Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2020
In the Wake of the Dead
The book opens with the first-person narrator, Mitsu (Mitsusaburo Nedokoro), climbing down into a pit in his yard in Tokyo. The pit has been dug for a septic tank, but he is sitting in it and clawing at the soil sides with a dog that he has found. He reminisces about his friend Sarudahiko and a colleague who recently committed suicide. Mitsu recalls how Sarudahiko had a chance encounter with Taka (Takashi Nedokoro), Mitsu’s brother, in a pharmacy in New York. Taka had given Sarudahiko a disturbing political leaflet and had been confrontational and strange. Mitsu thinks about his young child who has developmental delays. Mitsu’s thoughts are interrupted by a milkman who helps him out of the pit.
Mitsu and his wife, Natsumi, wait for Taka to land at Haneda airport; he is returning from his “wanderings” in the United States. They meet two of Taka’s friends, teenagers Hoshio and Momoko, at the airport. Taka’s flight over the Pacific is delayed because of a storm, so the four of them wait in an airport hotel. Mitsu has terrible nightmares and notices that his wife is drinking heavily. Finally, Taka arrives and announces that he has made plans to sell their old family storehouse in Shikoku, an area of Japan far from Tokyo. Taka says that a businessman wants to relocate the storehouse to another area to have a traditional restaurant. Taka and Mitsu discuss the family mythology of their great-grandfather and his younger brother, who were involved in an uprising back in Shikoku. They disagree over whether the brother was murdered, was cannibalized, or escaped.
Mitsu and Natsumi are on a rickety bus back to the valley where Mitsu and Taka grew up. A young boy defecating by the side of the road reminds Mitsu of his son, whose failed surgery left him in a vegetative state—he has been left in an institution. Mitsu and Natsumi decide to walk the rest of the way down to the valley and are scared by the darkness and density of the forest. Taka meets them in a jeep he has borrowed, because the bridge leading into the valley has washed away. The brothers reminisce about Gii (Giichiro), a hermit who lived in the valley when they were children. The brothers discuss the socioeconomic changes that have occurred in the valley, including how their childhood nanny, Jin, has developed a compulsive eating disorder which has rendered her immobile. She and her husband and sons are living in Mitsu and Taka’s old family home, on the same plot of land as the storehouse, which Taka has sold.
Dreams Within Dreams
The morning after Mitsu and Natsumi’s arrival, Jin asks to speak with Mitsu and is unhappy that she may lose her home. Mitsu reassures her that only the storehouse has been sold. Mitsu, Natsumi, and Taka go to the temple to get the ashes of their older brother, S. They discuss his violent death at the hands of the villagers in 1945 after he returned from the war, and they squabble over what they can remember of it. Taka and the priest at the temple lament that the young men of the valley are “hopeless," without a “leader,” and not forward-thinking. Taka describes what he has learned about a failing chicken farm in the valley, as well as a large supermarket which has opened up and driven all the shops in the village bankrupt.
The Emperor of the Supermarkets
Taka announces that thousands of chickens at a local chicken farm have died. Taka decides...
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to travel to the town in Hoshi’s car and try to sell the chicken corpses to the owner of the supermarket, who is known as the Emperor. Natsumi and Mitsu travel to the post office to pick up a parcel: a toilet seat for Jin so that she won’t have to squat. On the way, they observe people from their village and nearby villages playing a lottery-type game at the supermarket to win cheap plastic toys and trinkets. Mitsu runs into the priest outside the supermarket, and they discuss the history of forced Korean labor in the valley. Taka returns and reveals that they have decided to burn all of the chicken corpses. He also reveals that the Emperor is from the Korean forced labor camp and was present the day that S was beaten to death.
A Strange Sport
Mitsu has a nightmare, recalling details of the 1860 uprising that involved his great-grandfather. He reminisces about his understanding of what happened: the young men of the village at the time objected to interest on loans given by the Nedokoro family. The great-grandfather’s younger brother had led an uprising and banded the young men together. He had them make bamboo spears. The great-grandfather boarded himself up in the storehouse.
Mitsu is cruel to his wife, and she then decides to make dumplings to take to Taka and the other men, who are playing football at the elementary school. The priest drops by to give Mitsu the diary belonging to his oldest brother. Mitsu decides not to read it, suspecting that it will be too violent, and this is confirmed when Taka reveals that he has read it and found it disturbing.
Procession from the Past
Mitsu overhears Taka talking to Natsumi, telling her that he feels like he is more in touch with the “communal sentiments” of the valley than Mitsu is. Mitsu begins to feel jealous about the closeness between his brother and his wife. Mitsu watches from above as Taka orchestrates the rescue of a child from the river. As Mitsu walks home, he runs into the village office worker, who tells him that Taka has sold the family’s entire land and home—not just the storehouse. Mitsu packs his bags to leave for Tokyo, but Taka tells him the road will be snowed in, and Natsumi says that she is staying with Taka. Mitsu decides to move to the storehouse to sleep.
