Kikutani does not look forward to leaving prison. For sixteen years he has been half-asleep in the womb of the state, grateful for his lack of freedom, since it means that many less decisions he has to make. He is obliged to apply for parole even if he doesn’t want it. The prospect of rejoining the outside world, even just provisionally, fills him with terror. It is not because of what the world might do to him, but what he fears he might do all over again when confronted with the world in all of its capriciousness and turmoil.
A decade and a half ago, Kikutani found his wife cheating on him with a friend. His response was to stab her to death and leave the other man permanently injured — and in the years since, he has not so much dealt with the emotional reasons for the crime as he has simply buried them. If everyone else around him is willing to believe the past is a dead place, then he might as well act like it. Uneasy, fearful of what he might find, and surprised at both how much and how little has changed, he leave prison and joins the population of a halfway house. At every step he is certain he is doomed, certain that the past will erupt once again in some form, whether inside him or outside of him.
On Parole is, as you can probably tell from the wording of these paragraphs, not about the mechanics of the Japanese criminal justice system. There is a good deal of information about it in the book, and for those who know nothing about how such things work, it’s enlightening. But all of that is background for the real story, which at first glance would appear to be Kikutani’s readjustment to the outside world. For a good third to one-half of the book, that’s what we would be led to believe — that Kikutani’s biggest problems all stem from being turned into an outsider in a society where outsiders are scarcely even acknowledged to exist.
It’s not like he doesn’t have help. The man who runs the halfway house, his designated parole officer, and even the boss at the chicken farm where he finds work are all sympathetic. They have seen other men in his situation — in the case of Kikutani’s parole liaison, he’s seen literally hundreds of such men — and so they would seem to have the experience needed to help Kikutani ease himself back into the world. And for a while it seems to work. Kikutani once again grows accustomed to the rhythms of work, of commuting, of living on his own. He buys his own TV, packs his own lunches, smoothes down all the little rough edges of life on the outside.
But it’s not enough. His wife’s infidelity — and more importantly, his reaction to it — gnaw at him. Even though on the outside he can say he “did his time” and “discharged his debt to society”, he cannot bring himself to mouth the words. He digs down inside himself and finds that he does not, in fact, regret having killed her. Some part of him still believes she had it coming, that any remorse he could manifest would be a lie. All the more reason why he does not want his past excavated and thrown back in his face; all the more reason why, when his parole officer mentions he might want to consider remarrying he balks, hard. And, strangely, it does not help that the woman he is set up with knows what he has done. She accepts it and does not hesitate at trying to help him feel repentance, and does not realize that may be a gigantic mistake.
Most modern Japanese writers of renown in their own country are underrepresented outside of it. The author of Parole, Akira Yoshimura, is no different: out of the twenty-odd novels he wrote there, only two or three (Parole being one of them) are in English. It’s not as if he appears to be difficult to translate. He writes in a straightforward if meticulous style — nothing fancy, but at the same time attuned to the welter of details that matter in his character’s world. We learn a great deal about the mechanics of the egg farm, the maintenance of which reminds us of the coldly impersonal way men were “processed” in the criminal justice system that Kikutani was at the mercy of. The growing possibility of the collapse of the egg market nicely parallels Kikutani’s own ballooning sense of self-destruction: as one looms, so looms the other.
I’m a little ashamed that the way Yoshimura’s novel originally came to my attention was as the inspiration for Shohei Imamura’s film The Eel. The fact that Imamura’s name was on the film felt like an aberration: it was so ham-handed, so bathetic, so clumsy and amateurish in every respect that I could not believe it was from the same man who gave us Black Rain and The Pornographers. In a way, I was pleased to discover the book bears almost no resemblance to the film: Imamura borrowed a few basic conceits from it, but instead of leaving well enough alone he tricked up the story in all the wrong ways. Here and there you can see pieces that were hijacked for the film — the murder itself, Kikutani’s eventual acquisition of a tankful of fish for the sake of companionship — but they’re drowning in a sea of inept decisions and bad direction. The only thing that does work is the casting of Japanese everyman Kōji Yakusho as Kikutani; in fact, it’s such spot-on casting that I imagined Yakusho as Kikutani while reading and didn’t feel as if the image was getting in the way of the original story.
What was most dismaying about the film is how the most crucial themes in the book never made it to the screen. Parole is not about simple things like assigning blame — e.g., whether or not “the system” was responsible for making Kikutani worse than he already was, etc. — but about something slipperier and more elusive. Here is a man who killed his wife out of what amounted to emotional retardation, and was compelled by everything and everyone around him to obscure that fact rather than grow past it. All of the stern talk he’s given about “reflecting gravely on his behavior” means nothing, because he never dug down deep enough to realize he always believed he was right. And then one fine day, without thinking about it (because for him these things are felt and not contemplated), he shows everyone he still believes that. Once and for all.