Imaginative, poignant stories of the last part of WWII in Japan

Nosaka Akiyuki (1930-2015) is known in the West almost entirely for the 1988 anime adaptation of his story of children after the 1945 firembombing of Kobe, “The Grave of the Fireflies” (Hotaru no Haka) by Takahata Isaho), Nosaka was also a member of the Japanese Diet (legislature) and a pop singer. And another of his works was the basis for Imamura’s dark comedy “The Pornographers” (1966).


The stories in The Cake Tree in the Ruins include seven that the same press (Pushikin) published as The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine, the leadoff story, a very poignant story anthropomorphizing a jumbo male sardine whale. After being ignored by female whales, he fixates on a Japanese submarine, tries to mate with it, and starts following it up and down and al around.


Many of the stories involve an animal and a human, as in “The Parrot and the Boy” “The Elephant and Its Keeper,” and “The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl.” The one nonfiction story, “A Balloon in August” is not without poignancy, either, though Akiyuki does not invest the balloon with emotions.

Most of the stories end with death, sometime gratuitously (IMHO). The only one with a happy ending is the title tale in which a tree grows from cake crumbs and nourishes some children who survived the intense fire-bombing of civilian populations by the US. A 1945 fire-bombing (that the author surived) killed Akiyuki’s adopted father. A sister and a step-sister died of starvation.

Many of the children’s fathers died in distant (colonial) wars, including the one who dug a bunker that his son cherished and his mother heedlessly had filled in after WWII (“My home bunker”). There is also one story set away from Japan, “A Soldier’s Family,” which resonates with “Fires on the Plains” in showing the desperate hunger of troops cut off from resupply.

The stories lack bitterness, though often sardonic about Japan’s military endeavors. Nor is there any explicit condemnation of the US targeting of civilians.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

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