Japanese Novel Review: あひる The Duck by Natsuko Imamura (今村夏子)

I am excited to introduce another wonderful Imamura Natsuko novel to members of the Japanese Book Club Cafe! This time I read the novel Duck(あひる). Like all of the Imamura novels I have read so far, Duck(あひる) also showcases her talents for accessible storytelling with use of easy grammar and vocabulary. I picked this novel up at the local library, but it can be found at Kinokuniya for $8.99. I knew right away that this book was for me because it is my dream to get some ducks once I move back to Japan.

Title: あひる
Author: 今村夏子
Publisher: 角川文庫
Publication Date: 2019/01
Page count: 172 pages
IBSN: 9784041074435

USA Kinokuniya Link

Story Review

This book is a collection of 3 short stories. This is what I would consider a very Japanese book. If you are familiar with Japanese media, you might know what I mean. In my experience, western story telling tends to be more plot and action based while Japanese story telling in more based on the character’s experience. Not everything in Japanese storytelling is about moving the plot forward. Imamura’s stories, like the stories of many Japanese authors, do not have clean cut endings and there will be unanswered questions. I enjoy Japanese enjoy these types of story lines, but not everyone does. If you are looking to get into the world of Japanese literature, its a type of reading experience that you will be exposed to quite often. 

The Duck(あひる) – 63 pages

This story is told from the perceptive of a young women who is living with her parents while she studies to become a doctor. The story starts with her father’s coworker becoming ill and having to move closer to family. Due to the move, he is no long able to care for his pet duck named Noritama(Seaweed Ball). The young women’s home happened to have a large backyard with an old chicken coup in it. So naturally the father became the next owner of Noritama. As soon as the duck arrive, life changed for the family. Children started to come and visit the duck and hang out in the yard. The women’s parents were overjoyed as they had no grandchildren of their own. They wanted grandchildren so much that they pestered their son into estrangement. More and more children can to see Noritama, but slowly he became sick and the father took him to the hospital. Noritama didn’t make it, but the parents missed the neighborhood children so much that they purchased a new duck of the same color. The children where ecstatic to find that Noritama got better and the daily visits started up again. As the young women looked down from her second story window studying, she watched as per parents gave out snacks and drinks to the neighborhood kids.

Just like the last time, Noritama 2 started to look ill. The family thought it might have been due to stress and started to encourage the kids to come and play inside instead of constantly being around the duck coop. But it didn’t work and Noritama 2 met the same fate as the original duck. While he was ‘away at the doctor’, the visits from the kids who used to stop by on their way home didn’t seem to change. A good number of kids still stopped by to do their homework inside of the house like they had been. After 10 days, the duck ‘came back from the doctor’ and the kids rejoiced as they played with Noritama 3. The young women found out the the kids were giving the snacks that she didn’t like to the duck and started to try to start only buying popular snacks for the kids to keep Noritama 3 alive as long as possible. No matter what the family did, they could not keep a duck alive from more the a few months.

Will the kids stop visiting if the house doesn’t have any ducks?  How will the parents fill the void of loneliness that they feel in their quiet house?

Grandma’s House (おばあちゃんの家) – 34 pages

Minori lived in a small country side town right next door to her grandmothers house.   As the story continues, we find out that Minori isn’t even related to her grandmother.  Her family just took over her care after her husband passed away.  She lives in a very small, dim house and still uses an outdoor toilet. She would come over every other day to Minori’s house to use their bath.  Minori would also help out by delivering her grandmother’s freshly cleaned laundry that her mother had just finished.  Minori loved her family and would rush home after school to play with her little brother.

Minori would most likely have spent all of her time with her grandma if she could, but her parents made her come home at night to make sure she properly ate and took a bath before bed.  Minori was so close to her grandma that she wasn’t able to notice when grandma’s behavior started to change.  At that point, Minori was already in junior high and too busy to visit that often.  But it became clear that grandma was starting to talk to herself.  Will she become like the grandmas  that Minori saw on TV that completely change personalities after developing dementia? Who is Boku-chan?

The Forest Siblings (森の兄妹) – 49 pages

The story starts off with Morio getting in trouble with a friend at school after he returned a comic book that he borrow.  The pages were wet and the friend said they would never lend anything to him again.  While Morio’s hands do get quite sweaty when he is focusing on something, he knew that it wasn’t his fault.  It must have been his sister, Moriko that messed with it.  After he got home, he knew he was gonna tell her off.  While he did talk to her about it, Moriko was too young to understand.  She was just a baby and Morio had to take care of her while their mother was away at work.  Moriko was super hungry, so her brother took her on a walk in the forest where they ate plants and flowers that they found along the trail. 

They ended their walk by a beautiful fruit filled tree that they found that happened to be in someones back yard.  They suddenly heard a voice calling out from a small house.  They were so scared that they had been caught on private property and would get in trouble.  They could see the face of an old lady in a small window and the voice was calling out to them.  Even though the voice seemed kind, Morio was filled with fear and ran away with his sister. He stopped by the house again on his way home from school to eat from the fruit tree when he heard the old lady calling out to him again.  Were his instincts right?  Should he trust this lady? Who is Boku-chan?

My Experience reading this novel:

I always get tricked by this, but I honestly didn’t notice that this was a collection of short stories as first.  I was pretty disappointed when the first story ended as I though I would get to learn more about the family for 170 full pages.  I don’t always put much time into researching books before picking them up so I get tricked pretty often.  This one was a library book so I knew absolutely nothing about it.  I just saw the author and the word ‘duck’ and felt drawn to it.

