Toshio Oki, a fifty-four-year-old novelist. He is a sentimental man, in the ascetic and reserved manner of the Japanese aesthetic. When Toshio was thirty years old and newly married, he had an affair with a fifteen-year-old girl. He later fictionalized this affair, and the resulting book became his best, most acclaimed, and most enduring novel. He sets the present-time action of the novel going with an impulsive action: He arranges to meet his former mistress and to listen with her to the tolling of temple bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Instead of resulting in the hoped-for insight and perspective, the meeting brings more involvement; Toshio finds himself starting a romance, parallel to his first affair, with his former mistress’s young protegée, meeting the same dilemmas and making the same flawed choices.
Otoko Ueno, a traditional Japanese painter who, at the age of fifteen, was Toshio’s mistress. A reflective woman, she spends much of her time reminiscing, musing about her life and the poignant, never-to-be-spoken feelings that became the subjects of her paintings. Although she has a firmly established career and a new lover, her affair with Toshio, their love, the stillborn baby they conceived, and her eventual mental breakdown and hospitalization are still the foremost events in her life. Otoko wonders whether she should attribute the hold that the affair has over her to the power of art rather than to an enduring grand passion. Toshio’s novel, although idealized, has kept their affair alive in the memory of the public. Otoko herself has forged an attachment to her lost baby by working on an idealized portrait, a picture of a child she never saw. Although she had been Toshio’s saucy young lover, the main mark of her character is reflection. She is largely passive as her unreserved young companion undertakes to complete the story of Toshio and Otoko’s affair.
Keiko Sakami, Otoko’s student, companion, and lover. She is young, full of passionate energy, and without reserve, even ruthless, in her actions. She is beautiful, reminding many of the young Otoko. Although she asserts that she hates men, she has no reservations about using her powers of seduction against them. To Otoko’s horror, she announces her plan to avenge Otoko on Toshio and his family. It may be that the revenge is directed as much against Otoko as for her benefit. Although she does cause Toshio some trouble with his wife, she does nothing against him that she might not have done had she merely wanted to be his lover. Later, however, she seduces his shy son, Taichiro. Knowing that he cannot swim, she entices him into a motorboat. She survives an apparent accident, and he dies by drowning.
Fumiko, Toshio’s wife. Formerly an office typist, she is now established in the life and sentiments of an Oriental wife and mother. Newly married and in her early childbearing years when Toshio started his affair, she reacted sometimes with jealous rage and sometimes with displays of tragedy. In one of the latter, she had endangered the health of her baby, the young Taichiro. When she read Toshio’s novel about the affair, she suffered a miscarriage. Still later, she became reconciled to the affair, even saying that she should have given Toshio his freedom. In the present time of the novel, Fumiko’s rage and tragic pathos have muted, and she and Toshio have made a kind of peace over the affair. It is neither forgotten nor an open rift between them.
Taichiro, Toshio’s son, a university professor specializing in traditional Japanese literature. Shy and scholarly, and still living with his parents, he has not, despite his advanced position, become fully his own man. He is a committed antiquarian, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Japanese history and literature, subjects he is afraid may die from inattention. He is taken aback by Keiko’s ignorance of her own heritage; nevertheless, he is easy prey for...
(The entire section is 1,292 words.)