Home > 1980, 20th Century, Japanese Literature, Novel, Yoshimura Akira > You’ll be on probation your entire life

You’ll be on probation your entire life

On Parole by Akira Yoshimura 1988. French title: Liberté conditionnelle. Translated from the Japanese by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle.

I intended to read On Parole for Tony’s January in Japan  but I didn’t finish it on time and February flew by and the billet is still to write. Oh, well, c’est la vie!

On Parole is my second book by Akira Yoshimura. I’ve already read La Jeune Fille suppliciée sur une étagère / Le Sourire de pierre which left me perplexed but certain to have met with a great writer, which On Parole confirms.

Yoshimura_On_ParoleShiro Kikutani has been in prison for fifteen years when he’s released on parole. The novel starts with Kukutani’s departure from prison. Kikutani has been released because of his good conduct but also thanks to Akiyama who is willing to hire him when he goes out. So, it is all set for Kikutani: he will work at Akiyama’s chicken farm. During the first months, Kikytani is under the responsibility of Kiyoura, who runs a free home for ex-convicts. Kiyoura takes Kikutani under his wing to help him readapt to life outside of prison. They go shopping, they take the bus and the train and later he assists him with his search for an apartment. After Kikutani has left the ex-convict home for his own apartment, he’s transferred from Kiyoura’s care to Takebayashi’s. Takebayashi is doing pro bono work as an ex-convict counsellor and Kikutani must visit him regularly at home. In French on parole is liberté conditionnelle or conditional freedom. We also use liberté surveillée for probation. Literally, it means freedom under surveillance. I think it reflects well Kikutani’s position in life. His freedom is conditional: he must respect the rules of probation.

We are in Kikutani’s mind and we discover what brought him to prison in the first place. He walked into his wife sleeping with someone else and he killed her on the spot, wounded her lover and killed the lover’s mother by setting the house on fire. We follow Kikutani through his journey back to normal life. Except his life isn’t normal. He’s on parole for life as he has been sentenced to life imprisonment. He has to visit Takebayashi, can’t leave Tokyo without his consent and must report regularly to the authorities. Kiyoura explains to him that since the longest sentence possible is twenty years of imprisonment, if he behaves properly for ten years, he can ask for grace and be totally free again. Although Kikutani is grateful to be out of prison, he also resents that his freedom is not full.

In the beginning, his everyday life is a struggle. Yoshimura describes well how even the smallest tasks are a challenge. For example, Kiyoura recommends that he chooses a low cost hairdresser because they work quicker and are less likely to engage him into small talk. And small talk and banal questions put Kikutani in a spot. Work at the chicken farm is tough but Kikutani holds on and get used to his new schedule and new environment. His body has to readapt to softer conditions: there is no central heating in prison and he’s used to marching instead of walking. Life has changed outside and he’s a bit frightened by crowds everywhere.

Kikutani is lonely. His brother avoids him, his parents are dead and he has lost his former friends. He can’t go back to his home town. He used to be a teacher there and the scandal was too big for him to move back there. He stays alone with his thoughts and doesn’t share anything too personal with Takebayashi either. We realise that he’s been released but he hasn’t atoned for his actions and he still doesn’t regret killing his wife. He’s sorry for the lover’s mother but not for his reaction upon finding his wife in her lover’s arms.

Les longs mois qu’il avait passés en prison à lutter contre l’horrible souvenir et ruminer l’idée que son acte était inévitable avaient exacerbé ses sentiments. Le juge qui avait prononcé la sentence devait compter sur son incarcération pour qu’il regrette son geste, mais il ne regrettait rien, bien au contraire. Cependant, le temps avait adouci ses souvenirs en les estompant, de sorte qu’il ne s’énervait pratiquement plus jamais. C’était le seul soulagement qu’il lui était donné de ressentir, et il ne voulait pas remuer tout cela maintenant. The long months he has spent in prison, fighting against horrible memories and brooding over the idea that his deed had been inevitable had sharpened his feelings. The judge who had sentenced him probably expected that his being in prison would make him regret his bad actions, but he didn’t regret anything, quite the opposite. However, time had soothed his memories by blurring them and now he hardly ever got angry anymore. It was the only relief he could experience and he didn’t want to stir all this now.My translation from the French.Please don’t judge Yoshimura’s style upon this.  

From society’s point of view, it’s a bit chilling. The system has him under surveillance but he never gets real counselling. He’s on the loose and he’s not reformed. Although I acknowledged his struggle, I never really empathised with him. There’s something cold in this man and I felt apprehensive, wondering what kind of drama he was heading to. Through Kikutani’s individual story, I also had the feeling that Yoshimura was criticising a system which seems to coach ex-convicts very well but doesn’t in the end because it doesn’t take their mental state of mind into consideration. They take practicalities into account and the fact that they are estranged from society but they assume that calm and hardworking means well-balanced.