After taking a heater out to the storehouse, Mitsu finds the football team which his brother has been “coaching” in the main house. Taka is glorifying the events of the 1860 uprising and disparages the Emperor. Mitsu observes that Taka is riling the men up. Taka and Mitsu squabble again over the events surrounding S’s death. In the night, Mitsu observes Taka running from the main house and rolling in the snow, completely naked. The next morning when Mitsu goes inside, the men from the football team are still there. Taka tells Mitsu to prepare some pheasants, which were gifted to him by the father of the child whom he rescued. Mitsu dismantles the pheasants’ carcasses and plays macabre games with the birds’ bodies. Mitsu and Taka have a discussion about the friend’s suicide and their younger sister’s suicide.
The Freedom of the Ostracized
It is New Year’s Day, and Mitsu goes to the river to draw the first water. Mitsu then visits the post office to make a phone call, but the lines are down, and the men who would usually repair them are all with Taka. Mitsu observes a brawl in front of the supermarket, which is closed. When he gets home, Taka tells him that the village policeman has left and been trapped in another town by the snowstorm. In the afternoon, Momoko tells Mitsu to look out of the storehouse window at the supermarket to see “what’s brewing." At four o’clock, Mitsu hears screaming from the village but doesn’t go down to see what is happening. Later, Natsumi tells him about the looting which has happened and Taka’s role in getting the villagers drunk and riotous. She hints that there will be further unrest the next day. In the evening, Mitsu observes, from his window, Taka beating a young man about the head. The young man then runs into the dense, snowy forest. The following morning, Natsumi tells Mitsu that the young man tried to rape Momoko. The man is then dragged back, alive but seriously injured, on a sledge by Gii, the hermit. Mitsu confronts Taka about the unrest that he is inciting and realizes that there is no greater purpose to Taka’s actions.
Imagination in Riot
Mitsu wakes up, and the valley is filled with the sound of festival drums. Natsumi tells Mitsu that the looting in the valley is still going on. Mitsu talks to Jin, who gossips with him and makes racist assumptions about the Koreans in the valley; she thinks that the Emperor deserves to be looted because he is Korean. Mitsu goes to the supermarket to try to buy kerosene for his heater and sees Taka and his band of men looting and destroying electronic goods. Taka tells Mitsu that the riot is about capturing the excitement of the 1860 uprising, not about a specific political goal. Mitsu leaves and runs into the priest, who gives him an envelope of documents relating to his great-grandfather and the 1860 uprising. The festival drums stop beating as Mitsu arrives home, and he sees some villagers asking his wife to destroy photos of the rioting the day before.
The Power of the Flies
Mitsu reads the documents that the priest gave him: they are letters between the great-grandfather and his younger brother. The letters say that the younger brother escaped to America, visiting the Bonin Islands on the way there. Hoshi comes to the storehouse and tells Mitsu he wants to sleep out with him and that he is leaving Taka. Hoshi confesses that he saw Taka and Natsumi having sex and describes their conversation (which he overheard) about the unrest in the village and Taka’s mental state. Mitsu and Hoshi observe a procession back toward the house in which two “spirits” of the Emperor and his wife are performing strange acts. Taka tells Mitsu he will leave the valley and marry Natsumi. Mitsu reflects on what he has learned about his great-grandfather’s younger brother. He believes that Taka will live a long and uneventful life with Natsumi, despite his current unrest. That night, Mitsu is woken by his wife, who says that Taka has just raped and murdered a girl from the village.
A Way Beyond Despair
Mitsu, Natsumi, and Hoshi find Taka and Gii in the kitchen. Taka is covered in blood and tells Mitsu, proudly, that he tried to rape a young girl; when she struggled, he says, he was overcome with animal instinct and bludgeoned her head with a rock. Mitsu counters and says he thinks that what likely happened was a car accident. Hoshi, Natsumi, and Mitsu all disagree and argue over what they think happened. Taka then decides to sleep in the storehouse to defend himself, “as great-grandfather’s brother did.”
As he lies in the storehouse, Taka relays to Mitsu that he repeatedly raped their intellectually disabled younger sister, who died by suicide. They argue, and Mitsu tells Taka he is being overdramatic, that he will likely serve a couple of years in prison and then live an uneventful life. Mitsu leaves to go back to the main house, and Taka kills himself with the shotgun.
The Emperor returns to the valley, replenishes the supermarket, and begins demolishing the storehouse. The people who were involved in the looting sheepishly go about their business as if nothing happened. As the Emperor’s men demolish the storehouse, they discover a hidden cellar beneath it. Mitsu realizes that his great-grandfather’s younger brother actually lived there after the 1860 uprising. His letters about America and the Bonin Islands were all fantasy. Natsumi tells Mitsu she is pregnant with Taka’s child and that she wants to “have another go” at being a family: raising Taka’s child and their other child. She tells Mitsu to accept a job offer to be an interpreter for a Japanese man traveling to Africa. The book ends with Mitsu and Natsumi leaving the hollow for Tokyo, never to return.