I keep reading modern Japanese fiction in the hope that, one day, it will suddenly all make sense; but it hasn’t happened yet. This slim little book is, for the most part, a gentle and achingly tragic tale of a near future that feels all too plausible. Environmental and nuclear catastrophe has led to political isolationism, mass extinction and the reversal of the natural order: the old remain spry and sprightly into extreme old age, while the children suffer from genetic mutations and endemic sickness. We watch an old man struggling to care for his great-grandson, and trying to come to terms with the guilt of an entire generation. It all flows along terribly well until the last pages, when a sudden and utterly unnecessary narrative shift leaves you floundering at the final curtain.
Yoshiro is over a hundred years old but he’s still hale and hearty. In his lifetime, he’s seen the world change beyond recognition, from the first warnings of environmental disaster in his youth, to the present uneasy state of things. As the demand for natural resources intensifies, Japan has closed its borders against the outside world, deliberately returning to its Edo-period isolationism. Foreign words are outlawed; foreign concepts suspicious. Japan has decided to go it alone, relying on the orchards and fields of Okinawa. The message is attractive politically, but life on the ground is harder. With the centre of Tokyo now deserted and contaminated, the politicians and the wealthy have fled into their gated communities and ordinary people struggle to get by in a world where fruit and vitamins for their children are desperately hard to come by.
And vitamins are vital, for the children of this new age have been born weak and stunted, their lives hanging by a thread. Yoshiro cares for his great-grandson Mumei, whose feckless father has long since disappeared, and whose grandmother (Yoshiro’s daughter) has made a new life for herself picking fruit in Okinawa. When life promises to last forever, and the elderly keep their health, there seems no point in tying oneself down to children, family, home. But Yoshiro is old enough to think differently. And so he alone watches as Mumei grows and struggles to thrive (though never complaining: for Mumei, this is normal). It’s Yoshiro who takes his great-grandson to school, carrying him on the back of the bike when Mumei can’t manage more than a few steps on his malformed legs, or who frets over getting hold of an orange, or who tells Mumei stories about animals he’ll never see and a wider world he’ll never visit. He knows that Mumei is likely to die before adulthood and yet, like all carers for all children in this new Japan, Yoshiro is determined to do all that he can to give his little boy the best possible chance. This is where the impact of the story truly lies: in the way that, even under the most desperate circumstances, our basic humanity still finds expression.
Spoilers ahead in this paragraph, because I want to go back to that really unsatisfying ending. This sweet, sad little fable is tripping along quite happily when Tawada suddenly seems to get bored and throws in a curveball. Mumei undergoes some kind of fit at nursery school and wakes up again at the age of fifteen – not having been in a coma, or anything like that, but as if his consciousness just got bored of the intervening years. We see that he’s lived them, but can’t really remember them. Narratively, as well as chronologically, we have to jump over a great chasm and we find ourselves in a single scene that doesn’t really seem to have much bearing on what comes before; nor does it act as a tying up. Indeed, the end is entirely abrupt and doesn’t really answer any of the implicit questions posed in the first part. It’s hugely frustrating.
Perhaps I’m doomed to disappointment if I expect Japanese fiction to follow Western narrative norms, but I’m familiar with writers like Murakami and he’s perfectly capable of spinning a logically constructed story. For the most part, Tawada’s story is structured so conventionally that this final shift feels jarring and actually spoiled my enjoyment of all that came before, because it left me feeling as if I’d only read fragments. (Had the end made slightly more sense, the story would have been edging towards four stars.) But I’m very open to hearing from others who might be more familiar with the conventions of Japanese fiction and who might be able to explain to me what Tawada is trying to do.
It’s a shame about that ending, because I really enjoyed the rest. It offers a thoughtful perspective on natural disaster and shows us that a post-apocalyptic scenario doesn’t have to involve zombies or survivalists or living in caves, but could be a perfectly logical consequence of the way that we live now – madly using up the world’s resources without a thought for how future generations might live on an Earth stripped back to the bone.