A disappointing saga of brothers in World War II Tokyo.
Tsukiyama (Dreaming Water, 2005, etc.) was perhaps aiming for a restrained grace in her narrative of two boys growing up amidst the destruction of war, but instead the novel offers little more than a listless chronology of Hiroshi and Kenji’s triumphs and sorrows. Beginning in 1939, the Japanese war in Asia has little impact on the young boys who live in a quiet district in Tokyo. As toddlers their parents died in a boating accident, and ever since the two have been raised, and doted upon, by their loving grandparents, Fumiko and Yoshio. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, life becomes gradually more miserable; there are blackouts, food shortages and the dangerous Kempeitai, a neighborhood association that serves as spy, extortionist and executioner to those under their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the boys still have ambitions—older Hiroshi is to become a sumo wrestler and Kenji a mask maker for the Noh theater. Kenji and Hiroshi are lucky enough to survive the fire bombings that devastate Tokyo, but others are not so fortunate—namely Haru and Aki. The two young girls escape but watch their mother perish, an event that has long-lasting effects on both the girls and Hiroshi and Kenji. After the war Hiroshi becomes an apprentice sumotori (in the stable owned by Haru and Aki’s father) and Kenji goes to university to study architecture. As they become young men, they realize their dreams as Hiroshi climbs the professional ranks of sumo and Kenji gives up architecture for a quiet studio space to carve masks. They both marry (Hiroshi to the suicidal Aki) with tragic results, but through their support of each other, and the nurturing of loved ones, they recover some sense of well-being. Though Tsukiyama creates a vivid portrait of war-time Tokyo and the city’s rebuilding, the history overshadows the characters living it. Hiroshi and Kenji move through the years, yet there is little to draw the reader into their emotional lives.
Reserved storytelling damages a potentially riveting tale.