Review: The Stationmaster, Jirō Asada

My short story collection adventure continued this week with a venture to Japan via The Stationmaster.  Coming with a glowing introduction from Margaret Atwood, this is an anthology which was awarded the Naoki Prize and sold 2.5 million copies in Japan which given population size is like an equivalent American book selling 6 million.  This doesn’t really happen for short fiction, although to be fair I think the form is more popular in Japan than it is in the Western world.  The point is that The Stationmaster received a great deal of success and so I was intrigued to find out more.

In the ‘Instead of an Afterword’, Asada explains that the over-arching theme to the collection is how lives can be touched by miracles.  The titular story is perhaps the most affecting, featuring Otomatsu, an aging stationmaster on the point of retirement, patiently working his route even as it too heads towards closure.  Gone are the glory days when the Kiha 12 was bright and shining new train, transporting coal to the big cities – now all it’s for is school runs.  Widowed and with a baby daughter who died decades before, there is little of light in Otomatsu’s life.  My throat felt tight when I read of how Otomatsu’s wife shrieked at him when she was bringing back the body of their child by train and he performed his usual signalling duties, aware of their child’s passing – he is the stationmaster and what he will be now without that role appears to frighten him, so the spark of happiness that Asada brings him feels like a true act of kindness.

Few of the other stories carried that same almost-magical impact but each had a poignancy of their own.  My own particular favourite was “In Tsunohazu”, where Kyoichi Nukui, a middle-aged man going through a career crisis, attempts to understand why his father abandoned him decades before.  He attempts to translate this act of callousness into a form of love of its own – it was heartbreaking to read Asada explain that this story was inspired by his own life.  The child Nukui’s scrabbling attempts to extract from his father a promise to return are undramatic and yet Asada still makes them harrowing.  Again, Asada allows for a sense of closure – something one suspects he was never able to grant to himself.

Asada is not afraid to summon up the supernatural in his fiction – in “The Festival of Lanterns”, a family ghost steps forward to resolve the situation, despite the apparent realism of the stories and the ordinary characters, there is little clear demarcation between the living and the dead.  The latter story was particularly affecting, with the orphan woman visiting her husband’s in-laws only to have them turn against her – Chieko’s loneliness and sense of being adrift without family is obvious so that when back-up arrives, the reader can truly sense her relief.  The values, standards and superstitions within the stories of The Stationmaster were sometimes difficult to relate to – I know very little about Japanese culture, which was one of the reasons why I picked up this book in the first place.  Nevertheless, the common feeling of disconnection which ran through the stories was something that I could identify with.  In “Invitation to the Orion Cinema”, long-term separated couple Yoshie and Yuji visit the old cinema where their romance was originally kindled, each of them stubborn but tinged with regret – a happy ending seems impossible and yet, and yet …  These were everyday circumstances, sprinkled with just a tinge of the fairy-tale.

Asada’s stories lacked the same subtlety of Pearlman, but yet each chapter was complete in and of itself.  I am not sure that I would pick up the collection again but yet I found each story individually captivating – a really refreshing sojourn on my short story search weaving the miraculous into mankind’s daily struggle.



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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Stationmaster by Jirō Asada, Margaret Atwood, Terry Gallagher
Published by Shueisha English Edition on May 23rd 2013

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