The River Ki

The River Ki
Sawako Ariyoshi
Mildred Tahara (Translator)

Continuing our look at writer Ariyoshi's work involving the role of women in Japanese society.

Here, we have four generations of women, mostly growing up near the shores of the Ki River in Wakayama. Spanning from 1897 - 1960 or so, or from the Russo-Japan war to the recovery after WWII. As time goes by, the women succeed and suffer while they try to find their place in a changing world, and try to figure out how to love and respect each other despite the fact that all outside factors are teaching them not to do so. This shows itself mainly in the relationship between Hana and her daughter Fumio, as the mother cannot begin to understand how a woman can forsake her motherly roles in favor of a stronger life, while the daughter often appears to hate her old fashioned kitchen dwelling relic of a mother. With this relationship Ariyoshi is able to both show how all of the characters are right and wrong at the same time, and also how often those in subordinate positions fight among themselves when the dominate "masters" seem too much to handle.

This relationship is balanced wonderfully with many others, including Hana and her grandmother, and Hana and her granddaughter. The strength of this novel is in showing that as time flows by, and Hana the granddaughter becomes Hana the wife, the sister-in-law, the mother, and then the grandmother, all of the other characters' positions in life also change in turn, and peace is found when these changes reveal that while very different, these women hold many core beliefs in common, including a determination as strong as a current to keep their family safe, with their head above the waves.

The book is quite short for what is in many senses and epic tale, and this decision works for and against the novel as a whole. The treatment of death, as an example, passing by, sometimes the focus and sometimes just a side note, felt extremely melancholy and created more sadness than if it had been over examined. It seems an honest assessment of life that sometimes you look up and see an old acquaintance, and this causes you to remember that her son had died. This feels far more true than a weepy and verbose tribute.

However, on the slightly negative side, at under 250 pages, spanning such a long time, some points that may have deserved a bit more attention (the war for example) are under covered or glossed over. This didn't ruin the book, but will probably leave most readers wishing for more.

Overall a powerful and enjoyable read and a quick look at many aspects of Japan's changes over that period.

Make sure to check out all the previous Ariyoshi reviews:

The Kabuki Dancer