"A Family Supper" concerns the difficulty of different generations communicating in one Japanese family. After several years of living in California, the son, who remains nameless, returns to Japan two years after his mother’s death, about which he knew little. She died by eating—out of politeness to a friend—the poisonous fish called “fugu.” The implication is that allegiance to Japanese tradition had something to do with her death, and this grows in thematic significance as we learn that the young man’s father is “in retirement” because his longtime business partner recently committed suicide, taking his family with him. Indeed, death hovers throughout the story, especially as the son and his sister, who visits for dinner, reminisce over a childhood memory of a ghost in the backyard well. As the family haltingly talks over dinner, slowly eating a fish the father has prepared, no one speaks of the fugu that killed the mother, although father and son agree that the business partner made a mistake in his suicide and the murder of his family. The father, meanwhile, encourages the son to stay in Japan, but the son remains noncommittal about his plans. Nothing is resolved at the end of the story, when, as the narrator says, “We fell silent once more.”
The story is told from the first-person point of view of the son, but because he reflects on little, the information could as easily be revealed through a very objective third-person narrator. We learn a few facts; we hear dialogue; but the narrator does not tell us his feelings, indicate his reaction to the events of the story, or offer much background information. Indeed, the narrator’s lack of communication—with the other characters as well as with himself and his audience—shapes an important theme of the story: the clash in values between the generation (represented by the father and mother) that governed Japan immediately after Word War II and the succeeding generation (represented by the son and his sister).
The story opens with the narrator explaining that fugu, a fish caught off the shores of Japan and popular in the years after the war, can cause a painful and immediate death because it contains a poison in its sexual glands. It must, therefore, be carefully prepared to be eaten, but one wonders why anyone would dare do so if it is so dangerous. Regardless, the narrator’s mother died from eating this fish, prepared by a friend, two years before the son returns on a visit to Japan after living in California for a number of years. He had not known about this, because while he was abroad, his “relationship with [his] parents had become rather strained.”
Conversation between father and son is difficult, but eventually the father tells his son that his business partner, Watanabe, killed himself when the business collapsed, for “he did not wish to live with the disgrace.” The son’s response, “I see,” is typical of the lack of substantial communication in this family. The father admires his friend’s action, calling him “a fine man. A man of principle.” Now in retirement, he himself is uncertain of his plans for the future, but he is beginning to think there is more to life than work and hopes his son has come back to Japan to stay. “I for one am prepared to forget the past,” he tells his son as they wait for Kikuko, the younger sister, to arrive.
While the father goes to the kitchen to prepare dinner, which includes an unspecified fish, brother and sister go out into the garden to talk,...
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for they “had always been close.” She smokes and tells him about her possible plans to hitchhike through California with her boyfriend. He says nothing about his own life except that “there’s nothing much left for [him] now in California” since “everything with Vicki” is “finished,” yet once again he does not elaborate. Brother and sister raise the topic of their dead mother, Kikuko explaining that “Mother never really blamed you,” for she thought that “it was their fault, her and Father’s for not bringing you up correctly”; and we can only infer that the “blame” involves something to do with Vicki and his living in America. The siblings then remember that their mother had told them when they were children that the well in their backyard was haunted by “an old woman from the vegetable store.” As they talk, the brother tells his sister he had just seen the ghost, who was “wearing a white kimono” and that “some of her hair...was blowing around.” He does not see her clearly, however, for the sky is darkening. As it becomes night, they return to the kitchen and their father.
While Kikuko finishes preparing the meal, father and son walk around the house, which the son notices is empty except for one room full of books. The room also has a plastic model of a battleship that the father built to fill the time now that he is retired. The father notes he spent time on such a ship during the war but would have preferred to serve in the air force. He also says that perhaps his wife’s death “was no accident....She had many worries. And some disappointments,” including losing the son “to things [she] didn’t understand.” At dinner, there is little conversation, but the son notices a photograph of a woman wearing a white kimono; he does not at first recognize the woman as his mother, perhaps because of the darkening shadows in the room. The family then begins to eat the fish, a very dramatic moment, given the attention to fish at the beginning of the story. “There’s plenty for all of us,” says the father, just before the son raises the issue about Watanabe’s taking his family with him when he committed suicide. The father says that was a “mistake” for “there are other things besides work.” When the father asks again if the son will stay in Japan, he “gaze[s] into the darkness” after he says, “I’ll have to think about it.” After the father comments that Kikuko is “a good girl,” everyone grows silent, and the story concludes.