Kojiki Is a Mythic Story of Ancient and Modern Japan

kojikiI’m a huge fan of books that send me on spiraling internet searches, digital walkabouts that start in one place, and wind up somewhere completely different. Kojiki is one of those books, spinning away from a neat, accessible introduction into an exploration of a myriad of creatures and the worlds to contain them. In many ways, Keith Yatsuhashi’s debut novel is an origin story, like the ancient tome of the same name—the oldest extant chronicle of Japan. The original Kojiki is, among other things, the creation story of Japan, and a bestiary of sorts, describing the Kami, semi-deities who embody and personify anything from natural forces to local geography. Though the Kami predate Shinto, they were folded into and expanded upon in that religion, a living understanding of the living world, one that changes as the world does.

And so, to origins: we start, watching through the camera eye of a young woman, Keiko Yamada, as she captures an image of the torii—the Shinto gate—in her father’s native Japan. He’s disappeared and is presumed dead; Keiko took the one-way ticket he left for her in her home town, New York, sending her to his. Keiko is on the razor’s edge: somewhere between girl and woman, between American and Japanese, and in that long trough of grief that follows the death of both of one’s parents. She’s an orphan now, alone, trying to understand her past, and her father’s.

On a guided tour through the Ginza district of Tokyo, Keiko bounds off after a white rabbit of sorts, and finds herself face to face with the Kami of Fire in his weakening prison. She’s chased by Fiyorok, a dragon of fire. Helped along by her ersatz tour guide, Yui Akiko, she runs through the Tokyo subway as it burns behind them. Yui is the youngest Kami, but still ancient, and she knew and loved Keiko’s father when he was young. Keiko has been pulled into a family drama, the godly sort, one that spans millennia and worlds. As with many origin stories, it’s not enough to know what happened, we need to know why. Keiko will be more than tested before her journey is at an end.

But this is not just Keiko’s story, as she matriculates into what she could be. This is also the story of primordial forces—earth, air, water, and fire, and so much else—as they jockey and scheme the way only the gods can: with devastating consequences for us all. The Kami and their Guardians work through the weakening Boundary of the world. Their backstories remind me of the Greek gods: petty, human, larger-than-life, archetypal. Love and jealousy, desire and need, hurt and hope.

The ancient Kojiki contains the origin story of Japan. This one has a more global perspective, trotting from the Carpathian mountains to the waters just off of Florida, but still centers itself on the Japanese islands. They form the crux of earth, wind, fire, and ocean, burned up out of the sea on the backs of volcanoes, in a part of the world we call the Ring of Fire. But its people, and its Kami, have spread out from those small islands into the bones of the world and the breath of the skies. And here, the Kami of Fire is poised to lay waste to the world.

It’s a cliché to note that post-War kaiju films like Godzilla were fueled by the terror the atom bomb rained down on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Japan still reels from those fires, and fires of a different sorts: the Fukushima reactor overtaken by tsunami, steaming there on the edge of the water and the land. The time until we can return to that place is best measured on a geologic scale. It makes sense to invoke the Kami in this global-yet-local way, the country as a bellwether for the tidal forces that affect us all. Yatshuhashi’s Kojiki is broader than the original myth, but strangely more personal: one girl on the journey to the missing life story of her father, and her own life story, just beginning.

Kojiki is available now.

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