Call of the Wild

Reviewed by Pico Iyer
Sunday, March 23, 2008


An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain

By Martha Sherrill

Penguin Press. 237 pp. $25.95

Japan is so good at presenting itself in its official, public capacity that it is often seen as something of a faceless collective, more of a phenomenon or a curiosity than a country of 127 million often wildly idiosyncratic souls. Year after year foreigners alight on the island nation and, reading its formal (impassive) face, pronounce expertly on the conformity of public Japan, on the way it turns everything we know inside out (offering 2-and-3 counts at the ballpark), on the strangeness of its yellow-haired punks. The result is that we have a library of books on Japan as the science-fictive home of alienation and very little on the Japanese as complex human beings.

Only a handful of visitors have tried to approach the country through sympathetic imagination and not through surfaces or statistics, let alone analysis (the last about as useful as approaching a bowl of noodles with a knife and fork). Donald Richie, the finest English-language writer on Japan and mostly resident in Tokyo since 1947, has caught the human factor indelibly in works such as The Inland Sea. A few others, like Leila Philip in The Road Through Miyama, her quiet, attentive account of working with a Japanese potter in the countryside, have found an ordinariness behind the Lost in Translation oddities.

Now, to that very small number, can be added Martha Sherrill, one of the most open and responsive writers around, whose special gift is for entering other lives so deeply that we feel their longings, their confinements as our own. In Dog Man, Sherrill takes her gifts for empathy and concentration even deeper than she did in The Buddha from Brooklyn, her account of a former psychic who was suddenly declared to be the incarnation of a 17th-century Tibetan Buddhist saint. In her new book, Sherrill tells the spellbindingly beautiful and affecting story of Morie and Kitako Sawataishi as they have gone through their days, raising Akita dogs, for more than 60 years in the dark and unforgiving "snow country" of northern Japan.

Japan's faraway Siberia rarely features in magazines or on TV broadcasts because it's so still and remote. And yet, for that same reason, it has always appealed to some of the country's defining artists -- from Matsuo Basho to Yasunari Kawabata -- as, perhaps, the soul of a purer, truer way of life that is now almost lost. For Morie, who, when away, "craved the whiteness, and the cold, and the way the sloped roofs of the snow country houses looked against a snowy hillside," the austere landscape is the only home he trusts. For Kitako, from a fashionable part of Tokyo, what was most striking, when she arrived in this forgotten area with her new husband, was the absence of hot water, gas and electricity in their house -- and snow on the ground for six months of every year.

Not long after returning to his native mountains in 1944, having served as a decorated hero in the navy, Morie suddenly decided to take in his first Akita. So many of the famously loyal, sturdy creatures had been killed for their pelts or even eaten during the desperate days of the war that only a dozen or so remained. Very soon, the dogs became his life. They accompanied him on his walks around the mountains at dawn, and he started to take them to shows, where they won prizes. Yet with each dog he gave his life to, he also came to suffer. One of them died after apparently being poisoned, and the brusque and solitary Morie "began to cry in a way Kitako had never seen before." Another was stolen and sold for a six-figure sum to a stranger in Osaka. One tried to tackle a wild bear.

Sherrill takes us into all these dramas with the warm attention and spirited sympathy of an Alice Munro or a Monica Ali. She rarely cuts away from the snowy landscape where Morie and Kitako live, and yet all of Japan's recent history comes out through their reminiscences. We travel to Manchuria with them in the early 1940s, return to Japan with Kitako after Pearl Harbor, and see her sell her two best kimonos for three days' worth of rice. "All of Japan was so dark," the old woman tells Sherrill now. "Tokyo had turned to ashes. No one could escape a sense of loss." The couple's fifth child died when a doctor in a horse-drawn cart could not arrive soon enough. A wild-bear hunter arrived at the door, with a fox pelt around his neck and shavings of dried gall bladder from a Moon Bear that he dropped into his tea. Readers familiar with the movies of Hayao Miyazaki ("My Neighbor Totoro" or "Spirited Away") will recognize the dusky pastoral landscapes filled with spirits that are daily slipping from our view.

The people I know in Japan are extraordinarily intense and devoted in their passions precisely because they tend to be so self-denying and restrained in public. And Morie and Kitako feel like figures I see every day in my neighborhood in Nara, as he trains all his stoical warmth on his dogs while she gallantly finds ways to keep things together during his many absences. As the two of them raise children -- one becomes a vet, one flees snow country to work for Vidal Sassoon in New York -- their lives gather a shape and continuity (you could even say a meaning) that are ever more sustaining as bullet-trains and large highways begin to appear all around them.

By the end of Dog Man, as Morie and Kitako pass through their 80s, we have come to know, and feel, their lives so fully that the smallest detail -- Morie finally thanking Kitako in public -- can bring tears. The dogs (ever cuter but lacking spirit, Morie feels) clearly mirror something in modern Japan, as well as something in the gruff, down-to-earth country boy and the high-heeled girl from Tokyo who came to see the beauty in a forbidding landscape. Indeed, Sherrill somehow extends the story so deeply that it seems to stand for choices in all our lives. As high-tech Japan grows ever more clamorous and revved-up, the Sawataishis' grandchildren start to visit the two elders more and more for the purity and stillness of their lives. What once had seemed like a chilly exile comes to seem like a simple, bounded sanity that is, in truth, the greatest luxury of all. *

Pico Iyer's new book is "The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama." He has lived in western Japan for more than 20 years.

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