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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

City of Refuge

Kitakata Kenzo

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To purchase City of Refuge

Title: City of Refuge
Author: Kitakata Kenzo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1982 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: City of Refuge - US
City of Refuge - UK
City of Refuge - Canada
  • Japanese title: 逃がれの街
  • Translated by Y.T. Horgan

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a lot of it feels a bit off, but still quite compelling

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The protagonist of City of Refuge is Koji Mizui, who left his native Nagano for Tokyo after graduating from high school. Still just barely over twenty, he has a job delivering household appliances, and he puts aside a little bit of money every month, dreaming of someday being able to buy a boat; he already has ¥310,000 saved up. The novel opens with a former classmate from Nagano, Numata, who had come to Tokyo at the same time, less than three years earlier, appearing uninvited one night and crashing at his place. While Koji is on his second job, Numata is already on his third -- working at a bar.
       Koji kicks Numata out the next morning -- and then at work finds that some police detectives have been looking for him. When he sees in the newspaper that there was a robbery at the bar Numata works at he wonders whether his former classmate was somehow involved. The police eventually connect with Koji -- and he soon finds himself under arrest. The money stashed in his apartment -- his savings -- look suspicious, and his alibi for the night in question -- an evening spent with Makiko Endo, who he had been seeing for a few months -- looks shaky when the police first look into it.
       Koji spends a few nights in jail, but City of Refuge isn't a novel of a man unjustly accused or set up by an old friend. Numata barely figures after the first events. Nevertheless, it's a significant turning point for Koji -- specifically because the police investigation leads to him learning that the young woman he was seeing wasn't really named 'Makiko Endo' and that the reason she only let him call after a certain hour at night was because she was, in fact, a sixteen-year-old-girl who had to wait until her bar-owning mom left for the night.
       After he's been released from jail, Koji arranges to meet the girl he knows as Makiko again and they head to their usual hotel; they seem uncertain about their intentions -- long- and short-term, as also: "Makiko seemed slightly hesitant, and that wasn't unusual" -- but in the here and now Koji is overwhelmed by his lust. In an uncomfortable scene, Koji forces himself on her ("The craze set in after that"), and then again ("My lovemaking scares her. Koji felt another surge of savage lust"); Kitakata suggests some ambivalence on both their parts but by contemporary standards his actions seems clear-cut violations -- rape ("With a cry of No ! her body stiffened like a rod").
       Their relationship deepens, with Makiko skipping school to play house at Koji's, who had quit his job. After a week, their idyll is shattered by a Mr. Watanabe -- one of Makiko's mother's lovers, whom she had asked to see what her daughter was up to. Watanabe hauls Makiko back home. Koji eventually goes after her, only to find Watanabe there, and take a beating from him.
       Watanabe continues to watch over Makiko -- and has his way with her as well. Koji arranges a showdown -- and kills Watanabe. Makiko wants to run away with him -- "I'm in love with you. I always thought of you when I was in Watanabe's arms" -- but Koji brushes her off.
       Watanabe was a member of a gang, and initially the police think his death is gang-related -- leading them also to worry about an escalating war. When the gang figures out who is responsible they call Koji out -- even telling him they'll let him live if he takes responsibility for the crime, since that will cause less trouble for them -- but he won't back down and another gang-member gets killed.
       Now Koji has to go on the run -- and matters are complicated because a five-year-old-boy he encountered has latched onto him. Hiroshi doesn't seem to have any family, and Koji isn't one to pry too much; he figures the situation will sort itself out soon enough -- someone will be looking for the kid, but meanwhile he can take care of him. But when he has to go on the run, he has to take the kid with him.
       It's Christmas time -- and the kid's birthday -- and the gang is on their tails, and the police eventually too. Koji and Hiroshi hole up in snowbound Karuizawa, in a summer house that's left unattended during the winter, and briefly lead an idyllic sort of life -- but how long can it last ? The policemen who arrested Koji are on his trail, and closing in -- even as they feel guilty about having been mistaken about him previously, and realize that the killings since might arguably be justifiable acts of self-defense .....
       City of Refuge is a strange kind of thriller -- ultimately a manhunt-story, but with quite a few layers and complications before it becomes purely that. The most problematic aspect is that Koji is only twenty-one years old, as his character acts much more like one would expect a world-weary wizened old(er) man would. His parental turn, in taking in Hiroshi, is also odd -- yes, they refer to each other as brothers, but Koji slips rather easily and very comfortably into a paternal role that's hard to credit given his otherwise so hot-headed young-man manner. (Hiroshi's own story is almost plausible, though the idea that he'd so comfortably take up with a complete stranger in an instant also seems far-fetched.) Makiko -- who continues to have a significant role, even apart from Koji -- is a bit too simplistically hysterical, but it's an interesting element -- as are, eventually, the attitudes of the policemen who are on Koji's trail.
       So, much of City of Refuge feels a bit off -- not least the progression of the story. But even as he's fumbling a bit -- so, for example, in the repeated and occasionally awkward use of model-boats that Koji builds, as he dreams of one day owning his own -- and despite the creepy aspects of Koji's relationships with the underage characters (exacerbated by the fact that it's really hard to tell or remember that Koji is only twenty-one years old), Kitakata still fashions a surprisingly compelling and fully engaging tale. There's enough here that's successful -- a lot, in fact, in the scenes and details and overall atmosphere -- that the inconsistencies (of which there are also a lot ...) and flaws don't seem to matter quite that much. Like its protagonist, City of Refuge is in some ways raw -- but the basic quality is there. (It's not surprising that this is one of Kitakata's first books: it has that early-book feel of a (talented) writer bubbling over with ideas and ambition, but not yet quite sure how to corral them.)
       Flawed and, in parts, off-putting, City of Refuge still impresses. A worthwhile read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 January 2019

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City of Refuge: Reviews: Other books by Kitakata Kenzo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kitakata Kenzo (北方謙三) was born in 1947. He has written an enormous number of novels.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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