The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (tr. Michael Emmerich)

Yasushi Inoue’s career as a novelist began in 1949 when at the age of forty-two he published the novella The Hunting Gun. This was closely followed by another novella, Bullfight, which I reviewed back in November 2014. Inoue went on to write 50 novels and more than 150 novellas/short stories, making him one of the leading figures in the world of Japanese literature. Sadly for those us in the English-speaking world, only a handful of Inoue’s works appear to be have been translated. All credit then to Pushkin Press for publishing English translations of three of his books in the past few years (the third is a collection of three short stories, Life of a Counterfeiter).

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The opening chapter of The Hunting Gun is narrated by a writer, a man who relates the story of a prose poem he has composed for inclusion in a magazine titled ‘The Hunter’s Friend’. The narrator, no fan of blood sports himself, was originally approached by the magazine’s editor, an old classmate from high school, with the suggestion of contributing a piece. Following the publication of his poem (titled ‘The Hunting Gun’), the narrator receives a letter from Misugi Jösuke, a man who believes he is the central figure depicted in the work. Misugi suspects that the poet may have seen him when he visited the hunting grounds on Mount Amagi in early November. When the narrator casts his mind back to that time, he recalls seeing a figure in that very spot, a tall, middle-aged man who seemed to radiate an aura of solitude.

He had just stepped off the path onto a road that led through a dense wood up into the mountains, and as I watched him go, treading cautiously, one slow step at a time, taking care that his rubber boots did not slip on the surface of the road, which was fairly steep, something in his figure had suggested the profound loneliness I had described in “The Hunting Gun”.  (pgs. 16-17)

Misugi goes on to explain that he would like the narrator to understand the ‘desolate, dried-up riverbed’ he glimpsed within him that November morning. He has in his possession three letters – which he will forward to the narrator under separate cover – each one addressed to him personally, each one composed by a different woman in his life. Together these three letters tell quite a story, and their contents form the remainder of Inoue’s novella.

The first of the three letters is from Misugi’s niece, Shōku. From the opening page, we learn that her mother died fairly recently, and she is writing to her uncle to thank him for his help with the funeral arrangements. That said, it becomes clear fairly quickly that Shōku is now aware of the secrets her mother, Saiko, had been keeping until her death, secrets that concern Misugi, information she could not bring herself to discuss with her uncle face-to-face. Consequently, her letter is infused with a deep sadness, a sense of melancholy and numbness as the words flow across the page.

Ever since I read Mother’s diary, I’ve started noticing that maybe two or three times a day, or sometimes even five or six, the whole natural world, everything around me, is suddenly awash with a sad colour, as if the sun is setting. All I have to do is remember you and Mother and my world is completely transformed. (pg. 23)

Next we have Midori’s letter. Midori is Misugi’s wife, albeit in name alone. Unbeknownst to her husband, Midori has known about Misugi and Saiko’s secret for thirteen years, having observed them from a distance at various points in time, a fact she now makes clear in her letter. Midori’s letter exposes the depth of her pain. The tone is cool and detached, and her distaste for her husband is plain to see.

You live, I think it is fair to say, a life entirely free of loneliness. You are not one to yearn for companionship the moment you are on your own. You may sometimes look bored, but never lonesome. And you have a tendency to see things in an oddly clear-cut fashion, and to be absolutely convinced of the superiority of your own views. You may say this is merely a sign of confidence, but watching you one is possessed somehow by an urge to seize you and give you a shake. In a word, I suppose one might describe you as a man utterly intolerable to women, completely devoid of an endearingly human side, who in no way makes it worth the trouble of doing you the favour of falling for you. (pg 48)

Finally, we have Saiko’s letter written shortly before her death, a letter she leaves for Misugi to open once she has gone. This is a poignant missive of love, the act of loving another and being loved in return. It is punctuated with beautiful images, the landscape and mountains, the leaves on the trees.

It was a sort of trick of the season, perhaps, that moment in November, and of the time of day, shortly before dusk. An effect of the particular atmosphere that day in late autumn, after an afternoon of intermittent drizzle—an array of colours so rich it was as if the whole mountain were dreaming them, colours so beautiful they made us afraid at the thought that we were going to climb up there, up the side of the mountain. Thirteen years have passed since then, yet the touching beauty of those leaves, on all the different trees, rises up before me as if I were there at this moment. (pg.79)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, each letter reveals further details about Misugi’s story, his relationship with Saiko and the events leading up to her death. It’s a technique that works very well here as each new revelation casts a little more light on the situation, thereby enabling us to see things from a range of different perspectives. As the story draws to a close, we return briefly to the narrator for his reflections on Misugi, the figure who, when he glimpsed him that day in late autumn, seemed to capture something of the solitude of the human condition.

The Hunting Gun is a very affecting little story of illicit love, deceit, secrets, loneliness and loss. As young Shōku observes in her letter to Misugi, love isn’t always the shimmering, sparkling emotion she had previously believed it to be; there are other kinds of love, too, such as the love that stretches out secretly ‘like an underground channel deep under the earth’ .

