Nobuko Takagi, translated from the Japanese
by Deborah Iwabuchi
Vertical: 188 pp., $19.95
WHO can really say when an artist sees the core of a culture -- certainly not a critic living thousands of miles away. All I know is, “Translucent Tree” left this reader with a feeling of pure insight into Japan, not unlike the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, but not the Hello Kitty/Tokyo Ginza/manga/gonzo culture we see so often in the media. This is a romance, a love story, and nothing is lost in translation.
Go is a 47-year-old television documentary maker, living the playboy life in Tokyo (and all around the world) while his wife and children go about their lives in suburbia. He is drawn back to a little town in the country, Tsurugi, where he made his first documentary about a swordmaker 25 years ago. At that time, he had lustful feelings for the swordmaker’s school-age daughter, Chigiri, and remembers her sitting high in the branches of an old cedar tree that had grown wild on the burial mound of a samurai.
Sure enough, he meets her again. She has returned after a divorce with her 12-year-old daughter to care for her father. His life divides: the old, impure one where money and pleasure ruled and the new one, in which his feelings for Chigiri and her way of life (including her poverty) are confusingly pure. He complicates things by offering to give her money to help her family out of debt. She takes his offer to mean he wants sex, not because he loves her, but because he wants her. Taking the money, she feels like a prostitute. But talking, talking and making love, they figure it out. Soon, they are both consumed. (In case you are worried, the delicacy with which they parse their emotions is much more Jane Austen than “The Bridges of Madison County.”) They leave unsaid the things they most want to say. A year or so into their relationship (they manage to see each other only every few months), Go figures out that it’s the feeling that something is missing when you are not with a person that makes it love. The cedar, the samurai and the swordmaker infuse the story’s DNA like confident ancestors.
The Ginseng Hunter
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 180 pp., $21.95
“WHAT is seen on top may be serene, but beneath there is a battle for survival going on among the roots and weeds, all fighting over water and iron and copper and calcium and magnesium, Day after day. Bloodroot and jewel weed, galax and hepatica, ginger and wild yam. Ginseng must compete with all of them. It is this constant tension that gives the ginseng root its gnarled appearance -- the wrinkles speaking of character more than age.” Reading “The Ginseng Hunter,” we find ourselves in a lush, evanescent environment -- redwoods and juniper and cedar and loamy dark earth and deephidden ginseng roots. The ginseng hunter is a farmer living on the border of North Korea and China, by the banks of the Tumen River. He comes from several generations of ginseng hunters. His mother and uncle have died of starvation. He makes the eight-hour journey on foot to town to sell his ginseng and sees a young North Korean woman who has been taken from her daughter and forced into prostitution. A young girl finds her way onto the ginseng hunter’s land. We believe it might be the daughter, but we cannot be sure. The madam at the brothel offers the hunter a chance to buy the prostitute, but he takes too long to think about it. Still, we imagine another world, a happy scene, a reunion of mother and daughter and the three living as a family in the foothills of those beautiful mountains. A place where soldiers do not kill children. The beauty and power of the ginseng root; the respect of the hunter for the thing he hunts -- all this lies in such sharp contrast to the wasted life and utter lack of humanity elsewhere on these pages.
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