When the War of Grown-Ups Ended
Book review – The Whale that Fell in Love with the Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka
“You poor darlings. In the old days we had things like sponge cake, and bean jelly, but you’ve never had the chance to eat such treats, have you?”
For the poor darlings in Akiyuki Nosaka’s The Whale that Fell in Love with the Submarine, the burden was worse than a want of tasty food. Described as the ‘Yakeato Sedai’ or Generation of Ashes, they are the children who came of age as their homes and entire neighbourhoods were charred by American air raids in the Second World War.
Those who survived the scorch of bombs met further misery. Many found themselves orphaned or starved to death. As a child of that generation, Nosaka witnessed both: the Allied firebombing killed his adoptive parents, and one of his sisters died of malnutrition.
Nosaka's collection of stories depicts beyond how children lived and witnessed the war. We hear animals caution their children against humans. Humans have for years killed their kind for meat or oil, and their very sight or mention elicits mistrust. Trees that survived the fire are cut down for firewood, as weeds run riot over everything.
The title story describes how daydreams of a romantic relation get the better of a lonely whale, who mistakes a small submarine for a female sardine whale, one of his kind. Like a hopeless lover, he follows and tries to court the submarine in hopes of forging a relationship.
But inside the submarine are the very creatures of whom his mother warned: “an extremely cruel type of animal called humans”. To be precise, they are adult humans. Forsaking the possibility of friendship, these humans killed countless whales, and the mother is left lamenting that they might be extinct soon.
Each story unfolds to show just what these adult humans are complicit in: forests razed, children dying of starvation, massacres of animals and of their own kind.
A sharp, and almost disabling pain of loneliness is suffered by everyone in these stories, of unlikely friendships and sacrifices formed on the day the war ended. In ‘The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl’, a wolf finds renewed faith in her motherhood when she is unable to eat an abandoned child. Having left her pack in anticipation of death, she carries the child back, hoping the pack will look after her.
Elsewhere, a child and an American prisoner of war are left crying for their mothers when an entire town is reduced to the ground. The prisoner, Steve, and the unnamed girl become siblings and he promises to take her to America.
Not all were fortunate enough to find the comfort of company after the raids.
Two boys, one unnamed and one named Katchan —in ‘The Boy and the Parrot’ and ‘The Mother That Turned into a Kite’ respectively— grapple with fear for their mothers’ lives, their only support. The unnamed boy is holed up in an air-raid shelter with his pet parrot. The raid left him shell-shocked and unable to think or speak. As he learns the word ‘mama’ from his parrot, he comes to realise that the bombs killed his mother.
Katchan witnesses his mother sacrifice herself to protect him from the heat and flames. The fire leaves her flat and dry, and like a kite her body floats in the sky. As they wait for their mothers to meet them again, they are left too weak and emaciated to live beyond the war.
What made all this hunger, death and isolation so much more miserable was beyond the children’s obvious innocence. Unlike the adults, they had no comforting memories to fall back on. The grown-ups could negotiate the bleakness of war by fondly remembering such-and-such food they had at such-and-such restaurant.
But Nosaka, in ‘The Cake Tree in the Ruins’, writes that the children growing up that year had no happy memories to hold on to. The cakes and sweets once flooding the ports had vanished. Caramel and chocolate —supposed to fight exhaustion and sleep— were reserved for the military.
In an interview about the film adaptation of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’, Nosaka says he felt it was justified to steal and “do bad things in the process of growing up” as long as his sister was alive. At the same time, he was sorry to confess the relief he felt when his younger sister —he was her sole support— died. “No one would wake me up in the night like she did with her crying,” he says, “and I wouldn’t have to wander with a child on my back anymore”.
In the stories, some children find themselves on a similar brink: they are forced to steal food in times of starvation. One boy, who is barely eighteen, conceits himself into believing that the suicide mission is for the good. His mother would take pride in his honourable death, he thinks, living a better life with the soldier’s pension she would receive.
Translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori and illustrated by Mika Provata-Carlone, these stories serve as a kind and gentle reminder of those who were forced to pay the price of war. The illustrations of the victims and the war are charred, as if they were images bright once, now burnt and blackened by air raids and fire.
Many of the stories’ subjects shared the same fate. For a country that has suffered difficulties negotiating its complicity in the War, such books —and their authors— remain an important moral check to avoid another one.