Distinctly Japanese in its themes and style, this is a book that would suit lovers of quiet, introspective fiction. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Yasunari Kawabata, whose novella Beauty and Sadness I’ve reviewed here.

A couple of other bloggers have reviewed Inoue’s novella – here are links to reviews by Tony Malone and Tony Messenger.

The Hunting Gun is published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy.

52 thoughts on “The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue (tr. Michael Emmerich)

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, to some extent, certainly in terms of prose style (even though the period is different). The Hunting Gun was published in 1949, but there’s a timeless feel to the story, almost as though it could have taken place at any point during the 20th century. Most of the Yoko Ogawa stories I’ve read have felt more contemporary, but they tap into similar themes, especially the sense of loneliness and isolation. I’m not sure if Emmerich has translated any of Ogawa’s work into English – the recent editions from Vintage were all translated by Stephen Snyder, but there may be other versions too. Either way, I think you’d like The Hunting Gun, Cathy. Inoue’s prose is rather beautiful.

          Reply
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui. It’s too long since I read any Japanese lit (I went through what my family called my Oriental phase once and read tons!) Kudos to Pushkin Press again!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Until fairly recently, I hadn’t read very much Japanese literature at all, only a few of Murakami’s novels and a couple of Kawabata’s. But then I discovered a clutch of interesting sounding books via other bloggers (most notably Tony Malone and Stu) – that’s how I latched on to Inoue and Bullfight. Something about the style of these books really appeals to me. They seem to have a poetic quality, even when dealing with quite disturbing subjects. I must get around to trying something by Mishima at some point as I’m sure I would love his work.

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I read *all* of Mishima back in the day and loved it – I just wish I could remember more about the books…. ;)

        Reply
          1. kaggsysbookishramblings

            I read *everything* including the complete Sea of Fertility set (of which Spring Snow is the first). I really wish I had time to read everything again….

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              1. kaggsysbookishramblings

                If I’m honest I don’t know if I remember enough to make a sensible recommendation. They were his last works though, so it might be worth going for an earlier stand-alone book to get a flavour of his writing.

                Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Helen. From what I can recall of your son’s tastes in books, I think he might like this one. I don’t know if he’s ever read anything by Kawabata, but The Hunting Gun is very much in that style – very classical, very Japanese.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  3. realthog

    This looks pretty mouthwatering. My knowledge of Japanese fiction is shamefully paltry, and I confess I know exactly nothing of Yasushi Inoue’s work. Time to do something about that, I guess . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Until fairly recently, I’d read very little in the way of Japanese literature, mostly Murakami and a couple of novellas by Kawabata. This would make a good introduction as it feels very Japanese in its structure, themes and poetic prose style. Have you ever read anything by Yoko Ogawa? If not, you might want to take a look at her collection of interlinked short stories, Revenge. It’s an excellent book, especially if you’re in the mood to try something dark and disturbing!

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      1. realthog

        I have Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in my sights for this month, although whether I get to it or not is another matter.

        I read Ogawa’s The Diving Pool a while ago, and, as I recall, thought it was okay but not much more. I really should give her another try — so thanks for the Revenge recommendation!

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        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, that’s interesting. I preferred Revenge to The Diving Pool, but they’re fairly similar in terms of style and themes. Maybe Ogawa’s not your cup of tea! (In other words, I wouldn’t rush to read Revenge if you were a bit underwhelmed by Pool.)

          I’ll be interested to hear what you make of that Murakami if you end up reading it this month. I’m a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to his stuff, but Wind-Up Bird is in my TBR.

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Haha, my thoughts exactly! I wouldn’t mind the length if I felt confident that I’d like it, but based on my previous experiences with his books it could go either way. I suspect I may be about to commit a terrible crime here, but I really didn’t get on with his Kafka on the Shore…

              Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    I really need to read some works of Japanese fiction.

    I tend to really like novels where letters play a part in driving the plot. In a way this seems more realistic then a conventional narrative.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I tend to enjoy books centered on letters as well. This is a slightly different twist on the epistolary novel….plus it’s very short, so it wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you were looking to try some Japanese lit. :)

      Reply
  5. Lady Fancifull

    Good heavens Jacqui, those quotes are extraordinary. And, following that with your ‘this is a book that would suit lovers of quiet, introspective fiction. ‘ means this does have to go onto that tbr. I’m pretty sure I would love this. Thank you. That idea of the mountain dreaming its colours produced a real physical pleasure.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The quote from Midori’s letter is rather striking, isn’t it? Inoue is quite a writer, a recent discovery for me thanks to these little novellas from Pushkin. I think there’s a strong chance that you would enjoy this book, Lady F. It’s a beautifully constructed story with each letter revealing a little more of the picture until everything comes together at the end. Either way, I would love to hear your thoughts on it!

