Tuesday 27 January 2015

'The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine' by Akiyuki Nosaka (Review)

When I first heard that Pushkin Children's Books were bringing out a Japanese title in February, I was keen to get my hands on a copy, mainly so that my daughter Emily could take part in January in Japan.  The only thing I knew about the book was the title, and it sounded harmless enough - however, when it arrived, a cursory flick through was enough to tell me that this was a book I'd be reading alone.  Let me explain why...

Akiyuki Nosaka's The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a collection of seven stories written for children.  Each takes place (both inside and outside Japan) on exactly the same day in history, the 15th of August, 1945.  For those unaware of the significance of this date, this was the day Japan surrendered, and the Second World War finally ended...

The seven stories act as an educational tool for young readers, describing the plight of the Japanese people at the end of the conflict.  The writer touches on the futility of war while focusing on the hardship felt by those not involved in the actual fighting.  It's written in a style that will enable children to understand what's happening, but be warned - interesting as the stories are, they can certainly be a bit grim...

While the tales here are far removed from Disney films, one thing they do have in common is an abundance of animals in starring roles.  In 'The Parrot and the Boy', the bird is a companion that reminds a boy of his father, killed years earlier in the war.  The story takes place in an air-raid shelter in a bombed-out neighbourhood:
"Originally it had  been constructed at the side of the road, but in the air raid two months earlier the town had been completely razed to the ground all the way from the mountain to the sea, and in the burnt-out ruins it was no longer possible to tell where houses had once stood and roads had once run."
'The Parrot and the Boy', p.22 (Pushkin Children's Press, 2015)
While the boy has survived the initial onslaught (as has his parrot), shell-shock and hunger will make life in the shelter difficult.  Hopefully, the parrot will be able to keep the boy's spirits up until help arrives.

The animal theme continues with 'The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl', in which a dying wolf falls in with a girl abandoned by refugees flooding out of Manchuria, and 'The Red Dragonfly and the Cockroach', where a young kamikaze pilot takes his insect 'friend' on a last, fatal mission.  As for the title story, it does exactly what it promises, portraying a whale who mistakes a Japanese submarine for an attractive female of his species.  It's a particularly sobering tale in which it's fair to say that the poor love-lorn whale has a tragic end...

Even where the focus is on the people, the suffering keeps coming.  'The Mother that Turned into a Kite' features a woman caught in an inferno with her young son doing everything she can to give him a chance of survival:
"Even her sweat was hot, she thought, as she desperately fumbled for more.  If only the trickle of perspiration could be more like a waterfall.  When she rubbed it on Katchan's bare hands and feet, the dryness gave way to a smooth and pleasant sensation, as if he'd just got out of the bath."
'The Mother that turned into a Kite', p.41
In 'The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl', we meet another lost couple, an escaped POW and an orphan girl, as they await the end of the war together.  If only there could be a happy ending in this one (here's a hint - probably not).

It's an excellent, if sombre, collection, nicely translated by Tapley Takemori.  While the language used is simple, the stories flow smoothly and are always compelling, making for a deceptively polished text.  The mood is further enhanced by the illustrations of Mika Provata-Carlone.  Each story has several black-and-white ink drawings, simple, effective and poignant companions to the texts.

The book is heart-breaking at times - with many sacrifices in vain, most of the stories have a bleak ending.  In fact, it's not until the final story, 'The Cake Tree in the Ruins', that a ray of light appears.  This one is a strange tale of a tree sprouting from the ashes of a burnt-out home.  When some local boys eat the leaves, they discover that the tree is actually made of cake, leading the reader into a back story of an ailing boy and his childish dream.  It's an allegorical piece giving hope for the future, the writer telling the children that the grown-ups started the war, not them - it's time for the children of Japan, and the world, to take the stage and shape the coming years.

It's an important message for children to hear, and Nosaka's book is full of stories they need to be told.  The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine is a book I'd definitely recommend for upper primary children as it's important for them to learn about the past to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.  However, for a seven-year-old (and a rather sensitive seven-year-old at that), this would be far too much too soon.  You can't shelter your child from the realities of the world forever, but I'm going to leave it a little while longer before Emily gets to read this one...