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A Family Supper – Telling Tales Analysis – AQA Anthology

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan and lived there until the age of six, before moving with his family to England. ‘A Family Supper’ was first published in 1982.

  • Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize-winning author.

The protagonist’s father fought in World War 2. Japan’s loss in this war was a great source of shame for many Japanese. After the war, the country became less insular and embraced globalisation. For this reason, younger generations moved away from the traditions of their nation.

Historically, Japanese soldiers would see it as more honourable to commit suicide than suffer the shame of being captured. During World War 2, kamikaze pilots would fly their planes at enemy ships, killing themselves in the process. This was considered an honourable sacrifice to help the nation’s war effort.

Plot summary

  • An unnamed man returns to Japan after several years of living in America. It has been two years since the death of his mother. He is driven to his old home from the airport by his father. His father tells him that his mother died after accidentally ingesting poison from eating a fish called Fugu.
  • It is also revealed that, after his father’s business collapsed, his business partner, Watanabe, killed himself from the shame of it. There is tension between the father and son, stemming from the son’s decision to leave Japan, although the father says he wishes to forget it.
  • At the house, the protagonist meets his sister, Kikuko, who is excited to see him, but only relaxes when their father leaves the room. Kikuko reveals that Watanabe killed his whole family before he committed suicide. They also discuss a ghost the protagonist claimed to see when he was younger.
  • With Kikuko in another room, the father reveals that his wife’s death wasn’t accidental—like Watanabe, she had taken her own life.
  • The protagonist, his father, and his sister sit down to eat a fish prepared by the father. The man sees a picture of his mother on the wall, which reminds him of the ghost he once saw. There is ambiguity about whether the father had fed them the poison from a Fugu.

Characters

The man

The protagonist of the story has left Japan for America several years before. This has caused a rift with his parents, to the extent that he didn’t return when his mother died. He is caught between both countries, admitting that there is “nothing much left” for him in California now that a previous relationship has ended.

However, he is still angry over the falling out with his parents. This is shown when he reacts to hearing of his mother’s disappointment in him by saying, “Surely…my mother didn’t expect me to live here forever.” The incident where he saw a ghost in his youth has had a lasting effect on him, and he seems spooked when he mistakes the picture of his mother for the ghost.

The father

The man’s father is a traditional Japanese man in his outlook on concepts such as honour, war and gender roles. He is prone to long silences that create tension when in the company of his children, who are intimidated by him. He has been weakened by his wife’s death and the collapse of his business. This leaves the reader to wonder whether he will follow Watanabe and his wife in committing suicide.

Kikuko

Kikuko is excited at her brother’s return, only able to “giggle nervously” initially. She is obedient and subservient in her father’s company but becomes more open and expressive when alone with her brother. She talks excitedly about her future and the possibility of moving to America. Also, she is very interested in the ghost that the protagonist thinks he once saw.

Language, Form and Structure

  • Ishiguro tells the story in the first person from the man’s perspective. As a narrator, he is passive and doesn’t show many thoughts or emotions in reaction to the secrets that he is told. This heightens the tension at the end as we don’t know whether he suspects the father of poisoning them.
  • Ishiguro uses foreshadowing to build up tension towards the ending. The story starts by explaining the poison of the Fugu fish, which killed the protagonist’s mother. It is explained how “hideously painful” it becomes for someone who has ingested this. Then we hear of Watanabe’s suicide and murder of his family, and the father’s view that he was a “man of principle and honour.” This foreshadowing creates the impression that the unidentified fish their father serves is a Fugu.
  • The ending is left ambiguous as we are not sure whether the father has fed them poison. The tension climaxes when the man brings up the subject of Watanabe killing his family. It makes the reader think he suspects his father of doing the same. However, the tension is deflated when the father calls Watanabe’s actions a mistake. He adds that his friend’s judgement was “weakened.” This leads the reader to assume he will not do the same.

Themes

Tradition

There is a conflict between the different generations. The father and his deceased wife are more tied to traditional Japanese values. In contrast, his children are more modern and attracted to American life.

We see the father’s traditional attitude in the way he associates suicide with “honour”, both in war and in civilian life. He regrets having been stuck in a ship during the Second World War. He would have preferred the opportunity to become a kamikaze pilot if he was in the Air Force instead. Also, he talks about his business partner with respect despite the awful act that he has committed in killing his family.

The son moving away from Japan and its traditional values has caused great hostility between him and his parents. His father talks of the devastating effect on him and his wife, who lost their son to a Western culture “they don’t understand.” The father’s attachment to Japanese tradition makes the reader question if he will kill his children out of honour. He may believe this is the only way to spare them the shame of their rejection of Japanese culture.

Gender

As part of traditional Japanese culture, we see fixed gender roles in place. Talking at length is seen as a feminine trait. The protagonist recalls being hit “several times around the head” for, in his father’s view, “chattering like an old woman.” Instead, men are expected to stoically work hard and be prepared to fight in war. The father asks his son critically, “I don’t suppose you believe in war.”

Women are expected to be compliant and subservient. This is demonstrated in Kikuko’s behaviour around her father. She “obediently” helps him and follows his instructions with the cooking. Her father and brother describe her as a “good girl”. This demonstrates the firm expectation of respectability for women in this society.

Symbols: The well and the ghost

The man and his sister find themselves next to the well when talking about the past, which could symbolise their memories. They speak of the ghost the man supposedly saw near this well. This ghostly image represents a haunting of memories and grief they feel in their mother’s absence. This is further emphasised when the man doesn’t recognise his mother in a picture but describes her like he had the ghost.

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