Kouno Fumiyo. Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (Yûnagi no machi sakura no kuni). Trans. Amemiya Naoko and Andy Nakatani. Eds. Patrick Macias and Colin Turner. San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp, 2007. 103 pp. $18.99. Paperback. ISBN 0-86719-665-3.
The book is actually three short works combined into one. They share a narrative structure and art style which tell a cogent story of young people’s lives as they are affected by the Hiroshima bombing, spread out from 1955 to 2004. The consequences of the bombing in 1945 are a central theme throughout. All three are interconnected narratives of a family group at different times in its post-war life. There are helpful endnotes for those who are not well-versed in the periods or cultural niceties. These were part of Kouno’s original text, but there are no notices in the text in the English version to alert the reader to their existence. The work is an excellent bit of historical fiction and is well-grounded in actual events as can be seen by the cautious bibliography and map. The reader has to be careful to look for the flashback in the third story. It is marked out with a lighter, less serious drawing style and a younger version of Ishikawa Asahi. This work gives the appearance of being young adult literature for teen girls, but the narrative is far more complex than that, embodying denials of history as elements of a constructed national mythology.
The story “Town of Evening Calm” begins in a dress shop with a typical 1950s interaction between older and younger coworkers with an awkward young man, Uchikoshi, quickly joining the scene. Hirano Minami’s position in life is quickly revealed through images of the one-room shack she shares with her mother the shoes she takes off on the long walk to and from work in order to keep them from wearing out. Uchikoshi eventually gives her a pair of zōri to wear instead of going barefoot (19). Part of the reason for Minami’s familial poverty is her mother’s constant need for medical attention as an atom bomb survivor. Minami’s inner dialogue while in the communal baths is revealing of the Japanese national mindset regarding the events. “Nobody talks about it. I don’t really understand what happened even to this day” (16). She survived the bombing herself and it all comes rushing back to her in a fit of survivor’s guilt as Uchikoshi kisses her next to a rebuilt bridge. All she can see are a destroyed bridge and corpses of those she lost passing by in the water (22 – 23). Flashbacks are an ever-present danger for those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Minami is no exception. Minami has medical needs similar to her mother’s but prefers to stay home rather than seek proper care. Eventually she goes blind, a point depicted in the narrative with completely blank panels. The only things on the page are the inner thoughts of Minami as she loses touch with her world and eventually slips away, dying at age 23. In the final panels, America is condemned for dropping the bomb but there is no mention of what started the conflict in the first place (34). Minami was old enough to remember the start of the war and Kouno is continuing the custom of avoiding that topic altogether, preferring to treat war as some great inscrutable force of nature rather than being caused by the actions of men and nations.
In “Country of Cherry Blossoms, Part 1,” a young girl is new to her school, in the Nakano district of Tokyo in 1987, and with the name Ishikawa Nanami she is quickly nicknamed after the sixteenth-century folk hero Ishikawa Goemon who is also the namesake of a character in Lupin III. It is quickly established from her journal that her grandmother is at the hospital staying with her brother. Nanami clandestinely visits her brother Nagio in hospital. Having taken some cherry blossoms from the baseball field before sneaking off, she surprises her brother with a shower of them all across his hospital bed (47). Oba-san was absent only briefly from Nagio’s room; she was having her own medical tests. Though her grandmother scolds her for visiting the hospital alone, especially with a nosebleed, her father ignores the incident entirely because “he just had too much on his mind” (51). The real nature of Nagio’s illness is not revealed, merely referenced as asthma, from his approximate age and the fact that their mother is dead, it is likely that he suffers from the lingering effects of his mother’s radiation exposure. Oba-san was quite ill, the test results also providing worry for Nanami and Nagio’s father. The bombing is given no direct mention in this vignette but it is directly responsible for all of the action, limited though it is.
The final story, “Country of Blossoms, Part 2,” is set primarily in summer 2004 but several flashbacks are woven into the fabric of the story. This final installment is in many ways the most complex narrative in that it ties together the previous two in a way not hinted at in the earlier narratives. It opens with the Ishikawa family watching a televised baseball game. The father, Asahi, leaves the room and his children begin discussing his recent odd behavior, disappearing for a few days without explanation and a phone bill five times its normal cost (55). Nagio is healthy now, but the stigma of being a child of the bomb. He wishes to court Tone Toko, Nanami’s childhood friend, but her parents have forbidden him to continue seeing her and he places a farewell note in Toko’s purse (69). It is revealed that Asahi has been visiting a gravesite and former shack community in Hiroshima during his disappearances, and his daughter Nanami and her friend Toko tail him during one such outing. Asahi has a flashback of fond memories to his early college days when he first came to Hiroshima. He stayed with Hirano Fujimi, the mother of Minami who died in the first story, a point confirmed in the flashback (74). Asahi is Minami’s younger brother who was sent away to live with an aunt and adopted, thus taking on the different surname of Ishikawa (26 and 74). The young Asahi is the only person to say “people are too quick to blame things on the bomb” (75). While possibly true in some ways, the context of it can be read to mean he thinks the young neighbor girl, Ota Kyoka, is natively stupid and clumsy rather than suffering from pre-natal radiation exposure. Asahi has no direct experience of the bombing, having been sent to the country for safety well before it. His life was so different he even spoke a separate dialect that people in his hometown could not understand (26 and 76). His reverie ended, Asahi returns home. Toko, however, spent her day at the Peace Museum and becomes violently ill from a mixture of revulsion and thinking about the consequences had it been her own family thus affected, not realizing the reasons for Asahi’s pilgrimages. Nanami takes her to a nearby hotel to rest for a night and has her own moment of déjà vu, reliving the opening episode of her own experiences with her brother and grandmother in hospital and her mother dying on the floor as she opens their apartment door (80). Kyoka was Nanami’s mother and thus Asahi’s wife. Nanami takes the note from Toko’s purse without her knowing anything about it and arranges for her brother to meet up with her, neither of the two knowing of the scheme. As she walks away, Nanami rips up the note into small pieces, similar to the cherry blossoms she dropped on her brother’s childhood hospital bed; she sends the pieces into the wind as an offering to her mother’s spirit and to all who suffered with her (91).
The ideas in this story, and it is one story, are expressive of Japan’s overall response to the bombing, a mix of visceral revulsion toward both the event and its victims and a refusal to examine the chain of causation behind it. In generic war, there are neither causes nor responsibilities. Using this sort of rhetoric denies the uniqueness of the trauma suffered while simultaneously avoiding guilt for the culture that perpetuated and permitted so much atrocity before they suffered their own. Kouno is not hibakusha herself, an atom bomb survivor, nor is she the child of survivors. She has no immediate friends or family to whom she can refer for direct experiences. In her Afterword, she positions the events as in “the distant past” (103). The events occurred less than sixty years before the book was written, a span of perhaps a single human lifetime and thus hardly “distant” chronologically. She effectively does the exact same thing that the entire rest of Japanese society does on this topic: place it so far out of one’s relatable context as to make it into a dark fantasy with no connection to the real. Kouno admits her countrymen know very little about the event, but she does nothing to correct it beyond humanizing the hibakusha experience. The actual events themselves are still shrouded in myth. The narrative is thus a deeply layered tale which simultaneously deconstructs and reconstructs history and is not for the faint of heart or those who avoid introspection.
Prof. J. Holder Bennett, Collin College