Analysis of Shūsaku Endō’s Deep River

The Japanese writer Shūsaku Endō (1923– 96) was a Christian author who embraced a faith that combined both Eastern and Western spirituality. The novel Deep River centers on a visit to India by a group of Japanese tourists. The novel examines the internal journeys of four of the travelers—Isobe, Kiguchi, Numada, and Mitsuko—and explores their motivations for going to India, the fulfillment of their quests, and their discoveries along the way.

The novel begins with an account of the months just before and after the death of Isobe’s wife. Isobe, confronted with the fact that his mate of 35 years has cancer, comes to realize his dependence on his wife, whom he had taken for granted up to that point. After her death, her final words haunt him: “I . . . I know for sure . . . I’ll be reborn somewhere in this world. Look for me . . . find me . . . promise . . . promise!” In an attempt to fulfill her request, Isobe writes to a professor at the University of Virginia who is doing research on people who claim to have experienced previous lives. After learning of a young woman named Rajini Puniral, who lives in a village near Varanasi and who professes to have been Japanese in a prior life, Isobe determines to go to India in search of the woman.

At an informational meeting prior to the trip, Isobe recognizes Mitsuko, a hospital volunteer with whom his wife had bonded in her last days. On the way home from the meeting, Mitsuko recalls the “hollowness in her heart” during her university days and remembers her attempts to draw Ōtsu, a classmate who practiced the Christian faith, away from God. Ōtsu had told her, “Even if I try to abandon God . . . God won’t abandon me.” After graduating from the university, Mitsuko had married in hope of becoming a typical housewife and ridding herself of the destructive element that “lurked within the depths of her heart.” The marriage ended in divorce. Through the years she had carried on an intermittent correspondence with Ōtsu. His conversation and letters always spoke of a God who “made use even of my sins and turned me towards salvation.” Perhaps, Mitsuko thinks that Ōtsu, who now lives in Va¯ra¯nası¯, is drawing her to India.

At the pretrip meeting, Numada, an author of stories with dogs and birds as the main characters, expresses a desire to visit a wild bird sanctuary during the trip. He had had a pet hornbill but had released it when he entered a hospital for treatment for tuberculosis. His wife, sensing his need for an animal companion, brought a myna bird to the hospital to keep him company. After recovering from a surgery during which his heart had stopped, Numada learned that the myna had died during the operation, and he refl ects, “I wonder if it died in place of me?”

Kiguchi, another member of the tour group, fought in Burma during the war and now wishes to have a memorial service in India for his comrades who had died and for Tsukada, who had nursed Kiguchi when he had contracted malaria in the jungle. Years after the war, an American volunteer, Gaston, had comforted Tsukada as he died by assuring him of God’s forgiveness for his having eaten meat from the body of a comrade. Kiguchi had felt that the peaceful look on Tsukada’s face at his death “had been made possible because Gaston had soaked up all the anguish in Tsukada’s heart.”

Arriving in Va¯ra¯nası¯, Isobe sets about to fulfill the plea his wife had made on her deathbed. After meeting failure after failure, he cries out in his loneliness, “Darling! . . . Where have you gone?” Mitsuko answers his question with her comment: “At the very least, I’m sure your wife has come back to life inside your heart.”

Numada and Kiguchi also fulfill their personal missions. Numada, after buying a myna and carrying it to a wildlife sanctuary where no hunting is allowed, opens the door of the cage, urges the bird out, and watches it enjoy its freedom. He feels “as though a heavy burden he had carried on his back for many years had been removed.” On the banks of the Ganges, Kiguchi chants a sutra for Tsukada and his comrades who had died in the war. In so doing he carries out the wish he has had since the war.

Though Mitsuko remains unsure as to why she has come on the trip, she knows that she longs for something. After discovering that Ōtsu now devotes himself to carrying dying Hindus to the Ganges, she puts on a sari and approaches the river. A man beckons her to enter. She submerges her body and then acknowledges: “. . . there is a river of humanity. . . . I feel as though I’ve started to understand what I was yearning for through all the many mistakes of my past.”

Deep River deals with the universal themes of love, loss, sacrifice, acceptance, and redemption. Isobe, Numada, Kiguchi, and Mitsuko take spiritual journeys which lead them to understand God as “a great life force” in man and in nature. They recognize sacrificial love in many forms and in so doing experience the God whom Ōtsu defined as “love itself.”

Endo, Shusaku. Deep River. Translated by Van C. Gessel. New York: New Directions, 1994.
Henry, Rick. “Review of Deep River, by Shusaku Endo.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 2 (1996): 182–183.
O’Connell, Patricia. “Review of Deep River, by Shusaku Endo.” Commonweal 122, no. 10 (19 May 1995): 34–35.

Categories: Japanese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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