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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Floating Clouds

Hayashi Fumiko

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To purchase Floating Clouds

Title: Floating Clouds
Author: Hayashi Fumiko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1951 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 310 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Floating Clouds - US
Floating Clouds - UK
Floating Clouds - Canada
Floating Clouds - India
Nuages flottants - France
  • Japanese title: 浮雲
  • Translated and with a Preface by Lane Dunlop
  • Floating Clouds was made into a film in 1955, directed by Naruse Mikio

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Our Assessment:

B+ : downcast but quietly powerful story set in postwar Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 2/12/2012 Paul McCarthy

  From the Reviews:
  • "Throughout the twists and turns of the complex plot, the overwhelming atmosphere is one of difficult lives lived in the throes of love not easily distinguishable from lust, and consequent loneliness (the word occurs again and again in the narrative like a sad leitmotif), jealousy and emotional emptiness. (...) A word about the style of the translation: It begins well, grows a bit tired and careless in the second half, and revives wonderfully in the final chapter. In such a long novel, probably translator and editors alike grow weary from time to time." - Paul McCarthy, The Japan Times

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:

       Floating Clouds centers around Koda Yukiko, a young Japanese woman who, at age twenty-two, went to work as a typist in Dalat, in the Vietnamese highlands (then still French Indochina), in 1943 and was then repatriated at the end of the Second World War. One reason she took the posting was to escape the household in Tokyo she had been living in for three years, that of Iba Sugio, the brother of her brother-in-law. Though married to a beautiful woman, Sugio soon had his sights on Yukiko and began to regularly violate her. She went along with it, but seems to have been very ambivalent about the relationship -- practically treated like a prostitute by Sugio, but hardly fighting it.
       In Dalat she encountered two men who came to play important roles in her life: Tomioka Kengo and Kano Kyujiro. It is the married Tomioka that she has a long-lasting, on-and-off affair with that sputters on even after their return to a devastated Japan. It's not a happy love affair, but is a sort of destiny they can't seem to escape; as Yukiko tells him at one point: "The fact that I love you seems very sad to me".
       Kano was also madly in love with her, but she spurned him in Dalat, taking up with Tomioka instead. Kano, however, seems to have been the better man. As the lovers admit:

     "He was such a great patriot -- honest, straightforward."
     "Yes, he wasn't a crafty, sly sort, like us."
       Set mainly in defeated Japan right after the war, Floating Clouds is itself a novel of defeat. Yukiko's occasional plans and ambitions are small and limited. She lives as if in a daze -- "Not knowing what would happen tomorrow, living in what amounted to a shack -- this was her real life". She is fairly independent, but also returns repeatedly to the men from her past. She can not free herself from the hold Tomioka has on her, but she seems almost disgusted by her desire, and she does not force herself on him; when other opportunities arise she takes them, too. He, too, seems ambivalent about their relationship but can't simply cut her loose.
       One New Year's they go away together. Tomioka toys with the idea of committing suicide together, a fitting way out, but instead he winds up having an affair with the young wife of a local (who will eventually follow him to Tokyo, desperate to escape this isolated place, with tragic results). But as Yukio can reflect later:
     They ought to have, and in a way they had, died in Ikaho.
       Their lives continue, together and apart. Iba Sugio goes into the religion business, becoming a leader in the 'Great Sunshine Religion' and earning good money from folks looking for any sort of spiritual support and reassurance (even of the most dubious sort) in these dark postwar years. Yukiko hooks up with him again, and finds herself living in greater (material) comfort, but even in these circumstances:
Although her life was perfectly comfortable, Yukiko was in a perpetual state of emotional starvation.
       Eventually she betrays Iba and his church (though they can afford it) and she and Tomioka head for the hills, as it were -- Tomioka accepting an isolated island-posting far from Tokyo, family, and anyone they know. While still in Tokyo Tomioka complains: "Life in Japan was dreary, and he felt that he had been dragged back to it against his will". The final escape can't bring back the days of Indochina -- he's well aware that, for example, the boat that goes to the island isn't allowed to go any further, into international waters; defeated Japan is an island unto itself, the Japanese forced to stew in their own failure, unable to physically escape it. Tomioka, "sinking into the mindset of a complete vagrant" while still in Tokyo, cuts himself off from all who know him (and does nothing for his dying wife, for example), but his final escape with Yukiko also comes as too little, too late. (It can't come as a surprise that there is no happy ending here.)
       Floating Clouds putters along at an occasionally uneven pace (possibly due in part to the editing of the translation ? see note below), with the transitions in Yukiko's circumstances sometimes rather abrupt and the details of her day-to-day life not consistently detailed.
       Hayashi does use the characters' experiences in Indochina quite effectively: while they are defining experiences, she carefully doses how much she reveals, and when. Kano's role, in Indochina and especially back in Japan, feels a bit underdeveloped, but otherwise this stage in their lives (and its long-lingering aftereffects) is quite well-presented.
       The shift from a focus on Yukiko and her relationships (there's also a brief fling with an American soldier, for example) to a focus on Mr. floating cloud -- Tomioka -- in the final stages of the book feels a bit odd, too, but given the novel's dominant theme of adriftness is appropriate enough.
       Even in its oddly meandering way -- again: appropriate for a novel that means to show those adrift in postwar Japan -- Floating Clouds remains consistently compelling. There are occasional frustrations, especially in Yukiko's odd passivity regarding how men treat her as a sexual object (especially Iba and Tomioka), and one wishes some scenes had more convincing transitions, rather than just presenting:
Yukiko, like a patient receiving a medical examination, let Tomioka do as he pleased. Soon they were sharing, without words, their secret memories and their deepest sorrows.
       While it feels awkwardly truncated throughout (whereby it's unclear whether this is Hayashi's doing, or just the translation), Floating Clouds is still a frequently surprising as well as powerful and moving work -- one that's deeply sad, but not completely gloomy. Quite impressive.

       [Note: A 'Note to the Reader' acknowledges that: "Where necessary, slight abridgment of the original text has been made." The 'necessity' of any abridgment seems rather questionable, the extent of the ... slightness unclear -- but note, for example, that (while it's difficult to compare across languages/page sizes/etc.) the French translation clocks in at nearly five hundred pages .....]

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2013

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Floating Clouds: Reviews: Floating Clouds - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Hayashi Fumiko (林 芙美子) lived 1904 to 1951.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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