The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue
In postwar Japan, three women struggle to come to terms with the dark side of love.
Yasushi Inoue (井上 靖) became a novelist in 1949 with the publication of The Hunting Gun (猟銃) and Bullfight (闘牛). He went on to win numerous literary awards and establish himself as one of Japan’s most prolific modern writers.
Michael Emmerich has published a dozen book-length translations of works by Japanese writers. He is also the editor of two books for Japanese-language students: Read Real Japanese: Fiction and New Penguin Parallel Texts: Short Stories in Japanese.
Remember the age of letter-writing—that distant time before email? It was an age when confession took the form of ink and envelope, when secrets took time to reveal themselves. It’s just that kind of slow unravelling that makes The Hunting Gun such a powerful story. Chosen as one of the Best Books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, Michael Emmerich’s translation of Inoue’s debut novella is the tale of a love triangle that unfolds in three letters.
Set in Japan just after the Second World War, the novella opens from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who’s recently published a poem called “The Hunting Gun,” inspired by a hunter he encountered in the mountains of Izu. The two don’t speak, but something about that gleaming steel against the stranger’s tall, straight back moves the narrator to write about loneliness. Two months after the poem’s publication, the narrator receives a letter from a man who claims to be the hunter, Jōsuke Misugi. Moved by the narrator’s poetic insight, Jōsuke writes that he has three letters in his possession which he’d planned to burn, but “having read your poem and learnt of your existence, I find myself wanting to share them with you.”
Three letters follow: one from Jōsuke’s lover’s daughter, Shōko; one from his wife, Midori; and one from his lover, Saiko. The narrator first reads the letter from Shōko. Raised by a divorcee with the help of friends, Shōko loves Jōsuke and his wife Midori like family, only to learn of her mother and Jōsuke’s affair the day before Saiko’s death. In her letter, Shōko thanks Jōsuke for all his support with Saiko’s funeral, but writes that she can no longer see him or his wife without feeling the guilt of the affair.
Midori’s letter is a heart-wrenching confession from an unfaithful wife whose own affairs were fueled by the knowledge of Jōsuke’s decade-long infidelity. Midori accuses Jōsuke of living a life “entirely free of loneliness” while she submerged her own passion in a series of meaningless high-society affairs, “until at last we found ourselves living here within this magnificently frozen world.” Midori recalls the many moments their marriage could’ve ended, wondering why she never exposed the affair. She confesses that she felt angry and helpless beside her more beautiful, more graceful friend, Saiko, but her language is imbued with the chilling power of a woman with a window into a secret world.
The final letter is a posthumous goodbye from Jōsuke’s beloved Saiko. In the letter she reveals her truest self, and she imagines Jōsuke briefly reigniting her life force as he reads it: “the second you cut the seal and lower your eyes … my life will flare up again and burn with all its former vigour, and then for fifteen or twenty minutes, until you read the very last word, my life will flow as it did when I was alive into every limb, every little corner of your body…”
Each letter reveals the paradox of the human heart, which yearns to connect but holds itself away from others. The novella’s most striking image is that of a retreating back— Jōsuke’s tall mountain silhouette; Saiko’s small, bent back on the day of her death; Midori turned away on a sofa in a cool afternoon breeze. Each image leaves you wondering if the characters will turn around. Similarly, reading each letter is like watching the back of someone close to you, wondering if they’ll turn toward you, or move further away.
Inoue’s prose is beautifully translated by Emmerich, who gives each letter its own distinctive yet approachable style, and uses subtle spelling cues to tell us that we’re not in our own time. The book itself, exquisitely designed by Pushkin Press, is small and slender. It reminds us what it feels like to hold a secret in both hands.