Yūya Satō (佐藤 友哉) describes himself as a writer of ‘strange fiction’. This is accurate. At just 40-years-old, we hope and expect more from the Japanese writer in translation.
As this interesting personality from Hokkaido has already won the Mephisto Prize and Yukio Mishima Prize for writings in Japanese.
His first and only English-translated Japanese novel, Dendera, was made available in 2015 thanks to Nathan Collins and Edwin Hawkes translation. Published by Vis Media’s literary imprint Haikasoru: offering the best in ‘Japanese science fiction, fantasy and horror.’
Japanese Original (2009); English translation (2015)
Dendera opens with a scene of 'Ubasute' (姥捨て), which translates to ‘abandoning an old woman’ or ‘throwing away women’. This is the mythical practice in Japan during which an elderly woman was carried to a remote mountain and left to die there brutally by exposure.
Yūya Satō highlights the ‘once-upon-a-time voice’ of this novel. This feels right. As a mystical and eerie feel hits the reader from the start. What follows is a story of gore, violence and mortality featuring elderly woman and a ravenous bear. Yes… really.
Protagonist Kayu Saitoh lives in ‘The Village’. By Ubasute, she is escorted up to ‘The Mountain’ and abandoned on her 70th birthday. We are told this is a standard village practice to restrain the population and manage farming resources…
Yet she survives. Instead, she wakes up in a new and unfamiliar community – Dendera – a female-only utopia where abandoned woman have been rescued and gathered. (Kayu finds out she was taken here after losing consciousness on the mountain).
As their leader, Mei Matsuyu, says:
"Of course there are no men! Why the hell would I want to save any men?"
But these woman face a challenge… an enormous and starving mother bear attacks their community. Kayu is now challenged to use her mind for the first time (in contrast to her old manual labour) and work with these other woman to trap the bear.
The prose is blunt and brutal. We feel uncertain of the time frame. And the violent descriptions are extreme. All this combine to draw Dendera comparisons with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. There are some stunning, philosophical discussions on mortality and meaning. The reader also takes in part of the story through the eyes of the bear – asking us to find a line between human and beast.
Yūya Satō is masterful in his depiction of the woman working together to defend themselves against the bear; and as a result, this novel has been praised for its feminist undertones.
This folklore-type horror that will live long in the memory. A strange masterpiece of speculative fiction in translation.
(Dendera was inspired by Shichiro Fukazawa’s classic novel ‘The Ballad of Narayama’ and adapted into film in 2011 by Daisuke Tengan, son of famous Japanese director Shohei Imamura.)
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