Naoyuki Ii - A rare work of fiction focused simply on a man of integrity,'The Shadow of a Blue Cat' meticulously renders his life and opinions as Yuki tries to find a middle path between the radicalism of his uncle’s life and the quiet bourgeois home he’s worked so hard to build

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Naoyuki Ii, The Shadow of a Blue Cat, Trans. by Wayne P. Lammers, Dalkey

Businessman Yuki Yajima is fifty-one years old. He and his wife, Asako, are the parents of two daughters: Ryo, seventeen, and Yuka, an infant of only two months. Asking himself why he’s allowed himself to become a father again at his age, Yuki begins to remember his uncle, who died quite young—younger, indeed, than Yuki is now. Thinking of this man, whom the young Yuki idolized, and who first introduced the boy to authors like Kenzaburō Ōe and the Marquis de Sade, serves as a strange tipping point: allowing a sense of chaos and complexity back into his otherwise well-heeled life. A rare work of fiction focused simply on a man of integrity—a dying breed, in novels—The Shadow of a Blue Cat meticulously renders his life and opinions as Yuki tries to find a middle path between the radicalism of his uncle’s life and the quiet bourgeois home he’s worked so hard to build.

Several years ago Kei's husband disappeared, leaving behind a diary that included the word "Manazuru," the name of a town two hours to the south of Tokyo by train. Had he disappeared because he was suffering from an illness? Had he wanted to die? Had he disappeared because he wanted to live? - Kei has no idea. Even after the time period required for a legal divorce passes, Kei does not remove her name from his family register and continues to use his last name.
Living with her mother and daughter, Kei harbors a feeling of resentment mixed with love, but she has repeated trysts with her lover, a man seven years her senior, with his own household. And when she is not meeting her lover, she travels to Manazuru, as though being dragged there by something.
For some time now, Kei has been feeling as though an invisible woman is following her around. This feeling has been there since before her husband's disappearance, but Kei has never talked to anyone about it. Initially, it seemed she was being followed from afar, and the gender of the pursuer was unclear, but the mysterious presence has become increasingly tangible, to the point where Kei can actually converse with it. Sensing that the presence is a "woman" who had some kind of relationship with her husband, Kei asks about this during her conversations, but the "woman" always gives vague responses on subjects related to her husband.
Kei's daughter, who had been just a baby at the time of the disappearance, is growing up with hardly any memory of her father, and Kei's lover is jealous of the invisible presence. Suffering from her actual human relationships and continuing to feel strongly about her missing husband, Kei repeatedly travels between Tokyo and Matsuru, because she has become determined to undertake a kind of memorial service for him.
This is a beautiful, if frightening, work in which Hiromi Kawakami has pioneered new literary territory. -

In this bittersweet and satisfying novel, 51-year-old Yuki Yajima contemplates the events that have led to his recently having become the father of a two-month-old, his unplanned second child born 17 years after his first daughter. Yuki, who has "a tendency to forget that institutions and laws are merely a thin outer shell covering the living bodies and myriad desires that lie underneath," revisits three main periods of his past: the summer in his teens when he visited his bachelor uncle; his early employed life alongside Ogita, a college friend who would later betray him; and the past year of his life, in which Yuki discovers that Ogita is dying of cancer and Yuki's teenage daughter starts hanging out with a guy Yuki doesn't approve of. As the narrative cycles through layers of time, what emerges is a ruminative and deliberate (some might call it slow) portrait of a man who does his best to think things through and forge ahead despite life's disappointments and curveballs. - Publishers Weekly

It is rather disconcerting to read a novel that opens with the assertion that “I’ve already slid right on past the big five-oh — a milestone no one thinks is very pretty and few are eager to reach — to become a man of fifty-one,” particularly when this reviewer reaches that milestone this coming January.
However, rather than a list of maudlin reminiscences, businessman Yuki Yajima’s tale is one of sharp memories, familial influences and inspiring literature. Central to his life, his uncle — who died at the age of 39 — an Anglophile and admirer of the Marquis de Sade, Norman Mailer and Kenzaburo Oe, holds a strange fascination for Yuki as he weaves personal incident into historical events.

