“The ultimate defeat is, in short, to forget; especially to forget those who kill us. It is to die without any suspicion, to the very end, of how perverse people are. There is no use in struggling when we already have one foot in the grave. And we must not forgive and forget. We must report, one by one, everything we have learned about the cruelty of man. Otherwise we cannot die. If we do this, then our lives will not have been wasted.”

Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Le Voyage au Bout de la Nuit (as quoted by Kenzaburo Oe in Hiroshima Notes (“On Human Dignity”))

Fumiyo Kouno’s famous work on the after effects and survivors of the Hiroshima bomb needs little by way of introduction. Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms has won a Tezuka prize and has received near unanimous acclaim from American comic critics. This includes a book of the year citation from Dirk Deppey as well as high and consistent praise from the noted manga critic, David Welsh, who counts it among his very favorites.

The opening pages of  Kouno’s narrative are intentionally filled with a sense of the ordinary: there is a period of communion over a recently finished dress; the protagonist’s, Minami’s,  tranquil passage through the city of Hiroshima with its period detail; and her quiet austerity as she collects bamboo wrappers to make a pair of sandals. The gentle rhythms of life and conversation are interrupted only by Minami’s exclamations and flashbacks.  Her past ordeals are inseparable from her present reality and triggered by the simplest of suggestions: in one instance, that she would make “a good wife” and, later, a combination of memory and the senses as the shadows, heat and steam of a bathhouse produce unwelcome reminiscences. Another flashback is triggered by the hint of romantic love which becomes mixed with descriptions of swollen bodies, melting shoes and of walking over the dead. Her friends and family remain at a distance, almost placid observers of her gradual descent into darkness. It is this tragic lyricism, the slow but measured pace conferring a sense of dignity, which seems to have earned Kouno’s story a place in so many readers’ hearts.

In her review of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, Shaenon K. Garrity suggests that  Kouno’s book is about “the sad and lovely and aching city that grew up around that horror” and that “Kouno finds beauty and sweetness within that darkness”. Joe McCulloch is equally effusive in his praise proposing that “Kouno means it all to be as soothing and populist as she can make it, so the creeping hand of slow death can intermittently reach in and knock it all down”, finally labeling it “a deeply affirmative book, one eager to seat the reader on its final image of a train barreling toward the future”.

Another articulate proponent can be found in the person of Katherine Dacey. In explicating and defending a section of Kouno’s story where Minami wonders what pleasure “the people who dropped the bomb” would derive from her death, Dacey writes:

“Yet I think this passage invites a second reading as well, as a very human attempt to make sense of tragedy, to express the character’s understandable need to know why she — a civilian — was subjected to such unimaginable horror, rather than a denial of the suffering caused by the Japanese…”

This defense was partially written in response to Casey Brienza’s forthright comments on Kouno’s work which are worth quoting in a sizable chunk:

“An overly sentimental, nostalgic fantasy about two generations of a family of “ordinary” Japanese people whose lives were touched by the tragedy of nuclear war. In the tradition of certain works by Miyazaki Hayao and Tezuka Osamu, this manga pretends an apolitical, humane perspective on events of global import…when in fact the point of view is intensely partisan and potentially incendiary in an international context. Kouno’s abbreviated tale is just the latest in a wealth of domestic pop culture and literary pretensions portraying Japan as exclusive victim during World War II… These sorts of narcissistic meditations on domestic suffering on the part of “ordinary” citizens allow the Japanese to forget that they started the war…”

Amidst the unstinting praise for Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, these few simple sentences seem to me like a breath of fresh air

Brienza is familiar enough with the medium, material and subject matter not to give the work an ounce of wriggle room. She is certainly correct in pointing out a predilection towards a certain wartime myopia, if not outright blindness, among many Japanese artists.

There is a tendency among comic readers to look upon the products of the form in an almost insular fashion. This is perhaps a consequence of the role comics have come to play in societal dialogue which, for the most part, ranges from little to none. Seen discretely, Kouno’s work may not seem quite so egregious – it would appear to faithfully recount a universally relevant moment of misery and, perhaps, “evil”. Yet when viewed in the context of Japan’s lopsided social and cultural record on the subject of World War 2, it becomes altogether less satisfying and virtuous. The fact that Kouno is not a Hiroshima survivor but an artist in search of “truth” makes her take on the subject matter appear even more glib.

In her review, Dacey suggest that the:

“…honest vulnerability, in turn, makes it possible for readers from all walks of life to enter sympathetically into Kouno’s haunting yet life-affirming story, to look past the politics of suffering and representation to understand the price that civilians pay in every war.”

In the same vein, a comment by “Shelly” in response to Dacey’s article asserts that Brienza is:

“…complaining that the book wasn’t about what she wanted it to be about, rather than what is. The book tells of the aftermath of the bombings from the very personal points of view of a few survivors and their descendants. I’m quite sure they weren’t feeling a need for even-handed contemplation of the event after all they’d gone through, and so it would have been ridiculous to include such things.”

