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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Man

Hirano Keiichiro

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Man

Title: A Man
Author: Hirano Keiichiro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 287 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: A Man - US
A Man - UK
A Man - Canada
  • Japanese title: ある男
  • Translated by Eli K.P. William

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Our Assessment:

B : somewhat contorted but reasonably successful exploration of questions of identity and leading a meaningful life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 25/7/2020 Mark Schreiber
Publishers Weekly . 23/3/2020 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "As an added bonus to the sympathetic characters and a well-constructed narrative is the detailed exploration of the complexities of the Japanese family registration system that made deception possible. Particularly appealing is author Keiichiro Hirano's compelling portrayal of Kido, who is troubled by his ambivalence toward his own identity as a naturalized Japanese of Korean descent." - Mark Schreiber, The Japan Times

  • "As back-alley gritty and entertaining as a Raymond Chandler novel (.....) Hirano's stylish, suspenseful noir should earn him a stateside audience." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Man begins with a Prologue, in which the author describes meeting the man who he then makes: "The protagonist of this story", Akira Kido. He first encounters him at a bar, where Kido is drinking by himself; after they fall into conversation Kido admits that the name he introduced himself by was not his real one. Hirano finds the behavior odd, but Kido, a lawyer, tries to explain:

     “I keep myself together by living other people’s pain,” he said eventually with an indescribably lonesome smile. “It’s like the expression ‘the man who goes mummy hunting ends up a mummy himself ...’ Do you understand what it’s like to be honest through lies ? I mean, of course, just for brief stints at places like this. Somehow I can’t seem to let go of myself entirely.
       So also Kido asks Hirano not to let on to the bartender who he really is, wanting to maintain this illusion of being another in this place he occasionally escapes to.
       The novel proper itself then is also about identity and its meanings, and taking on the life of another, of being someone else -- living, in at least some sense, a lie -- as well as what it means to live a meaningful life.
       Kido is in his late thirties, and married, to Kaori; they have a four-year-old son, Sota. When the events in the novel take place, Kido is in something of a midlife-crisis rut. In particular, he's dissatisfied with his marriage:
     After ten years living in wedlock, their relationship was slowly coming apart, without any particular inciting incident he could point to, and Kido kept trying to think of some way that they might set it right. Over the past few months, they hadn’t touched once, maintaining a wary distance between their bodies like strangers, as if to ensure that they didn’t brush against each other even by accident.
       The case he gets involved in forces him to reflect even more on who he is, and who he wants to be, and how he might achieve this. (Given the Prologue, where Hirano meets him pretending to be someone else -- if only for "brief stints" at a time --, it seems safe to say that he will not be entirely successful.) Over the course of the novel, he considers taking steps to becoming involved with other women, as well as divorce and all the consequences it would have. He doesn't take any very active steps, but he considers them quite seriously -- at least in his mind.
       Eight years earlier, in 2004, Kido had been the lawyer handling the divorce of Rié. She and her husband had had two children, but the younger one had died, tragically, at age two-and-a-half, from a brain tumor. After the divorce Rié moved back to her old hometown with her surviving son, Yuto. There she met another man, Daisuké Taniguchi, and they married -- a very happy union. Daisuké was a good husband and stepfather, and the couple had another child, a daughter -- but after less than four years of marriage Daisuké was tragically killed in a workplace accident.
       Rié asks for Kido's help after she got in touch with the family from which Daisuké was estranged. Although the story of his past he had related to her, including debates about being a liver donor for his father and his disagreements with his elder brother, matched those of the real Daisuké Taniguchi, the man Rié had married was not that person.
       Much of A Man then chronicles Kido's investigation into this unusual set of circumstances, trying to figure out who the man Rié had married actually was, as well as what became of the real Daisuké Taniguchi.
       In Japan family registers carefully track personal identity, revealing everyone's personal background; pedigree, as recorded there, matters greatly. Kido knows this well, as he is a third-generation Zainichi -- ethnically Korean, but longtime Japanese residents. Kido only became a Japanese citizen while in high school, and his parents were concerned that his future in-laws might have problems with his background when he wanted to get married. Although essentially completely Japanese, his Zainichi identity obviously remains an issue he can't help but be aware of; he does not experience outright discrimination, but there's no question that it is a part of his identity that has an effect on how people see him, and how he sees himself.
       Kido's investigations into Rié's deceased husband lead him to discover that it is not entirely uncommon for people to trade identities with others -- often for a fee. Complicating matters, the man passing himself off as Daisuké had apparently done so more than once, making the trail even more difficult to follow. (As Kido eventually learns: "It was pretty normal in that scene. Actually, someone like me who only did one swap is more in the minority".)
       The issue of identity, and the relationship between fathers and sons, comes up in various forms, inclduing Kido's thoughts about his own son. So also for Rié's son Yuto, now a teen, who is not close to his biological father but had a very good relationship with his step-father. He complains to his mother about the confusion when, after learning the man she married was not really Daisuké Taniguchi, she wants to change the family register again:
When I was born, we were the Yonedas. Then you got divorced and we became the Takemotos. When I started elementary school, we became the Taniguchis ... Now I’m in middle school. All my friends, the older students, the younger students, everyone calls me Taniguchi, and you’re telling me we’re going back to Takemoto again ? Like, maybe you’re used to Takemoto, Mother, but for me it just feels like Grandma and Grandpa’s name. So, like, it’s weird, OK
       So also, as Kido notes at one point:
I don’t like when other Zainichi try to claim me, as though we were somehow separate and special. I feel the same way about being from Ishikawa. Our prefecture has traditionally used the self-deprecating nickname ‘the Beggar,’ and there may be something to it, but it makes me uncomfortable when people refer to it at every available opportunity. Whether it’s being a lawyer or being Japanese, the same applies. It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.
       Kido begins to get a clearer picture of the man passing himself off as Daisuké, and his reasons for abandoning his 'true' identity. A strong family resemblance to his father certainly played a role -- but, as Kido notes, he really did become his own man, rather than merely being something like 'his father's son', and A Man is very much about how each individual can be responsible for their own identity (even as Kido, first encountered in a bar pretending to be someone else, seems to struggle a bit with that lesson ...).
       Rié's short second marriage was a very happy one. The man she was married to was perhaps not who she thought he was -- even as he took on not just Daisuké's name but his actual past, relating it (and even relating to it ?) startlingly authentically -- but he was a good man, and they were a happy family.
       It all makes for a rather melancholy and -- in its complicated investigations and its details -- oddly wending-all-over-the-place novel, but also an interesting journey. It is as much about Kido as it is Rié's husband, and could have gone even further in exploring his own concerns about identity -- personal and public, interior and exterior, and in relation to other family members --, especially since Hirano's opening Prologue suggests he hasn't gotten it all figured out even at the end of all this exploration, still left wondering whether it's not easier: "to be honest through lies ?"

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 July 2020

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A Man: Reviews: Hirano Keiichirō: Other books by Hirano Keiichirō under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Hirano Keiichirō (平野啓一郎) was born in 1975.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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