Things are not quite what they seem. As he discusses his friends, tells of his college and career, and explains his concerns about his daughters — one 17, the other barely two-months old — Yuki mixes into his narrative contemplations on art and literature.
Longer sections on the meaning of love, group dynamics, and ethics add an intellectual heft to the everyday tale of a businessman and his seemingly normal life. Chances not taken, the politics of family life, and the necessity to be true to one’s principles inform the novel with an almost 19th-century feel — despite the presence of cell phones, emails and
Meanwhile, in London during the 1970s, Yuki’s uncle finds himself embroiled in a weird erotic game with the mysterious Rieko. Here, the author deftly contrasts and compares the rules of familial behavior — father/husband, daughter/wife relationships — with the rituals of sadomasochism, asking, “Love? … What could you possibly mean?” For Yuki, love and life are all about control.
Personal, social and artistic responsibilities provide the moral background for a novel also interested in the intricacies of ethical bondage. Yuki’s strained conversations with his 17-year-old daughter, Ryo, show the tension between the generations and the attendant shifting of morals in Japanese society.
Yuki’s story about his business career pinpoints the hypocrisy in ruthlessly acquiring wealth and status while propounding a philosophy of impartiality and fairness. The vicissitudes of employment, the complexity of negotiations, and the power brokerage between colleagues mirror the changing tides of family interaction. The narrator is caught in a whirlpool of personal problems that threaten to suck him under. He almost drowns in his need to understand actions and events while falsely believing that he is a distant observer of chaos and catastrophe. This is evident in the scuffle he has outside the hospital room of an ex-colleague dying of stomach cancer.
Yuki fuses tales of the grim upbringing of his daughter’s boyfriend with comments on suicide and social dysfunction, realizing that, even though he disapproves of the young couple’s relationship, it reminds him of his first love during the summer he spent with his uncle in Yokokawa.
Yet, no matter how hard he tries to ignore and rationalize it, chaos is never far from Yuki’s life. His daughter is pregnant, his ex-colleague’s cancer worsens, and a client complains about a business foulup. Slowly, Yuki’s prejudices rise to the surface — not only is he having trouble communicating with his daughter’s generation, he is also unsure how to deal with what he thinks he knows and believes, stating, “I have a tendency to forget that institutions and laws are merely a thin outer shell covering the living bodies and myriad desires that lie underneath.”
Economics and eroticism merge in a novel sometimes reminiscent of Georges Bataille and sometimes of George Eliot. A tale of love, fate and responsibility, “The Shadow of a Blue Cat” combines philosophy and sociology in a tale of a man who would be a character in a tale by Yasutaka Tsutsui or the Marquis de Sade if it were not for his entrenched morality. Naoyuki Ii impresses with the wide scope of his societal view and the concurrent meticulous gaze into the life of a seemingly ordinary man. - 

