Book review, from Tokyo – Autumn seems to have come early. The scorching mid 30 degrees Celcius heat has vanished miraculously, and I find myself in a lower 20s drizzly mist. Well, one could take solace in that the Obon holidays again welcomed the peak of summer in August, a period that coincides with the yearly ceremony to mark the date of end of World War II in Japan, which was again broadcast on TV, but this year during the Tokyo Olympics.
“The 15th of August, 1945” – this date starts each story in Akiyuki Nosaka’s The Cake Tree in the Ruins (Pushkin Press 2018, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori). Nosaka lived through the firebombing of Kobe and survived his family. An award-winning writer whose works which include The Grave of the Fireflies, which inspired the Studio Ghibli movie, Cake Tree is a collection of twelve short stories of his memories from his childhood. Its content is apparent in the original Japanese title 『戦争童話集』(Sensou-douwa shuu; Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2003, original edition 1980), literally “wartime children’s stories”.
What did Nosaka want his stories to convey? Well, they are certainly not your usual reading fare.
An oversized lovelorn whale who gets blown into bits by depth charges to protect his beloved, a similarly-sized submarine; a boy who loses his mother and his speech in shock and has to relearn it from his pet parrot; a mother who turns into a kite after applying her milk to soothe her son’s skin as they are engulfed in flames; an old she-wolf who finds the energy to protect a diseased Japanese girl abandoned by her fleeing brethren in China; a kamikaze pilot who takes a pet cockroach out on his last mission and leaves it with rations in his archaic plane’s cockpit on a barren beach; a POW who befriends a girl orphaned by firebombing, takes cover in a forgotten air-raid shelter, and runs off alone into the mountains, fearful of being discovered by civilians bringing news of the end of the war; the story of the cake tree in the ruins that grew from crumbs of Western cakes baked in wartime Japan, a tree that only children knew but the grown-ups never noticed; a keeper who escapes with the zoo’s elephant into the mountains, wandering back to a town burnt to the ground in their search for a new hiding place; a soldier who succumbs to starvation on a southern island but finds his way back to Japan and his mother through stories and folktales; a boy who finally comes to terms with his father’s death when his home bunker is finally filled; the children who deflate themselves to fill one last leather hydrogen balloon weapon and release it into the August sky; and the soldier who loved horses, followed one to the mountains after the barrack’s stable was bombed open, and decided to “quickly follow it in death” to keep its trust.
One line for each story is not enough to illustrate the emotions and thoughts that were aroused. With the exception of the POW’s humorous story, many of them end in death, whether by starvation, assault, flames, disease, or harakiri. However, I did not feel overly miserable nor distressed but instead felt enlightened to the many methods and falsehoods of propaganda and the absurd weapons devised as Imperial Japan reached the end of its tether. I also encountered a fact that I had trouble understanding when I first learned about it from my Japanese relatives – rice rationing continued until as recently as 1982, more than three decades after the war had ended. But more so, I read stories of what people had to do to survive (or die trying) and was pulled through the volume by the solace from the undercurrents of compassion and the humane, regardless of them being between humans or not, in the pages.
The title of this collection comes from the seventh in the volume, perhaps indicating a continuation of the first seven published as The Whale That Fell in Love with a Submarine (Pushkin Children’s Books, 2015). Perhaps the cake tree was a deliberate reference to Kobe, Nosaka’s hometown and a city famous for its Western confections, particularly the Baumkuchen, literally “tree cake” in German. Or perhaps the title alludes to creations like the cake tree with its sweet aroma of care and affection that help us tide over the most difficult of times.
Title: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2018