My quest to burn through a list I’ve made of Haikasoru editions I want to read is now complete, at least if you don’t count the LoGH volumes I still haven’t gotten to. And the last item on that list was this very book – Dendera by Satou Yuuya, whom you might associate with that one story in the Faust anthologies. And so, I had bought a copy of the English translation of it a while ago and finished it recently. If you give the blurb a read, it sounds like the least appealing thing ever – some grandmas are fighting a bear. Why all the praise then? This novel even got made into a live action film around ten years ago. What’s it about?
The Village, like many other settlements, practices “ubasute” – discarding the old when they’re no longer productive. However, they made “Climbing the Mountain” into a sacralized custom, not an unfortunate incident that happens sometimes. Every resident gets carried to the hallowed Mountain towering over the Village at the age of seventy. As it happens in magically thinking, superstitious societies of the Traditional Era, with time, mere customs become sacred rituals that *must* be performed. The protagonist, Saitou Kayu is seventy and completely at peace with her upcoming death on the icy peak. But, Kayu survives. Turns out that on the other side of the mountain, grannies abandoned by the Village and sent away to die built their own settlement called Dendera. Dendera sends expeditions to the Mountain in winter to retrieve discarded old women and Kayu has just become their latest finding. When Kayu wakes up, however, she’s not content. She rages against her wrinkly comrades for rescuing her. Because she’s wanted to die. This grandma is a bit of a contrarian, unfortunately for the rest of the settlement. And fortunately for the reader – making the protag to be at odds with everyone else makes for some compelling storytelling, after all.
The Village with a capital V, the Mountain with a capital M. The story may be happening everywhere or nowhere in particular. Not in some fixed place in time and space. It’s completely ahistorical. It even begins with the words “once upon a time”. All the hints we get about the moment in history this story might be taking place in is: people know rifles and potatoes. Considering this and the characters having oldtimey Japanese grandma names, it couldn’t have happened that long ago. As if that even matters. There’s more to the impression of unreality this story makes – the grandmas are surprisingly lively for people over seventy. They’re action girls, constantly fighting hard for survival. Hunting, defending their village and having deep existential conversations no senile grandma could force her brain to have. The oldest one of them is one hundred years old, too. There’s fifty of them still alive at the beginning of the novel, even in the extreme conditions of Dendera. Does that count as some kind of magical realism? Maybe Dendera is one big parable? An allegory? An allegory of what, though?
Upon awakening, Kayu gets to meet the founder and leader of Dendera, Mitsuya Mei – the strong and angry woman who not only gave the women (and only women) thrown out of the Village a safe haven, but is also plotting bloody revenge on the patriarchal, traditional society of her old living place. A raid, a horde of grannies with caveman-like spears attacking the Village. A plan which frankly has no chance of succeeding. She declared violence to be forbidden in Dendera and created a small community of equals working together towards a common goal… Or so it seems at first, because Dendera is divided into two factions, one in favor of war (the Hawks) and the other one prefering to just focus on being productive (the Doves). Kayu, having lived a meek, hard-working life in the cruel and squalid Village, is now very angry about not getting to die properly on the side of the Mountain. Maybe because she’s indoctrinated, she sees her survival as disgraceful. Landing in Dendera is a fate worse than death to her. Her missed opportunity to die at seventy means she ended up breaking the natural, ages-old order of things. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s the only person in the village who thinks so. The other grannies are simply glad to have survived. So, what is Dendera about? Maybe it’s the story of Kayu gradually changing her mind? She would go from opinion XYZ to its antithesis by the end of the novel. A classically built story. A dynamic character. Or rather, is it a story of the good old opposition between the Left – the female victims, and the Right – the male oppressors? Or rather, is the main conflict between Kayu, with her discontent about Dendera, and Mitsuya Mei with her revolutionary zeal?
The previous few years around the Mountain were rather lean. For the Village, for Dendera, and for someone else. While Mei is getting ready to attack the Village, Dendera gets attacked by a hungry female bear and her cub. We even get several chapters written from the perspective of the bear – it’s a stupid, egoistic and vain beast. Several women are killed and the village’s reserves of food take a serious blow. Mitsuya Mei’s ambitious plans have to be put on hold and killing the bear becomes the priority. And so Dendera begins in earnest. It’s an endless shitstorm of a story. Things constantly go south, disasters happen one after another in quick succession, and the number of Dendera’s residents is dropping fast. The old women need to either repel the bear with their meager resources (to varying degrees of success), endure extreme hunger, fight among each other when the bear’s gone, or deal with an epidemic. At a point, Mei dies and power over Dendera changes hands. Idealistic rules get canned in favor of pursuing survival… And, meanwhile, in the midst of all the chaos Kayu is trying to figure out her new “creed”, a new way of living in these before-unknown circumstances. One untouched by lies and everything fake… Hasn’t Satou mentioned he’s into Salinger once?
In the end, Dendera ends up ruined, Kayu is hardly alive, and the plague turns out not to be a plague (and the novel turns out to have been a murder mystery, with the reader having no idea there’s a mystery to solve). As the last surviving member of Dendera, Kayu lures the bear to the Village and the novel ends abruptly. I guess she finally got her wish – to die – granted.
Sigh… What was Dendera about? Is there a neat, short way to answer this question? It was not a parable of anything. You could say it’s a tale of women’s revenge against society… if only they ever got to that. The number one factor that decided of the village’s destruction was a damn bear. A female one, too. No grand war against the Village ever happened. So, that interpretation’s off the mark. The novel repeatedly uses the word “creed” and implies Kayu finally found hers in the end… expect you can’t have much of a creed if you’re dead, and the proposition was unconvincing to begin with. Kayu’s beliefs never were consistent, really. I guess you could say that’s because of her having gone through a journey to gain that consistency… if only she didn’t fail at that. I’ve said plenty of disparaging things about this book, but in the end… it’s worth a spin. It’s a thrilling read at least, and even if it doesn’t have a clear idea to convey, it still leaves you with plenty of food for thought. Go read it. I’ve tried to somehow get my hands on the live action movie based on Dendera, to no avail. Then again, this story is probably best consumed in book form, where you don’t notice the weirdness of seventy-plus grandmas being all exuberant and full of vitality. Then again, the thought of seeing a movie with a 100% elderly cast does make me curious.