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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Yoshimura Akira

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To purchase Shipwrecks

Title: Shipwrecks
Author: Yoshimura Akira
Genre: Novel
Written: 1982 (Eng. 1996)
Length: 180 pages
Original in: Japan
Availability: Shipwrecks - US
Shipwrecks - UK
Shipwrecks - Canada
Shipwrecks - India
Naufrages - France
Schiffbruch - Deutschland
Naufragios - España
  • Japanese title: 破船
  • Translated by Mark Ealey

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, vivid novel of Japanese village life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Tribune . 3/11/1996 Miranda Schwartz
The Guardian . 15/2/2002 Isobel Montgomery
The LA Times . 11/8/1996 Chris Goodrich
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/7/1996 Richard Bernstein
Sunday Times . 21/4/2002 Sam Gilpin
TLS . 11/5/2001 Jon Barnes

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yoshimura keeps his focus steady and does not burden his subtle tale with a weighty message. Judgment is left to the reader. (...) Yoshimura is an expert at natural description. (...) Yoshimura's lovely, spare writing heightens the suspense for the reader" - Miranda Schwartz, Chicago Tribune

  • "It has an austerity that gives Isaku's matter-of-fact narrative the universality of folklore, but with a haunting otherworldiness." - Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian

  • "Shipwrecks, as a story, holds few surprises, but its evocation of ancient Japanese fishing culture -- catching the wily saury fish by hand in the wet season, octopus with spears in the fall -- is extraordinary in detail and verisimilitude. This 1982 work is the first of Yoshimura's 20 novels to be published in English, and it's a haunting read." - Chris Goodrich, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Mr. Yoshimura, in other words, has reconstructed an entire, unfamiliar world within the spare frame of this strange, affecting story. One reads it with sadness and appreciation and a great deal of tenderness for one Isaku, who never lived and yet reminds us of our common past." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a brief, intense novel, and deserves to become a classic." - Sam Gilpin, Sunday Times

  • "Shipwrecks offers little respite from an atmosphere of oppressive gloom. (...) Shipwrecks presents the reader with a world bleached of all colour. But set against this tapestry of near-nihilistic misery, Yoshimura's chiaroscuro touches of hope and love hint at something more profound -- in the midst of tragedy and despair, a hymn to the resilience of the human spirit." - Jon Barnes, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Shipwrecks is the story of a remote Japanese seaside village and the way of life there. The age is not specified, and the action could take place any time over the course of several centuries, as the pre-modern routines and (very limited) opportunities in the village remain unchanged over hundreds of years.
       The central character is young Isaku, only nine when the novel begins. The story follows him over the next three years, during which time he is -- or slowly grows into being -- the man of the house, as his father sold himself into bondage for a three-year-term, to help provide for the family. Life is very difficult in this remote place, and they have little contact with the outside world. Outsiders almost never venture here, while the locals only occasionally make the long and difficult journey to the next village, to trade for grain or sell family members into bondage, something practically every family resorts to at some point.
       The villagers largely live off the sea, and as the seasons change they fish different species -- saury, octopus -- and dry fish for later. There's little they can grow in their small plots, as the village is so inhospitable that:

     The only way the villagers could see flowers was to go into the mountains; the salt winds that lashed the village prevented any flowering plants or trees from surviving on the coast.
       One thing they can trade is salt, and they set up cauldrons on the beach to boil down salt. These also serve another purpose:
When the northwest winds start to blow, the seas get rough, and more ships get in trouble. At night, when the waves start to wash over the decks, they'll even throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. At times like that, a crew will see light from the cauldron fires and think it is from houses on the shore. They will turn the ships in toward the coast.
       It's a trap, of course: the ships hit a hidden reef and wind up wrecked there. Easy takings for the locals, who depend on the bounty this so-called O-fune-sama could provide and pray for it every year:
But if O-fune-sama had never graced their shores, the village would have long ceased to exist, and the bay would have been nothing more than an expanse of sea girded by a stretch of rocks.
       Often years go by without a wreck, but when there is one it can completely transform the lives of the villagers, at least for a year or two: if the ship was carrying rice, for example, they can live off that, and no one from the family needs to be sent into slavery for a while. Everyone in the village also works together -- and shares in the spoils, with the shares for those who are slaving away elsewhere at the time saved for their return.
       There are dangers. Clan ships are untouchable -- the cargo can be salvaged, but must be returned to the powerful rightful owners, who are bound to come looking for it. Merchant ships, however, are fair game -- though here too there is the danger someone will come looking for the missing ships and cargo, and if it is ever discovered what the villagers are up to, they'd be severely punished. There's also a personal cost shared by the community: the only way they can get away with this is to make sure there are no survivors of the wrecks, and so it is necessary to murder any of the crew that remain alive after the initial shipwreck.
       Shipwrecks describes this village life through the seasons, the focus almost always just on bare survival. Isaku matures and learns more of the necessary survival skills, and also partakes in his first O-fune-sama -- a great bounty for the village -- and then his second, which turns the tides of any good fortune the villagers had.
       It's a bleak, vivid account of a very hard life. Isaku's perspective -- the young and not very knowledgeable boy slowly coming to understand how things work -- is a helpful way of presenting this sort of story to readers, and Yoshimura recreates this way of life convincingly.
       As Isaku's mother reminds him: "There's no room for pity", and Shipwrecks is a pitiless, dark story. It's all fairly simple, too, but quite riveting -- a quick and gripping look at an unusual and extreme way of life.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 April 2014

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Shipwrecks: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Yoshimura Akira (吉村昭) lived 1927 to 2006.

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