Yoshimura’s style is precise, not much adorned and leaves us with a good vision of Kikutani’s routine and state-of-mind. The construction of the novel is excellent, from one chapter to the other, we discover Kikutani’s past, his thoughts and the net of surveillance set by the Japanese State. We also see the tempest of emotions brewing under his calm composure and I was looking forward to know the ending. On Parole shows that the border between Noir and literary fiction is a thin one, at least for me. We have the same ingredients as in a Noir novel: a murder, a man in a struggling position, fighting against his past and trying to start anew. His wife proved to be his femme fatale. There’s also a feeling of doom.

On Parole is a multi-facetted book and I can only recommend it.

  1. March 9, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    I like to think of this as one as “pure horror” – a book that so unsettled me from start to finish with its calm, almost-gentle manner and utterly disturbing progression. It’s one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, but also one of the most quiet. Yoshimura is a weird and talented writer.

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    • March 10, 2014 at 6:32 pm

      “Pure horror” is a bit strong for me. Compared to La Jeune Fille suppliciée sur une étagère, this one is really soft.
      I wouldn’t call this one “creepy”, unless I don’t fully grasp the meaning of “creepy”. It’s disquieting and disturbing because you can’t help wondering about all the Kikutanis that walk the streets around you.
      Yoshimura quietly explores the worst of human nature, I think. I’m curious about Shipwreck. Have you read it?

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  2. March 9, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Funny: this was one I’d intended to read fro Tony’s month too, but I didn’t have the time. There’s a wonderful film version of this: The Eel–one of my favourite Japanese films

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    • March 10, 2014 at 6:35 pm

      I didn’t know it was made into a film. I haven’t seen it. I want to read No Beast So Fierce soon.

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  3. March 10, 2014 at 3:10 am

    This sounds good, I find a lot of JapLit creepy though … All that emotion so powerfully repressed, I suppose…

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    • March 10, 2014 at 6:42 pm

      It’s an excellent book, Lisa. I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature but this is one of the best I’ve read. This was a story set in Japan but it could have been written by any other writer. It’s basically human experience and I’m not sure Yoshimura handles the topic differently from a Western writer.

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      • March 11, 2014 at 9:14 am

        I’ll check it out, I’m looking for some J-Lit to like!

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        • March 11, 2014 at 11:06 am

          I struggle with J-Lit too but this one I really liked.

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          • March 11, 2014 at 11:13 am

            Then that’s a doubly-good recommendation, thank you!

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  4. Brian Joseph
    March 10, 2014 at 11:36 am

    Sounds very compelling. These character studies of troubled souls can be so effective yet disturbing.

    Very good point about Noir and Literary Fiction. I tend to think that any Genre book can be considered Literary Fiction if it contains that right elements and if those elements work.

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    • March 10, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      It’s really worth reading, Brian.
      Like I’ve already said, I’m not good at recognising subgenres. I can never pick the right one. Usually we say that some Noir are so good that they deserve the Literary Fiction tag. (example: Chandler) Here, I think this Literary Fiction book overlaps with Noir.

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  5. March 11, 2014 at 10:36 am

    Very interesting. I’m not sure it would be for me right now but some time in the future I’d like to pick it up. I haven’t read him yet. Which one would you recommend more? This or the first you’ve read? I’m surprise he came out of prison at all after what he did.

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    • March 11, 2014 at 11:06 am

      I recommend this one first, definitely. I think you’d like it. Max has reviewed Shipwreck and I remember he likes it a lot too.

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  6. March 26, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    I reviewed both Shipwreck and One Man’s Justice and liked both a lot (particularly one mans). This is on my must read pile if it’s translated into English, the link to the Eel interested me anyway and your review makes a very strong case for it.

    Yoshimura is great at these protagonists one can’t wholly sympathise with. The protagonist of One Man’s Justice suffers terribly, but he actually is quite clearly a war criminal which puts the reader in a difficult position in terms of sympathy. It makes Yoshimura a really interesting and challenging author.

    The Eel is a great movie, I’m totally with Guy there. Genuinely very good indeed.

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    • March 26, 2014 at 11:32 pm

      It’s been translated into English, you can read it if you want.
      You feel a bit ill at ease with his characters. They look so “normal” (if normal means anything) and yet they aren’t. I didn’t sympathise much Kikutani probably because he doesn’t regret what he’s done. Call it the Pavlovian reflex of a Christian background but it’s difficult to sympathise with someone who isn’t remorseful.

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  1. June 12, 2014 at 10:44 pm
  2. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am

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