REVIEW by Dan Bradley

NWR Issue 107

The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine

by Akiyuki Nosaka, trans Ginny Tapley Takemori

This devastating yet ultimately uplifting collection of children’s stories is haunted by a single date: 15th August, 1945. This is the day when Emperor Hirohito gave his national radio address announcing the Japanese surrender to the Allies and, in Japan, is considered to be the day the war ended. However, for the characters the end of the war is no release from suffering: death and immeasurable loss still cast a long shadow over their attempts to survive, and to find love, companionship and meaning in a world obliterated by senseless violence.

War has scorched the human world, collapsed the boundaries between man and animal, reality and fantasy, and the survivors are left alone to fend for themselves in a landscape of burned-out cities:

The blackened remnants of telegraph poles and toilet bowls, cash boxes, water pipes, bed frames, sewing-machine bobbin cases, wire-reinforced glass and various bits of wreckage half buried in the ground were testament to the daily lives of the people who had until recently been living here.

These fantastical tales of talking animals and unlikely friendships are all grounded in tactile and intimate details of disease, fire, food shortages and rationing, all drawn from the author’s own horrifying war-time experiences. Nosaka’s adoptive parents were killed in the American firebombing of Kobe in 1945 and, at age 14, he and his younger sister were sent to an evacuation camp, where she starved to death. This reoccurring motif of children torn from their parents, caring for siblings or pets and struggling to survive in blackened, burned-out ruins, is one that features in much of his work. Perhaps his most representative and well-known work is the semi-autobiographical Grave of the Fireflies, which was translated into English and adapted into a critically acclaimed anime by Studio Ghibli in 1988.

And yet, from this carnage and trauma emerge unlikely bonds between children and animals: a dying old wolf cares for an abandoned young girl as though it were her own cub; a sceptical young kamikaze pilot keeps a cockroach as a pet; a lonely whale falls in love with a Japanese naval fleet submarine. That love, hope and unfailing courage are able to transcend language barriers and even death, make the irreconciliable losses even sadder. Each story returns to that date like a traumatic flashback, hoping against hope that the outcome will be different this time. This defiance in the face of death is stunningly imagined in ‘The Mother That Turned into a Kite’. B-29s level a city with incendiary bombs and a mother and her young son are trapped by the approaching fires. Death is certain, but the mother soothes her young child with lullabies, then cools his skin with her tears, her sweat, her breast-milk and, in a final act of self-sacrifice, her blood. Her fallen body protects him and her scorched, dessicated body is then caught by the wind and floats into the sky like a kite. Unafraid, the young boy waits in the ruins, watching his mother look down from far above, until he too perishes and is able to join her in the story’s unbearably sad conclusion.

The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine trembles with ferocious anger and scalding loss, but yet it never descends into bitterness. The adult American POWs or Japanese military personnel behind the violence that erupts in these stories are seen with the same empathy as the innocent children and animals that clamber from the rubble. The collection can be difficult and upsetting but Nosaka’s unwavering faith in the transformative power of love, courage and the imagination is ultimately uplifting.

Dan Bradley is a writer and translator from Japanese.


previous review: A Life’s Work: The Art of Evelyn Williams
next review: The Republic of Imagination


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