Thursday, September 18, 2008

Japan immersion beautifully created, but with too much denial!

book review of : The Street of A Thousand Blossoms
This is an outstanding and highly creative literary work; wonderful storytelling of the life of a Tokyo family pre, during and post the Second World War. Two brothers, two sisters, elderly grandparents, a sad mask maker and few other interesting characters are thrown into the mix. Sumo wrestling is the passion of the older brother and also of his grandfather, so there is a lot to know about Sumo, its rituals, history and mystique. A bit less of the Japanese Noh theater and its traditions and especially its masks which are to become the passion of the younger brother. The periods of the story covering the war were truly griping the portrayal came across very real, astonishingly real in its detail and giving the reader the real texture of life those terrifying days of hunger and fear. Tsukiyama's description of the damage to Tokyo from the firebombing, the grey everywhere and the emergence of a little green life months later was masterful.

I could not help feeling that Tsukiyama had exaggerated the anti war feeling amongst ordinary Japanese especially in the period leading up to the war. Virtually every single character we are supposed to care about was against the war...I wonder how representative this was of the Japanese society then! Were the Japanese essentially against the war and only their misguided leaders and those few self serving hypocrites that formed this image of a fanatical nation? I wonder but I am not convinced.... It is wonderful to see a sympathetic account of the lives of those ordinary human beings who just happen to have been on the side of the aggressor nation; it is also a cause for a re-examination of the justice and the morality of the horrors of the firebombing and the atomic bombing of Japanese cities ...I am not sure though that an exaggeration of the anti war feeling helps even though it makes the characters more sympathetic. Somehow this single but crucial point colored my enjoyment of this beautiful novel and made me often feel that the story lose some of its genuineness, its integrity to a certain extent.

While Tsukiyama had attempted to give us complete three dimensional characters, I felt that none of the characters were really sufficiently developed save perhaps for the master mask maker. Indeed there were the weaknesses, faults and difficult traits in everyone but these were somehow just very small shadows on otherwise two dimensional personalities; the strong brother, the sensitive artistic brother, the all wholesome granny, the responsible sister ..etc.

Still despite of these two important defects (antiwar sentiment and character development), Tsukiyama totally immersed me in a different time and culture. Tsukiyama style is wonderful in its detail and texture, her use of Japanese words always enhanced the book rather than detracted from the flow, she is, in particular, incredibly talented in creating a vivid picture of the scenery and place, you will feel that you have really witnessed Japan first hand. As someone fond of most things Japanese, I loved being there while reading The Street of A Thousand Blossoms!

September 18, 2008