I have my doubts if Brienza was asking for a more even-handed contemplation of the events in Kouno’s book.  Rather, I would suggest that her point is that the Japanese have been mining this vein of self-pity and putting a gloss on their history for so long, and to the approval of so many commentators that any further appeasement should not be tolerated.

Kouno has merely added her voice to a chorus of material on the same subject matter, much of which is more meaningful, forceful and effective, as is the case with Kenzaburo Oe’s collection of essays in Hiroshima Notes (1965).

Kouno’s manga is a gentle dramatization of the problems faced by the survivors of the atomic bomb and their descendants: the stigma of being a hibakusha, the fear of being related to a victim and the struggle between memory and forgetting.  In this, it has many similarities to Oe’s work which is listed as one of Kouno’s main reference sources together with works like Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain (the most famous novel on the subject).

Indeed, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms owes a great deal to Oe’s seminal book, a compact work which wrestles magnificently with the dilemmas faced by the survivors of the atomic bomb. “Country of Cherry Blossoms” (the second and third chapters in Kouno’s manga) reflects, in part, the concerns of a Hiroshima survivor whose letter Oe reproduces in his book, which reads:

“Why are there no stories, for example, of families who endured hard times but recovered their health and now live as normal human beings? Must all surviving A-bomb victims eventually meet a tragic death caused by radiation after-effects? Is it not possible for the victims to overcome their illnesses, and their psychological anxiety and inferiority complexes, and thus die a natural death like other people?”

It should be noted, however, that Hiroshima Notes in itself would have provided no lessons for Kouno if she was searching for a new paradigm in the approach of the Japanese to this singular event. For even in Oe’s book we find little of the self-reproof we find in the works of writers such as W. G. Sebald. Oe recognized this himself and had the following to say in his 1995 introduction to Hiroshima Notes:

“At the time of writing the essays in the book I was sadly lacking in the attitude and ability needed to recast Hiroshima in an Asian perspective. In that respect I reflected the prevailing Japanese outlook on Hiroshima. In response to criticisms from Korea and the Philippines, however, I have since revised my views of Hiroshima. I have focused more on Japan’s wars of aggression against Asian peoples, on understanding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as one result of those wars, and on the special hardships suffered by the many Koreans who experienced the atomic bombings.”

Kouno’s manga is not a work of courage or insight but one of conformity. It should not be met with our acquiescence or blessings. It merely accedes to the norm in addressing the subject of Japan’s suffering and not its guilt. The danger here is of the single story which becomes at once cultural memory and history both for the Japanese and a world which so easily forgets. While many find it quite acceptable to view this work (and others of its ilk) in isolation, I am concerned by that quality of ignorance or self-centeredness which allows such pieces to be both produced and honored with a minimum of reservations.

It is possible to address the issue of war and misery without becoming blinkered and self-indulgent. It should be noted, however, that the effect as far as much Japanese war-related fiction is concerned is often piecemeal and rarely sustained, with only the vaguest hints of the dishonorable aspects of the war ever mentioned. As such, Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition is particularly notable for balancing the demands of an unsympathetic audience with that of an unflinching portrait of the savage indignities placed upon Chinese forced laborers in Manchuria. Similarly, Katsuichi Honda’s book on the Nanking Massacre is remarkable for its research, frankness and temerity.

The response of the Germans to their own suffering could not be more different from that of the Japanese. W. G. Sebald’s “Air War and Literature” is one of the most notable essays on this subject and concerns the silence of German writers on the destruction wrought on their nation over the course of World War 2, something which is glaringly at odds with the path taken by the Japanese people and their cultural gatekeepers.

In the opening paragraphs of his essay, Sebald writes:

“The destruction, on a scale without historical precedent, entered the annals of the nation, as it set about rebuilding itself, only in the form of vague generalizations. It seems to have left scarcely a trace of pain behind in the collective consciousness, it has been largely obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected and it never played any appreciable part in the discussion of the internal constitution of our country.”

One might quite easily reverse this entire statement when it comes to the area of Japanese writing on the war, this despite that nation’s considerably more tepid response to its war crimes. The reader may also be astonished that so mild and measured an article as Sebald’s should have been received with such consternation in Germany and this as late as 1999.

The Japanese have been lucky in this respect and should thank the vagaries of  American guilt, the nature and novelty of the destructive device used, the all too swift rehabilitation of their rulers, and the slip from conscious memory of the over 10 million Asians murdered by the Japanese during World War 2. In the case of much Japanese literature on the war, shame, contrition, and forgiveness have rarely been found to be needful or even necessary, especially when self-forgiveness has been sanctioned by the government, the populace, and the critics. Kouno’s book may be largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things but this does not make it any less culpable in this state of affairs.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms adds little to the literature extant on the subject. Its virtues lie in its format, accessibility and marriage of the gravitas associated with the subject of the hibakusha to the dreamy sentimentality so typical of Japanese mainstream movies. In short, it is the prefect recipe for short attention spans, a poem for indolent sensibilities.

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