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The Friends

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by Kazumi Yumoto

Told in first person narrative through the eyes of Kiyama, The Friends begins by telling about Kiyama's friend Yamashita, who has been absent from school for three days to attend his grandmother's funeral.  Upon his return, Yamashita explains to Kiyama and another friend, Kawabe, what he saw and experienced at the funeral, and how it scared him.  Kawabe and Kiyama find that, after talking with Yamashita about his grandmother's funeral, they, too, have nightmares about funerals and death.  Kawabe's interest is piqued.  He quotes their teacher:  "…we human beings progress because we have the desire to know (16)."  Kawabe insists that, "at the age of twelve," he has "the same desire (16)" to know.  He wants to know what happens when people die.  Kawabe's plan - reluctantly agreed to by Kiyama and not at all by Yamashita - is to spy on an old man - watching and waiting for the old man to die.  Then they will understand what happens when people die.

The plan backfires in many ways.  At first the threesome are unobserved, but the old man soon discovers that he is being watched. Their adversarial roles change, and the old man goes on the offense.   He varies his daily routine to trick the boys and, at his house, tries to douse them with a bucket of water.  He flashes the boys a "V" sign for victory.  The boys realize that "he's playing a game with us (51)." 

When the trio's nemeses, Sugita and Matsushita, discover the trio at the old man's house, they accuse the three boys of being "peeping Tom[s]" and of "'planning a robbery (54).'"  The old man notices and nonchalantly invites the boys to come into the yard to help him hang his laundry.  Anxious to get away from Sugita and Matsushita, the boys decide to help.

After this, the boys' relationship with the old man changes.  They begin to help the old man, clearing his yard of garbage and weeds, fixing his house, and planting flowers.  In return, the old man shares watermelons, listens to the boys, tells them stories, and helps them with schoolwork.  Their plan backfires as the four become friends, and the three boys are absent at soccer camp when the old man dies.

Award-winning author Kazumi Yumoto offers this premise for her book, The Friends:

The Friends begins with three boys who want to see a dead person.  Their curiosity, born from a fear of death and from the uncertainty of life, is something that all people share, and in some sense, it is a manifestation of our dark side.  Like the moon, one part of the human heart is brightly illuminated while another part remains in darkness.  To the readers of The Friends, I wish to communicate the idea that by facing this darkness honestly instead of trying to conceal it, the horizons of our world can be expanded.[i]

 

The darkness the boys face up to is not only a fear of death, but a fear of the unknowns in life.

            The defining ritual in this story - a ritual that occurs nearly at the beginning and end of the tale - is the funeral ritual.  In the beginning, Yamashita relates to his friends, who have never been to a funeral, how his grandmother's corpse and coffin are cremated while the mourners wait.  Then, the mourners use chopsticks to remove remaining pieces of bone from the ashes; the bone pieces are put into an urn.  When the old man dies, this ritual is repeated, this time with the three boys taking part.

            Sandwiched between these rituals are the fears that the boys face: death; being fatherless (Kawabe, whose parents are divorced); alcoholism (Kiyama's mother); fear of failure at school (the trio attend "cram school (4)" to help them prepare for junior high entrance exams); and fear of the dark (all three boys). 

            Their friendship with the old man helps the boys face these fears.  At the funeral ritual, upon seeing the bits of the old man's bones, Kiyama concludes:  "The old man, he lived a good enough life.  His white bones tell me that.  That he lived his very best.  In my heart I tell him, "'I'll do my best, too (163).'" 

            When faced with the prospect of his mother remarrying, Kawabe's fear of that unknown situation dissolves after he wonders "what the old man would say if he were here (169)."  Kiyama agrees:  "I often think about what the old man would say.  And when I do, the answer comes to me much more easily than if I had pondered over it by myself (169)."  Kiyama thinks that his friend Yamashita puts it best, however.  Yamashita is no longer afraid of the dark because, "'After all, we have a friend in the next world watching out for us! Doesn't that make you feel invincible (170)?'"  His two friends wholeheartedly concur. 

Taylor, a judge for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, puts it this way:  "In the end, death matters less than the life lived . . . This eloquent novel crosses boundaries of distance and language and shows us how a story about fear and death ultimately celebrates courage and life."[ii]  The story is truly international and empowering in its applicability to growing up and learning life's lessons.

            The Friends is set in Japan.  In addition to the previously mentioned funeral traditions, cultural markers are woven throughout the text.  Japanese food items figure prominently; tempura (53); sashimi (39 ["sliced raw fish"] ); okonomiyaki (132 [a "pizza-like pancake fried with various ingredients") and miso (148 ["bean paste"]; used for flavoring) are four examples.[iii]  The translation retains Japanese names.  There are references to the bullet train (135); removing shoes before entering the house (65); tatami (straw floor mats [65]); and kotatsu (a table with a brasier [25]).



[i] Yumoto, Kazumi. 1997. Speech presented at the annual meeting of the New England Library Association, Sturbridge, Mass. 

[ii] Taylor, Deborah. 1998. Review of The Friends. Horn Book Magazine 74 (1).

[iii] Translations are from Japanese to English Dictionary, http://www.freedict.com/onldict/jap.html, s.v., sashimi, okonomiyaki, etc.

 

 

Yumoto, Kazumi. 1996. The friends. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. Originally published in Japan under the name Natsu No Niwa, Fukutake Publishing, 1992. ISBN 0-374-32460-3

 

           

This review was written as part of a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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