The Shadow of a Blue Cat is narrated by Yuki Yajima, who has already: "slid right on past the big five-oh" and who is struggling a bit in coming to terms with his "fifty-something self". He begins at something of a new crossroads, explaining that he has two children, one daughter, Ryo, who is seventeen (and recently dropped out of school), and another who is just two months old; this is not so much the starting point of the novel, but rather the point he finds himself at that sets off his reflective mood: The Shadow of a Blue Cat is, more or less, the story of how he got to this point in his life, and this particular situation.
       Yuki assesses his life, and describes what he's been through. There are several main narrative threads here, the dominant one being that in which he describes the past year or so, concentrating on his family life and especially Ryo, a budding artists who had trouble adjusting to her new school and whose rebellious streak occasionally flares up. In this period he not only faces the addition of a new member to the family -- the baby -- but also the decline and death of a former colleague and friend, Ogita, whose betrayal still bothers him. Ogita was married to Momo, whom Yuki remains close to, and as Momo is drawn back somewhat into Ogita's orbit as he faces his terminal illness Yuki dredges up some of the past between them.
       Yuki's account isn't one of simple reflection: he allows several tracks to slowly unfold. He chronicles his career, for example, and how he wound up running his own business -- with Ogita's betrayal both undermining and freeing him -- a slightly unusual entrepreneurship-tale. He also goes further back, to a summer he spent with an uncle who introduced him to books by authors such as Oe, Henry Miller, the Marquis de Sade, and Tsutsui Yasutaka (author of books such as Hell and Salmonella Men on Planet Porno) -- and, for a stretch, a significant portion of the narrative is then devoted to the uncle's account of an unusual situation he found himself in, a story he told the teenage Yuki. This much more daring bon vivant died when he was was only thirty-nine, some three decades earlier, but he -- and his life -- still cast a long shadow over Yuki.
       The story the uncle told was one of those life-changing ones: "My life basically came to an end during those three days", the uncle told young Yuki. Yuki also finds himself in emotionally wrenching (if not quite so luridly (melo-)dramatic) situations -- though typically it is a job-related incident that is the most affecting, leaving him still: "unable to refill the void that opened inside me that day".
       Yuki is not solely defined by his work, but his identity is clearly shaped by it. He feels great pressure to be a proper provider to his family, and carefully weighs risks in what steps he takes. Yet he does take risks -- perhaps not on the scale his uncle did, but nevertheless -- and with risks comes both failure and success. It also leads to somewhat of a disconnect from his family: The Shadow of a Blue Cat is, ultimately, a domestic novel, and Yuki does try hard to be a proper guide and help in his role as father, but he is also away from home a great deal, misses family dinners constantly -- and seems to be more attentive to Momo than his own wife. He comes across, ultimately, more as a manager than family-man, even in his dealing with his family. In part this reflects Japanese culture -- as in his dealings with Ryo's school and her boyfriend's family --, where things are done as much for appearance's sake, but nevertheless it feels odd how carefully he plans many things: when it comes to the baby, for example, he has it all figured out like in a PowerPoint presentation.
       At one point Yuki reflects on "family dysfunction -- the problem that afflicts out own era", yet he seems oblivious to how he contributes to the dysfunction of his own family. He is not entirely self-absorbed, but his perspective is limited. He proves creative and he has a bit of ambition -- he is willing to think 'outside the box' -- but he remains consistently too managerial in his approach to everything.
       A very deliberate man, his caution has also left him unfulfilled: typically already during that summer he spent with his uncle he fell in love for the first time -- and it went nowhere. Indeed:
     Kanoko and I exchanged addresses and promised to write. "We'll see each other again, okay ?" I said, and she nodded in assent as she squeezed my hand. But I never wrote a single letter, nor did I ever get one from her.
       The Shadow of a Blue Cat falls similarly short, too much of it just pottering along, without sufficient follow-through. Most notably, after his sensational story is recounted, the uncle doesn't figure prominently any more. Yuki's account of his professional path is of some interest -- The Shadow of a Blue Cat is also a career-novel of sorts -- but stands somewhat at odds with the domestic part of the novel. And in the domestic part the underdeveloped figure of the wife, and Yuki's obliviousness to much of day-to-day life at home -- for one reason: because he so rarely seems to be at home -- weaken that part of the story.
       Yuki is a a sympathetic narrator, and his story isn't uninteresting, but the telling is a bit too bland and unfocussed. Bit by bit it's all quite interesting, but the whole remains somewhat shapeless. The social critique that bubbles throughout the text -- Ryo's difficulties with her art in particular, as seen both in the issues she has with the establishment at her school as well as her sense that: "it's more about painting as a medium of expression being out of whack with the pace of things these days" -- is interesting, too, but it too fails to properly coalesce.
       A decent read, The Shadow of a Blue Cat nevertheless feels very much like a near-miss rather than truly successful novel. - M.A.Orthofer