The Twilight Years

The Twilight Years
Sawako Ariyoshi
Mildred Tahara (Translator)

The plan to start 2018 is to review all 4 of Ariyoshi's works available in English, along with the 4 short stories also out there and hard to find (but through the kindness of strangers I have them in hand myself). I think Ariyoshi is under-read and usually perfect, and for me, along with Atwood, my  favorite feminist writers.

I was given this book by my parents maybe a decade ago. First they gave me a copy in Japanese, and I needed to assure them that it wasn’t going to be read in that form by me, and we scrounged up an English translation. I certainly didn’t look forward to this book. It appeared to me at best to be a horror story of how awful it was to have dementia (the reason my mother wanted to share it with me) and at worst an overbearing piece of feminist literature. It was neither, though slightly both.

To explain, this certainly is both a bit of a horror story, and feminist in nature, but neither is in any way a negative. Ariyoshi can be put alongside Atwood in their ability to weave agenda into a beautiful and moving story, while never crying out for the poor victim. It is a subtle and undeniable picture of a woman’s plight. She would never claim that she has it worse than many other people, but meeting her and following her is enough to show that changes need to be made. 

The story revolves around Akiko, a mother of a high school boy preparing for the Hell of entrance exams, husband to a nice enough fellow, who unsurprisingly for 1970’s Japan, is absolutely domestically useless. (I’ll have to do some research to find when that stopped being true and if it can be seen as a specifically Japanese trait. Ed. My wife says “not yet” and “Canadians have a similar problem ;), and, daughter in law to a recently widowed senior falling deeply into the pits of dementia. Akiko is also a working woman, and now, not just the only woman in the house, but the only real caretaker of the increasingly lost and often dangerous, always troublesome, old man. 

Ariyoshi does an applaudable job balancing and spreading out sympathy. The reader will feel for Akiko, but understand why she doesn’t simply quit. At multiple points of the book anyone will want to scream along with Akiko, and be pushed to quietly wishing the burden would simply die, then be pulled back by a glimpse of what her father-in-law must be feeling. How hard it must be to be so lost in the world, as well as your own mind. Ariyoshi also paints the other men of the house with fair minded understanding. The boy, as boys and girls today, is a studying machine and nothing more at this point in his life. His mother demands that of him, so no help could be expected. The father, exhausted by his own role of worker bee, is surely ahead of his time allowing his wife to find a job that may help her find more fulfillment, and, though surely could have offered more of himself to unburden his wife, is never a villain or punching bag. 

Ariyoshi herself lived from 1931 to 1984, and wrote many books which emphasize the struggle and importance of women of various times in Japan. Four of these (The Doctor’s Wife, The River Ki, Kabuki Dancer as well) are available in English. A Kansai woman, from Wakayama, her subtleties makes her a pleasant read, while her topics and honesty make as important a writer as any of the more celebrated of her time. Certainly, in the near future the rest of her work will be reviewed here. 

Be an Ariyoshi Completest!

The Kabuki Dancer