Thursday, November 21, 2013

I Hear Them Cry, by Shiho Kishimoto

I downloaded I Hear Them Cry on a whim, knowing nothing whatever about it. Unlike much contemporary Japanese fiction which toes the surrealist line, this book is painfully grounded in reality -- specifically, domestic violence and its impact upon children.

The narrator, Mayu, is a young Japanese painter living in France when the story begins, and the local parish priest, Father Jean, introduces her to Anna, the seven-year old sister of a troubled young man. When she realises that the girl, like her older brother before her, is being brutalised by her drug-addicted mother, Mayu takes a dramatic step to ensure that the court removes the child from her mother's care.

When Anna is safely resettled, Mayu returns to Japan as the wife of Shigeki Tachibana, a wealthy sake merchant whom she met in France. Despite an affluent childhood, Shigeki has his own demons which reveal themselves in sudden tantrums and slaps to Mayu's face.

Bewildered and hurt, Mayu learns some of the family history from her mother-in-law's maid.  Shigeki's mother, Kanako, had been a rebellious teen and, to the horror of her parents (the prominent Tachibana sake-brewing family) ran off with a rock star. She returned home pregnant, and her parents chose a young employee at the brewery, Taichi, to quietly marry her.  When the parents died, however, Taichi became a despot, making life miserable for Kanako and Shigeki.  Years of his abuse left Kanako a cold, distant woman and Shigeki an angry and violent young man. Finally, Taichi disappeared and was presumed lost as sea, though his remains were never found.  His domineering presence, however, still remains; neither Kanako nor Shigeki ever refer to him by his name.

One night, Kanako invites Mayu to join her for a drink.
I let the whiskey burn and numb my throat before saying, "What kind of a person was Father-in-Law?" Kanako met my eyes for the first time and said with a slightly ironic smile, "Well, let's see. He was arrogant, domineering, a womanizer, and above all else, he hated me. He would humiliate me by treating me like a whore, and by demonstrating total control he would reaffirm his place in the world and make a show of his authority and power. That's all he was capable of doing, really, that pathetic nonperson."
Kanako drank her whiskey in one gulp and went on. "That person used to be taciturn, very sincere, and hardworking back when my parents were still alive and well. They were sure fond of him, but I could never tell what was going on in that mind of his. Naturally, they liked him. That wasn't surprising, seeing that they were into anyone who would answer to their beck and call and toil away for them day in, day out, you see..."
Just when we've concluded that Taichi is the villain, Mayu stumbles upon a videotape that he made and left aboard the family yacht, from which he had disappeared.  In it, Taichi tells his side of the story, his report of the marriage into the esteemed Tachibana family. In many ways, he too had been victimised.

These wounds, inflicted by those in power against those under their control, are often hidden, rarely discussed, and in the long term, enormously toxic, breeding the next generation of abusers. I can imagine this novel rattled Japanese readers, where discussion of domestic abuse is only slowly coming into the open.


  1. Good heavens. Everyone is this novel is an abuse victim of some sort, and was Anna thrown in only as a red herring, or do we hear of her again sometime later in the story, in a Dickensian plot twist?

  2. Right you are. Mayu can never forget Anna (and if you know what she does to get the child away from her mother, you'll well understand that). The author suggests that Mayu has an unusual ability to hear the silent cries of the abused, and Anna's pleas echo throughout the book. I think this novel would have a much greater impact on Japanese readers than it had on me. My culture openly discusses domestic abuse and the tendency for victims to become abusers themselves. Evidently that's not the case in Japan.


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