In November, Shawn Mahler, creative director for Nagoya Players, released his debut novel named Chizawa Bay: As Ugly As I Am. Set in a fictional rural town at the Japanese seaside, it is a collection of stories that will take you on a journey as you get to know the town, its people and the true livelihood of Chizawa bay.
About the auteur
Shawn Mahler has been a prominent figure in the Japanese theatre world. He has written, directed and produced multiple stage plays in Japan for quite some years now and it is his experience of, dedication to and respect for Japan that made him decide to write a book, based on the various things he encountered while living and travelling through Japan in the past 15 years. He was able to make it in a very interesting way in the Japanese theatre world. As the creative director of his group, Nagoya Players, he managed to grab attention and make theatre performances with a diverse group of native Japanese and non-Japanese people. Next to his theatre work, he has made multiple short films and documentaries. Aside from that, he works together with a variety of organisations to produce interesting projects. That alone was enough to be convinced to give the novel he wrote a more in-depth look.
Now, if you’re familiar with life in the rural parts of Japan, Chizawa Bay: As Ugly As I Am, will certainly speak to you. Even if you’ve watched movies or drama set in those parts or just enjoy the bay area you will surely like it. From the start, his way of writing and describing the environment, people and situations really speak to the public. It’s easy to make a visual image while reading, and imagine the story unfolding in front of you.
About the book
“A man from Tokyo once said the people of Chizawa were as ugly and sour as the oysters they caught. The same man after having learned to properly shuck and savour Chizawa oysters quickly changed his tune”
Excerpt from Chizawa Bay: As Ugly As I Am
The book starts off with a detailed description of the small town, in a humoristic way that leaves a lot up to your imagination but is also realistic enough to give you a good idea of the situation unfolding. It helps to have some knowledge of the way Japanese people go about their lives and decisions in their time. Even the description of the town’s inhabitants goes into so much detail, you will have a clear view of the people living there and Chizawa Bay’s landscaping.
Even though the setting is a small town, you’ll find elements in there you might not expect. Like a hint towards a red light district and ties with local yakuza keeping things in check next to the usual ‘useless’ person just winging it in life, Chinese immigrants, farmers, believers and a Buddhist monk named Taizo Hayashi with an interesting track record regarding his career among many other villagers.
One day, Taizo suddenly owns a cursed ship named Ozora due to a certain event involving the former captain of said ship. At first, it doesn’t really faze you until you get further into the story, it turns out that it seems to be an important link between the different characters and their lives as she makes her way through Chizawa Bay. It is also not the only boat you’ll encounter but since it is a bay area you would expect nothing less.
The story about two rivalling towns that had a lot of recoveries to do after the Second World War as all of Japan did, is as interesting as it is filled with humour. In this one, a lumberjack from Hokkaido named Kazunobu Suzuki plays one of the main roles while he is trying to get the youth that’s roaming the streets and joining gangs onto the right path by introducing various ballgames into their lives. It went well for a certain game but it also didn’t since there was a mayor that had to flee the town he was responsible for, as to why that happened and who the mayor is? You’ll have to check out the book.
After reading this book you might understand what Japanese people mean when they say it surprises them to hear people not from there talk about household brand names or even just regular day to day products that are mostly unknown. Aside from the big names of course. It’s refreshing to see such a perspective. You will recognise the Japanese language frequently used in day to day life and that’s a fun addition giving you a sense of familiarity. The interaction between characters is also very entertaining and well thought out, the author’s experience in creating stageplays is prominent.
This novel is not a long one and the chapters are relatively short, but every one of the 34 chapters is telling you a story from a different perspective, with characters recurring wherever while still making sense even if the story might not. From time to time the author will take you back to a story to tell us what happened next too. But that is the fun thing about this book. The way you perceive a sense of humour is particular, Shawn uses the type of humour that resonates with Japanese people and that is truly an art when you’re not from Japan. It shows that his knowledge of the culture and the people is at such a level that he is creating successful works popular in Japan.
All in all, without spoiling what the stories are about or who the characters are, it’s really enjoyable to read this book and it was a pleasure to write a review about it. If you like diverse stories set in an environment that speaks to life in a rural Japanese town with a colourful cast giving you a peek into their lives while sometimes intertwining, it is highly recommended to open this book and enjoy your time in Chizawa Bay. The subtitle being As Ugly As I Am is a very true statement but that makes it even more enjoyable.