Reading fiction is not my thing. Sure, a good fictional work is often more than good. For me, this almost always means that the book isn’t just a good story, but is using the story to ask us a bigger philosophical question, or impart a greater truth of life to us (I’m thinking here of books like Orwell’s 1984, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, even Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov– that’s my kind of fiction!). In this same vein, there’s Gail Tsukiyama’s The Samurai’s Garden. Not only does this story confront us with the many challenges and intricate hardships of personal loneliness, but it also shines a warm and blinding light on some of the amazing (and in fact super-human) traits that we sometimes must summon to overcome such sorrows. The three main characters of the story, young Stephan, solemn Matsu, and fragile Sachi, all seem to bring their own unique strengths to the fore in order to achieve happiness in their own lives while doing their best to bring the same to each other. Through all the incredible ways that they each have found to enjoy the lives they live despite the hardships and sufferings they endure, it seems in the end they all manage to keep each other inspired through the shear strength of their love for each other.
The setting for Samurai’s Garden is rural Japan, as the Japanese Army invades China near the beginning of World War II. The bare bones of the story is that of a college-aged boy who lives primarily with his Chinese mother and siblings in Hong Kong while his Japanese father is in Tokyo for business. When the boy, Stephan, falls very sick, he is sent to stay at his grandparents summer home in rural Japan, where he will be cared for by the servant and caretaker of the house, Matsu. As we learn more of each of the three main actors, we learn that each are afflicted by a sense of loneliness that in one way or another overcomes their lives.
The character who seems to have been dealt the most isolating and severe torture is Sachi. Forced into a life of exile and shame because of a disease which is no fault of her own, as the story moves deeper into her life we learn of the tremendous losses that she has endured: her best friend who killed herself rather than live with leprosy, the loss of her freedom to live and travel throughout a society with no compassion or understanding of her condition, her fiancé’s rejection, her parents rejection and the dishonor she has brought them because of the disease, her miscarried baby, and on and on. Forced to live in exile amongst the deformed and diseased, herself disfigured to the point of ugliness, there is no shortage of reasons why we wouldn’t blame Sachi for giving up rather than suffer through any one of these horrible tragedies. Yet as embarrassed, meek, or lonesome as she can seem, she insists on living the simple and slow life that she has forged for herself, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of Matsu, if nothing else.
Pushing Sachi along or at her side to help lift her, Matsu seems to be the only one rooting for Sachi’s survival (and happiness) (at least until she meets Stephan). It seems that perhaps along the way, Sachi may have come to realize that not only is she continually the benefactor of Matsu’s good will and thoughtfulness, but in fact he may need her just as much as she needs him. While Matsu is the quiet, introspective, pleased to be left to his own devises sort that at first would seem to be inexplicably happy alone in rural Japan with no company other than his impressive garden, once we learn more of his relationship with Sachi we see a different side of him. While there seems little doubt that Matsu has always been content with life in the small village of Tarumi (and would possibly have been so no matter what) it seems that he truly finds peace in life through his relationship with Sachi.
Matsu seems to approach life through the lens of service, hard work, and honor. Taking care of Sachi, perhaps, is his most important project; not only because she is so dependant on him (as are all the villagers of Yamaguchi) but because his love for her is outside of anything else that he experiences. Matsu may be quiet, reserved, humble, and happiest when away from the awkwardness and uncertainty of social life. As well, he certainly seems to have found a wealth of enjoyment from a life of service and gardening, but his love for Sachi is a completely singular experience in his life, one that finds him obliged to come out of his shell. We get the sense that Matsu doesn’t fully understand the big world outside of his garden and his community, nor is he interested in it. But in Sachi, he finds such a deep, awe-inspiring beauty that he is drawn from the comforts that he knows and he walks out on that limb, as love often makes us do.
Stephan grows to elicit a similar love from Matsu, in the form of a teacher-student or father-son relationship. At first Matsu seems not only indifferent to Stephan, but possibly even slightly put-off by the intrusion. Of course, Matsu probably takes each step in life as it comes and welcomes whatever experience comes his way (this is at least the impression we get from his Buddhist-like approach). We get the feeling in the beginning of the story, as Matsu is silent and short and seemingly only engaging with Stephan to the degree that seems necessary, that Matsu is perhaps the indifferent and distant type. As time goes on Matsu seems to warm to Stephan. It seems that this happens mostly from a combination of Stephan’s own loneliness and sufferings (which Matsu can not only relate to but which perhaps invokes a sense of compassion and understanding from Matsu) as well as the enthusiasm, determination, and curiosity that Stephan brings with him into every situation.
Stephan doesn’t stir the same empathy in us that Matsu or Sachi do. While it is a horrible illness that weakens him and brings him to the countryside in the first place, and while the ever-closer specter of war marches towards his family, and he must confront the oddity of his father’s affair, Stephan is nonetheless young and resilient. He may be troubled by the forces around him, but his hardships don’t strike as the impossible to endure type that Sachi experiences. Stephan does earn our trust as an honest person, and does sway our heart as he tries to navigate a difficult world. But it is mostly his enthusiasm for those he loves and his openness of the unknown tomorrow which identify him as deserving of the kind of admiration that is often reserved for those who suffer through the greatest hardships.
Not only are these qualities what inspire Matsu to grow fond of Stephan, but the love and acceptance that Stephan offers to Sachi, almost immediately, seem to inspire Matsu to have a deeper faith in the goodness of people.
While each of the main characters of The Samurai’s Garden have traversed their own difficulties and hardships, bringing each of them to experience their own individual loneliness and sorrow, each of them are people who posses the tools necessary to survive in spite of the world. What this story proves even more than simply telling their personal tales is that in finding the kinds of relationships and love that they find amongst each other they not only survive but find true happiness and purpose.