Sadly, my partner is allergic to like all house pets with fur so getting a cat or a dog is out of the question right now.  But we do plan on moving to the country side of Japan in a few years so luckily I have to option of considering outdoor pets as well.  After moving, building a duck coop is the first thing I plan to do!  I loved the first story as I am kinda into anything that discusses ducks right now. The first story was by far my favorite out of the three.

Like Purple Skirt Lady(むらさきのスカートの女), these stories were captivating and slightly unsettling.  They are not horror or suspense, but I am not sure what genre I would label them as.  Anyways, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of each story as the weirdness of each situation slowly started seeping out from Imamura’s words.

Since these are short stories, it is more important to take the time to read them slowly as it is easier to miss important information related to understanding the plot.  In short stories, each line of text tends to be value as the plot line and character experience is condensed.  I think most readers will have an easier time with novels as the length gives you some leeway to miss information but still understand what is going on in the story.

This book was a really light read for me.  It was even shorter then I thought it would be due to the formatting of the book.  But it was nice to get a break this week.  Instead of moving on to the next book, I decided to focus on finishing up some articles and work on my listening skills.  Since I don’t really use Japanese outside of my house right now, TV is super important for me to maintain my Japanese language skills.  I have never used the website Crunchy Roll before as I usually do not watch anime.  But I love space and found 宇宙兄弟 which was really a good fit for me.  I spent a lot of time this week watching that show.

Level Preface:

Just to give some background to my current level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. In 2020 I finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I am planning on taking N1 in 2021. I started reading novels in 2020 and have read over 30 to completion.

Vocabulary: N3-N2 student level (Intermediate)

Out of the three Imamura Natsuko novels that I read so far, I think that this novel had the most advanced vocabulary. But due to the simple grammar and short length of the book, I think that a level N3 student would be able to get through it with dictionary use.

I did not notice any specified vocabulary in the first two stories. It was mostly just every day words, which again would make this book a great choice for beginners looking to get into adult general fiction.

In the last story, The Forest Siblings (森の兄妹) there were the names of plants mentioned.  But knowing what the plants are is not exactly important to the story. 

There is one animal that get mentioned in the last two stories that I think is worth knowing to see how the stories connect.  孔雀(くじゃく) means peacock, which is a bird that both Minori and Moriko mention seeing in their respective stories.

Since the stories themselves are kinda of eerie, sometimes weird things happens.  So if you read sometime weird, its most likely because its weird and not due to any misunderstandings of vocabulary or grammar.

Grammar: N3 student level (Low Intermediate)

The grammar used in this book is quite simple and I think that the average language learning who is working through their N3 students would not find grammar to be a barrier in understanding this novel. All of the character in this novel speak in standard Japanese.

The characters and spacing in this novel are larger then normal which makes for an easy to read format. There is no prose like grammar in this novel. The writing styles comes off as casual observations or a short reflections of what is happening around each character.

Cultural References

I did not notice any historical or pop cultural references in this book.  Readers do not have to have strong understanding of Japanese culture to understand the plots in these short stories.

A Japanese artist named Chiyoko Shimakura was brought up once in Grandma’s House (おばあちゃんの家) but I don’t think knowing who she is would add to the readers understanding of the situation. 

Who should read this book?

Readers who have passed N3 and are looking for a way to step into the world of Japanese literature with a challenging but level appropriate books. Its short length makes it a get choice for lower intermediate readers.

People who like ducks. People who think that Imamura Natsuko is funny(is this everyone?)

Is this book right for you?

Using this link, you can check out of first few pages of The Duck(あひる) on BookWalker to check to see if the level and writing style fits with what you are looking for in a book.  Just click on the image of the book cover and it will take you to the first 23 pages in the book.

Related Media

So far I have read three of Imamura Natsuko’s novels: 星の子、むらさきのスカートの女、and あひる.  I really enjoyed all of them and recommend them to language learners. I found that all of them used fairly simple grammar and vocabulary compared to other general fiction books that were written with adult readers in mind.

I think for Purple Skirt Lady(むらさきのスカートの女) and The Duck(あひる), my reading experience was pretty similar. I felt very driven by the plot when I was reading as I really wanted to know what happened next. Why did that family keep killing ducks? Why did the Purple Shirt Lady keep losing jobs? I had so many questions that I felt driven to find the answers for. I really ‘enjoyed the ride’ while I was reading these stories. Out of the two, I think Purple Skirt Lady(むらさきのスカートの女) might be a better choice for most readers.  This is because of the subject matter of having a stalker follower someones every action.  You will learn/review vocabuarly related to everyday life.  And I think it is easier for readers to follow as it is a novel as opposed to short stories.

When I read Children of the Stars(星の子), I felt that the story was more driven by character growth and experience. I loved reading about her experience growing up in a minor religion and feel like it mirrored my experience growing up in a major religion. Looking back, I see how silly some of the rituals to me now that I can see that past with a different perceptive. Sure, in Children of the Stars(星の子) the parents putting wet towels on their head might seem very weird to the average Japanese reader, but Japanese people would most likely think that the stuff I did stuff I did when I was in religious education or going to church each week was equally weird. I really feel like I was able to look at this book from a much different view point then the Japanese average person who decides to pick this novel up. I really appreciate finding a Japanese novel that I felt reflected large chunks of my childhood. And I really felt for the main character trying the balance her school life and her family/religious life.

I wrote a review for Children of the Stars(星の子) last year which you can find here.

I also am working on a review for Purple Skirt Lady(むらさきのスカートの女) and will update this article with a link later once I am finished.

Author: Kuri

I love reading Japanese novels and have seen that many people want to read them but don't know where to start. I have decided to share my experiences to help people reach their literacy goals.

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