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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Embracing Family

Kojima Nobuo

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To purchase Embracing Family

Title: Embracing Family
Author: Kojima Nobuo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 161 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Embracing Family - US
Embracing Family - UK
Embracing Family - Canada
  • Japanese title: 抱擁家族
  • Translated by Yukiko Tanaka

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective, somber family portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Sun . 18/1/2006 Benjamin Lytal
Time (Asia) . 20/3/2006 Don Morrison
The Village Voice . 30/1/2006 Mary Jacobi

  From the Reviews:
  • "Were Mr.Kojima's dialog-filled novel staged, it would perplex and thrill American audiences. Despite its simple themes -- an intruder in the family, a clash of cultures -- it is a novel of rare complexity." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "Embracing Family is one of their more inspired finds, with a treasure of nuance and yearning packed into Kojima's unadorned prose." - Don Morrison, Time (Asia)

  • "The author likewise forgoes levity in a tale whose tragic nature at times becomes oppressive." - Mary Jacobi, The Village Voice

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:

       The Miwa family is a mess, figuratively and literally, as even the opening of Embracing Family makes clear:

     Ever since Michiyo had become their maid, the Miwa household looked worse than ever. Shunsuke, the man of the house, was not pleased. The living room was a mess from the night before, and Michiyo, instead of straightening it up, was having tea in the kitchen with his wife, Tokiko, talking and laughing.
       Variations on this condition -- people not adhering to their assigned and traditional roles (as maid, housewife, husband, etc.), and a general sense of disorder -- are a constant in the household. Moving house, changing maids, inviting others to live there: nothing changes the underlying state of affairs.
       Tokiko is a dominant but self-absorbed figure, very vain and hard to please -- especially by her husband (who doesn't share a bedroom with her). An affair she has with an American brings much of the tension in the family out in the open, but does not tear the family apart: so shredded are the connexions already that it hardly amounts to much more. (Shunsuke has also had an affair, but that's of little account.)
       Shunsuke isn't very strong-willed, and he aims to please -- without really knowing how to go about it. Simply meeting Tokiko's demands certainly doesn't make for long-term happiness. But his inability to communicate on even fairly basic levels extends to others as well: when his son, Ryoichi, warns him that the maid is unhappy, uncertain about her role in the household, all he can think is; "he must buy her something, give a present."
       The family issues are all the more clearly made visible when Tokiko is stricken with cancer. She practices her own sort of self-deception (which extends so far as to refusing to acknowledge her son's presence as she shuffles down the hospital hall, because she is on her way to use the bathroom), and Shunsuke is no better equipped to handle her slow and ugly decline.
       Shunsuke is no exemplary parent either, preparing his son for Tokiko's death by suggesting: "Your mother's death will be an opportunity to grow up" -- though Shunsuke also seems eager to maintain control over both his son and his daughter, the younger Noriko.
       Houseguests are the norm here too: a colleague, Yamagishi, moves in with the Miwas, and later Ryoichi invites a friend to move in as well, but instead of making for a happier unit of people able to lean on each other it is a house of people going their own way, with a constant tension in the air. Almost no one is happy with the roles they (or others) have, the lack of a mother-figure weighing heavily on the household (even Tokiko, inadequate as she was in the role, leaves a considerable vacuum in her wake).
       Shunsuke approaches several women (in a wonderfully woefully awkward way), but more in the hope of finding someone to fill that specific role than as someone he can love. He is actually a man who can tell a woman he is wooing who asks him what he thinks of her:
As I already told you, if you like my children, I think I will have affection for you
       The East-West contrast is of considerable significance in the book. Two Americans figure fairly prominently, and both Shunsuke and Yamagishi have spent time in the US; indeed, Shunsuke is something of an expert on the differences between the two cultures, and lectures on the subject-matter.
       Describing a novel, Yamagishi diagnoses the differences that also dominate this book:
My point is that these Western characters act logically here. That's what I think. Compared to them, the Japanese are temperamental, vague, and opportunistic.
       Shunsuke isn't entirely convinced, but points to what is the crux of the novel:
What we've learned from the West is often in conflict with out traditions. We suffer from the outcome of those conflicts in our homes.
       Set around the early 1960s (GIs are present, Kennedy's assassination is mentioned -- and the book was first published in 1965), this is a Japan still coming to grips with an early wave of social and cultural change, still a far cry from contemporary Japan.
       Dialogue-heavy, Embracing Family takes a while to get used to, but the characters are effectively developed and presented, the issues subtly addressed. It makes for an interesting picture of Japanese society in those times. Worthwhile.

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Embracing Family: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kojima Nobuo (小島信夫) lived 1915 to 2006.

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