Book: Yumoto, Kazumi. The Friends. Japan: Fukutake Publishing Company, 1992.
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: This book is intended for ages 10-13.
Read-Alouds: Just click!
Summary: Kiyama, the narrator, and his friends Kawabe and Yamashita become obsessed with death after Yamashita’s grandmother passes away. Neither of the three middle school boys had ever seen a dead body or even attended a funderal, so when Yamashita had returned with new information, the boys were excited. He revealed to them that the dead was burned in a crematory and that their bodies looked strange; Kiyama and Kawabe had to see for themselves. After hearing about an elderly man that lived alone, Kawabe created a plan to hang around the man’s yard (in the withering shrubs) and wait for him to die. The others agreed and they started skipping activities to spy on the old man and wait for it to happen. Eventually they were caught, but the old man took them in and befriended them.
Themes: One of the themes prevalent in this book is death. The three friends are obsessed with death and corpses after Yamashita’s grandmother passes away and they all realize that they have never seen a dead body or attended a funeral. They began to wonder what it was like to die and where people went. They had nightmares about the dead haunting them and weighing down on them. Their curiosity of death is what urged them to began stalking the old man.
Another concept explored in this book is friendship. Kiyama, Kawabe, and Yamashita have been friends for a very long time (Kiyama and Kawabe since kindergarten). They are willing to do anything for one another, despite their fears, including lie to their parents and harass old people. The boys enter the mission to explore death together and in the process, began failing cram school together.
Education is constantly thrown into perspective as well. The boys are in the school or just leaving school throughout a majority of the novel, and they do not leave cram school until 8-9 pm. In the book, it states that their parents enroll them in these special schools to prepare them for the competitive exams for prestigious middle schools. Their mothers are extremely upset when their grades start dropping due to their “investigation”. Aside from talking about the characters, I feel as though Yumoto’s depiction of the role of education in the house may provide a native’s idea about the role of education in Japanese culture.
Connections: This book could not be used with anything that I have read so far. However, for a middle school English teacher, the book would provide excellent support for teachers wishing to discuss death or the concept of life in general to students. The plot is moved (and initially set into action) by the three boys wanting to witness “death” at work, but they do not get it when they wish for it. Things appear to take a turn for the better and they forget about the original mission, but in the end, death unexpectedly comes and changes everything. Because the book has been translated, it also largely reflects Japanese culture. There are many cultural references about the processes students must go through to enter middle school, restaurants, and familial relationships.
Reactions: I really enjoyed the book and found it to be a light read, especially for the heavy subject matter. The characters are well developed and the things they do throughout the story are quite hilarious! I would have never imagined that I could be so entertained by a children’s novel. The author does a great job of handling a child narrator as well, the voice was very believable. As far as the structure, the text in the book is very large (but still separated into chapters), so the students would be able to finish the book quickly without feeling as if they are reading a “baby book”.
Reception: “Nicolewinter2011” believes the book was a bit slow in the beginning, however, she feels as though it may reflect “boy’s friendships”. She thinks the book was okay, but it would probably require a lot of explanation in U.S. classrooms due to the cultural differences. She does not give much of a summary, as most critics do, but she did provide a lengthy discussion of how the text might affect classroom discussion.
On a site called Answers, the critic gives an extensive summary of Yumoto’s novel, The Friends. They believe the novel depicts universal feelings and opinions about life and death while reflecting urban Japanese culture. They say the novel also shows “relationships across generation boundaries” which is interesting but also captivating. The full summary and review can be read at the link above.