the feelings of the old women. What I decided to employ was a “once-upon-a-time” voice, similar to fairy tales and fables. This works like a kind of shamanic spell to cultivate a mystical atmosphere within the story and the plot I devised functions as a path through the mists of the fabulist environment. I’m excited to see how it reads in translation.

If you found yourself in Dendera, would you become a Hawk or Dove?

I am a man, so once I was of age, I would have just been thrown away without ever becoming part of Dendera...

Your story offers a rather bleak take on human nature, especially when the residents of the village resort to cruel discipline and rituals or the residents of Dendera resort to mob violence. Do you think this is the true nature of humanity? Or are you more hopeful about the human spirit? Along those lines, do you think modern societies are also ruled by violence or deceit, like the village and Dendera?

I don't believe I need to bring up specific examples from social media and international affairs to support the idea that people go on the attack when they are oppressed or otherwise marginalized by society. They use violence as a way to convey their ideas, just like the Villagers and the Hawks. One answer from me may be through the actions of Kayu Saitoh as she struggles to forge a new stance in opposition to what she sees as shameful.

Your protagonists are old women who take their fates into their own hands – an especially interesting concept considering the current social interest in feminist issues. At least in Western literature, it seems old women are rarely the protagonists of stories. Why do you think literature is so focused on youth? What was it like developing motivations and stories for characters who were all very old women?

Age is not the only driving force in a literary character. If you extract the words and actions of the women in “Dendera” and place them in another novel, a reader might infer that the characters were young girls.

This story is based on a tradition that might be unfamiliar to most English readers. How do you hope a Western audience will respond to the story?

I hope that through this story, ubasute will become as well known as hara-kiri or ninja.

Though we don't abandon our elderly in the mountains, we as a society fail them in other ways. Can "Dendera" be viewed as an indictment on how we treat the elderly?

There are examples of the legend of ubasute from across the globe. While there may be differences in the specifics of where and why they threw away their elderly, the core aspects of it remain the same now as they did in the past. This will not change. A few decades from now, many of us will be thrown away. When you get thrown away, will there be a Dendera for you? If there isn’t, will you make one? What will you do once you have? One productive way to read “Dendera” is to ask yourself those questions.

How much input did you have in Daisuke Tengan's feature film based on "Dendera"? What did you think about the adaptation?

I had absolutely no involvement with the production of the film, but when I went on set, I did get to try on the bear costume. It was an honor to have “Dendera” directed by the son of Shohei Imamura, the director of the film version of “The Ballad of Narayama.”

What projects are you working on now? Can you tell us about any upcoming writing you may have?

I’m currently working on a novel about shinju — group suicide culture — and a true juvenile crime story that took place in Japan, as well as some other projects.

On Twitter: @NoeleneClark

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