By Benjamin Elstobb
The Ashes smoulder, as flames lick the night air, on a cool Nabari evening…
The smoke towers into the air, unmoving, like an obelisk, from what I estimate to be around a mile away. It registers at first, as I’m stood on the driveway of my apartment, to be some sort of metal, orb-like structure, perhaps due to the way it’s illuminated white-grey in the lights below. It’s only my acquaintance with the landscape, and the incongruity of such a structure upon it, that leads me to double take. Squinting, you can just about make a row of red lights beneath it, as they twinkle, in the gentle billowing of its structure. At this time of year, in rural Japan—as in my own home town in rural England—bonfires are commonplace. But the sheer size and volume of the noxious cloud, along with the time (11pm), point to something more sinister. Naturally I decide to take a closer look.
The main road does not easily lend itself easily to pedestrians. It’s cold, and dark, and there is no respite from the traffic, despite whatever incident lies ahead. As I walk, I nearly trip over a deer, sprawling on the roadside, dead; one antler lies snapped in front of its buckled head. I wonder if this is an omen for what I might encounter. I decide to beat a route, on foot, through the patches of trees and rice fields, that comprise the rugged Nabari landscape. It is not long before the presence of a police roadblock becomes apparent, in the near distance, making its best effort to stem the deluge of cars, and trucks pouring along the road. My Japanese is so-so, and I stick out like a sore thumb here in rural Japan, needless to say I’d find a hard time convincing the authorities to let me through unimpeded, for the sake of indulging my journalistic curiosity; so, I adventure to continue off road, making my way through the long grass towards the source of this smoke—which now appears to emanate from a small cluster of houses.
Upon stumbling into a large, rather inconspicuous ditch, and hobbling up its bank, I am met by a dismal sight: the remnants of two houses, now reduced to crooked, skeletal frames, leaning precariously, as smoke gushes from their bowels, eviscerated by the blaze. It does not take long to realise that the fire originated from the larger, more emaciated dwelling, and had subsequently spread to its neighbour. The firemen scurry around, like ants, beneath these hulking wrecks, desperately trying to prevent the blaze from spreading further within the tightly packed houses. There is a convenience store in the midst of this potential furnace which is, remarkably, still conducting ‘business as usual’, despite chaos ensuing all around its premises—a testament to the Japanese work ethic, if nothing else. Onlookers likewise conduct themselves with a degree of phlegmatic curiosity; stood behind an invisible barrier, they watch cinders in the night breeze.
My vantage point has become untenable, due to its close proximity to the site, and the increasing number of firemen patrolling its surroundings. The worst of the blaze is now under control; and as the final chunks disintegrate into ash and rubble, I am waved down, and sent on my way, shuffling back through the undergrowth. The journey home gives me some time for reflection. It seems there are any number of reasons for such a fire: the houses here are made of wood, and the winters are dry, making them natural tinderboxes for any sake’d ojisan that falls asleep with a cigarette in their mouth; this accounts for a slew of similar incidents occurring throughout Mie, as well as other prefectures. As I reach my apartment, and ascend the gravelled driveway, I survey the skyline one last time. The smoke is still there, its thick towering now flaccid, and diminished, but the red lights no longer twinkle beneath it.
The following day I have the opportunity to revisit the site of the fire, on my way to see Nabari’s famous ’48 Waterfalls’ (Akame Shijuhachi), a location more than worthy of its own article. As we are driving, I spot the wreckage from the roadside, like a pile of used matches, and decide to have a closer look. Some residents of the street have gathered to help clear up the burnt mess, and a surveyor appears to be weighing up the damage. The use of wood in Japanese architecture serves multiple purpose beyond aesthetics. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the abundance of woodland in Japan makes it a convenient material. The use of wood also allows that homes may be quickly rebuilt in the event of natural disaster—from which the nation suffers terribly—and that they should cause minimal damage to the occupants in the event that they do come down. One of the owners is surveying his property as I approach, face as sunken as the roof in front of him. My presence is, understandably, unwelcome, as the families and neighbours pick through the debris; I do not linger.
I am to discover a few days later, in a further and somewhat more sinister illumination of events, that this blaze was by no means accidental. According to a local news source, things had taken a turn for the worse in an argument between father and daughter, after which the girl had set fire to the kitchen. Although not directly referred to, one scarcely has to read between the lines to glean the allusion to mental health, particularly the breakdown of it—sadly an occurrence in Japan that can be just as frequent, and fatal, as the narcoleptic chain smoker. The issue of mental illness in Japan is in many ways the ‘elephant in the room’. No one talks about it. Its presence and treatment are largely regarded as a cultural faux pas, and as such being stigmatized along these lines can have serious ramifications for ones social or professional life. The result is that mental health problems often get swept under the rug, or go undiagnosed, with destructive consequences.