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        Ordered, pre-loved. Best price coming from America, so a snailish wait is helpful, as currently reading 3 books, and I really want to re-read a favourite Woolf book, To The Lighthouse, for Ali’s Woolfathon before the month is over. I should then be ready for Japanese quiet and interior!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, terrific – I really hope you like it! I’m hoping to join the Woolfalong fairly soon, but the backlog of part-finished reviews is starting to pile up. At this rate, it’ll be April before I can post anything. :-)

          Reply
          1. Lady Fancifull

            Finding you, Kaggsy and Shoshi late last year, not to mention Ali, is making the wobbly real book TBR pile, not to mention the sturdy virtual one, able to take me on to the end of the year. But I have to keep adding to it. I don’t wish to read FASTER, as I want to savour what I read, but I’m wondering what the verification of gravity waves and their bending of space-time could do for reading. If I positioned myself near to a black hole of reading, could I stretch out 5 minutes of time, so it magically became an hour even though only 5 minutes had passed, and I could find myself savouringly reading an hour’s worth of pages, with no sense of speed read? Discuss.

            As for the backlog of unfinished reviews, – where is the black hole of reviewing, and those gravity waves…………

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes, yes…we need to find some means of opening up a wormhole to extend our reading time. It’s either that or early retirement. I’m with you on the joys and perils of discovering new book bloggers, too. My book buying went ballistic a few years ago when I started following a clutch of like-minded bloggers. It’s certainly enriched my reading, but I’ve been trying to reign myself in over the past twelve moths or so. Not entirely successfully I might add. :)

              Reply
  6. Jessica @ Like Bears to Honey

    I have just recently become interested in reading Japanese Literature, but I haven’t heard of Inoue before. This book seems so lovely, and I really enjoy reading books that are written in letter form (although I can’t say I’ve read too many like that). I’ll have to add this to my list of books to look into. Thank you for sharing this with me! I am always frustrated with the lack of translations, so maybe I should learn how to read in other languages!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I’m fairly new to Inoue myself as I’d never heard of him until Pushkin Press published three of his novellas back in late 2013/early 2014. I don’t think he’s very well known in the English-speaking world as only a handful of his books appear to have been translated. I thought this was a very affecting little story, beautifully constructed and perfect for a one-sitting read. Each letter conveys a different ‘voice’ so you get a sense of each of the individual characters involved in the story. I hope you enjoy it if you decide to give it a go.

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    I almost bought this at the weekend but as I have Tun-Huang waiting to be read, I resisted. I did enjoy Life of a Counterfeiter, however, the only Pushkin you have lefty to read. I like the sound of the epistolary structure of this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely! The epistolary form works very well here. Inoue has taken care to give each letter a different tone of voice to reflect the age and personality of the woman concerned. I’ll be interested to see what you think of Tun-Huang. Apparently the discovery of those scriptures in the Thousand Buddha cave is quite story in its own right, so I’m curious to hear more about Inoue’s imagining of the scriptures’ origin. I’m probably more likely to read ‘Counterfeiter’ though, just to complete the Pushkin set!

      Reply
  8. Scott W.

    What a complicated framing story! I get a sense from it that the poet/narrator might be the character to follow here. Regardless, that’s quite a quotation about autumn in the mountains.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s quite a framing device, isn’t it? Funnily enough, the poet/narrator plays a fairly small role in the story – Misugi is the key character here. I’m glad you like that quote on the mountains in late autumn. It’s a beautiful passage, one of the many pleasures of this little story for me.

      Reply
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    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Pushkin was part of the appeal for me. It’s very Japanese, quite classical in its themes and style, so I don’t know if you’d take to it. Have you ever tried anything by Yoko Ogawa? I loved her interlinked collection of short stories, Revenge, full of dark and disturbing imagery. She gets into the psychology of her characters, too.

      Reply
  10. BookerTalk

    I’ve not read much Japanese lit but what I have read has made me want to read more. This book sounds superb, love the idea of an epistolary approach nested into the framing device.

    I saw your thread re Mishima and the suggestion to read a stand alone before tackling his trilogy. Can I suggest After the Banquet?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m probably in a similar position, to be honest, as I’m still fairly new to Japanese lit myself. As for The Hunting Gun, it’s a great little story, beautifully told – perfect for a one-sitting read. Thank you for suggesting MIshima’s After the Banquet, as it’s always good to have a personal recommendation. I shall look it up!

      Reply
  11. erdeaka

    Nice review, Jacqui. Japanese literary works are always unique and twisted in their own way, with a style that’s sometimes so simple yet mesmerizing. After reading your review, I hope I can get my hands on this book one day :).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ratih. Yes, twisted is a good way of describing some of these Japanese stories of love. The Hunting Gun is less barbed than Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, but there’s an undercurrent of darkness running through it for sure. I hope you get a chance to read this book at some point. In the meantime, I might try something by Tanizaki as I think some of his works are in a similar vein.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can thoroughly recommend Inoue, Claire. He’s a good author to turn to if you’re looking for something quiet and introspective. His prose is beautiful, very elegant and serene.

      Reply

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