A collection of sad and brutally honest short stories that give agency to casualties of WWII in Japan from the author of the story that became the basis for the “Grave of the fireflies” cartoon
J IS FOR JAPAN
Akiyuki Nosaka is perhaps best known for writing the short story that became the basis of studio Ghibli’s tragic cartoon “Grave of the fireflies.” ’It’s about a Japanese boy who dies of starvation right after the end of World War II.
I often don’t read book descriptions too closely when I dive in, so I had no idea of the connection to the “Grave of the fireflies. Or about Nosaka’s own harrowing experiences as a child during the war for that matter. I just wanted to read the Japanese book with such a strange title, which reminded me of the cake in the rain from “MacArthur Park.” I even thought it would be something absurdist, a la Mabainckou, perhaps.
But the minute I started reading the first story, “The whale that fell in love with a submarine,” I immediately thought about that tragic cartoon that I saw once, briefly, as a kid, in all its heaviness and horror. Even though, of course, the two stories don’t have much, except for the setting, in common. I guess I just recognized that same measured darkness of suffering that so touched me as a kid.
This is the most claustrophobic book I’ve ever read. But the claustrophobia it implants in you is not artificial. It’s an amalgamation of the sadness of human life on the planet, without any enhancement, but beautiful in its own right.
And that is something that makes Nosaka’s writing so effective, so urgent. Even if his stories are all a little bit formulaic, they become a perfect reflection of war. They effectively explain how the patterns of warfare are indifferent to each one’s peculiarities. War crushes humans, animals, singes earth, and in its brutality pays no attention to all the little things that make each human or animal unique.
Nosaka’s work is akin to what holocaust memoirs have been doing: giving humanity and dignity to those smitten with the conflict. Nosaka takes the sole surviving lens from a pair of worn-out spectacles and puts it against the story of a casualty. And through the broken, dirty glass, tenderness emerges.
Akiyuki Nosaka, The Cake Tree in the Ruins, 2015 (戦争童話集)
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Published by Pushkin Press in 2018