Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1195
It is a hot, lazy summer in an isolated mountain village in Japan. Floods have washed out the only direct link to town, a suspension bridge. The teacher refuses to travel the long, treacherous path along the ridge, so the village children find time on their hands.
The narrator of this story is searching for bone fragments in the village crematory when Harelip, the local Tom Sawyer, appears with a wild-dog puppy that he has captured. Suddenly the narrow sky of the valley is filled with the shadow and roar of an enormous airplane.
Harelip shouts that it is an enemy plane, and the dog escapes in the confusion, but a more important “catch” is at hand. The next morning, the children of the village awake to find an ominous silence and all the adults gone. They are out searching for downed American airmen. The distant war, noted only by the absence of young men from the village and an occasional death notice, does not have much meaning for the children until the adults return late in the day from the mountains. They bring with them an enormous black man. The boy is reminded of a boar hunt, the hunters silently circled around the captive, who has the chain from a boar trap around his legs.
The enemy excites both fear and curiosity among the children. He is put into the cellar of the communal storehouse and a guard is posted. The storehouse is a large building, and the boy and his younger brother live on the second floor with their father, an impoverished hunter. His gun, always at the ready on the wall, “gave a kind of focus” to their “humble home.” They have no furniture, and food is hard to come by in the war years. Yet the boy is excited at the thought of sleeping in the same building as the exotic prisoner who has fallen into their midst.
At first the captive is kept under close guard and treated as a dangerous animal. His smell is overpowering, and he seems like an animal to the children. The next day the boy goes with his father to town, to sell some weasel skins and to report the capture. The boy is uncomfortable in the town, conscious of his poverty and dirtiness. The local officials will not take the prisoner off the hands of the village until they receive orders from the prefecture offices. The boy and his father return to the village at sunset with the unwelcome news.
The boy carries food down into the dark cellar, guarded by his father, who has his shotgun ready. At first the captive only stares at the food, and the boy realizes in shame that the poor dinner might be rejected. The black man, however, suddenly devours the meal. Gradually the boy loses his fear of the American as they bring him food every day, and vigilance is relaxed: “I began to feel that he was docile and quiet, like some gentle animal.”
The village elders are angered when they learn from the clerk sent out from town that they will have the responsibility of guarding the prisoner until the officials decide what to do. The boy and his friends begin to have a proprietary interest in the captive. The other children are envious of the boy’s privileged role, carrying food to the catch twice a day. He does share one task with Harelip, carrying out once a day the heavy wooden tub that the black man uses. They carry the evil-smelling liquid to the village manure heap.
As time passes, the adults return to their fields, and the children spend more time with the captive, hoping that orders from town will not appear. Noticing that the captive’s leg is bloody from the boar trap, the boy and Harelip find a key and release him with initial trepidation, but they find him well behaved. Even the adults in the village accept the idea that the captive is actually human, as gentle as a tame animal. They let him use tools to fix the boar trap. They form an almost “human” bond, coming to trust him.
One morning, the one-legged clerk from town has a bad fall on the path to the village, damaging the metal attachment of his false leg. The children, who fear the worst, are delighted to hear that he was coming simply to tell them that there was still no word from the prefect. In good spirits, they take his leg and the village toolbox down into the cellar, where the captive quickly fixes it. He is taken outside in celebration, and the clerk gives him a cigarette.
After that, the children often invite the captive out of the cellar to walk through the village. The adults come to accept this, and he is even allowed to wander around the village alone. The women lose their fear and give him food from their own hands. The children take him to the village spring, where they all strip naked and splash in the water. The black man’s wet body “shone like the body of a black horse; it was perfect and beautiful.” The boy thinks that he is a splendid animal, an animal of great intelligence.
The trust and respect disappear, however, when the clerk reappears on a rainy day. As the adults assemble, the prisoner senses that he is about to be taken away, and he grabs the boy and drags him to the cellar and locks the door. The boy is shocked and hurt as he realizes his sudden danger. The airman has turned back into the dangerous beast that he was when first captured. As the grown-ups break into the cellar, the captive uses the boy as a shield. The boy’s father plunges a hatchet into the boy’s hand and the captive’s skull.
When he recovers, the boy is in a daze with a bandaged hand. He screams until his father and the other adults leave. Gradually he learns that the villagers wanted to cremate the captive, but that the clerk brought orders calling it off. They put the body in an unused mine, but the smell penetrates the village.
The story ends in irony. Paying another visit, the clerk notices the children using the lightweight tail of the American plane as a sled on the grass. In a playful mood, he decides to give it a try, but he hurtles into a rock and is killed. He will be cremated using the wood collected to cremate the American captive.
Style and Technique
e is one of the most original writers in Japan. He successfully uses humor and pathos, brutality and gentleness in the same work. He uses the juxtaposition to create a realistic, yet somehow absurd, view of the world. To express it another way, his writing exposes the absurdity of the world. In “The Catch,” he uses the voice and innocence of a child to tell the story. The use of a young narrator allows him to introduce humorous elements of childish enthusiasm that make the final tragedy all the more appalling.