Set in an Osaka army barrack during the final stages of a losing war. A place where food rations are low, corruption is high, physical abuse common, and where mobilization, almost certainly, means death. A place where it’s each man for himself. ‘A place’, one of the two protagonists muses, ‘where the air that is needed to be human is sucked out from.’ It’s a vacuum of humanity, a Zone of Emptiness (ahaah!) one might say.
On the human level, this book is about a friendship between the protagonists, two soldiers named Sōda and Kitani. Sōda is a middle class type, educated and conscientious. (He’s basically the author.) Used by the army not as a warrior, but a pencil pusher. Kitani is a little less cultured, but of a type Japanese audiences tend to love: the sincere hothead who gets himself in trouble for not being calculating enough. (Compare the protagonist of Natsume’s Botchan .) When we meet him he has just spent two years – of terrible abuse & loneliness – in military prison for a minor offense that was exaggerated because of military ‘office politics’. Needless to say, his sincere heart would like some revenge now. Sōda takes a priestly pity and a human liking to him to the point of infatuation.*
Thematically it’s about corruption and various abuses in the army. About class and the evils of hierarchy (both Sōda and Noma are/were attracted to communism). But mostly it’s a warning against how militarism has robbed an entire generation of Japanese men of its humanity. The book was written (or at least published) in 1952, when the initial post-1945 pacifism had waned off and Japanese militarism was on the rise again in the shadow of the (then not so) Cold War. (In neighboring Korea, at that time, the war was pretty far from ‘cold’.) We can be human beings or we can be militarists, Noma is telling his compatriots, we cannot be both.
At the same time, it was written for foreign audiences. Noma is explicit in his foreword that he intends to paint a human face on Japanese soldiers, who were dehumanized not just by the military machine they were part of, but also in the Allied imagination. The cause of our militarist government was wrong, and our officer class may have consisted (at least in part) of criminals … but our soldiers, like yours, were human beings. At least give them that much.
I feel very sympathetic to those messages.
But I did not enjoy reading the book. One problem is that too much of the action consists of characters trying to find other characters. It seems no matter where you open the book, either Sōda is looking for Kitani (or some other character) or Kitani is looking for the officers who he feels set him up to go to prison (or some other character) and this is only occasionally alternated with other characters looking for them (or some other character). And I didn’t count, but my guess is that more than half the time the search is unsuccessful. So ‘X is going here and there to find Y, but Y isn’t there so X goes back to his bunk. Then, later, X goes off to find Y again, but he still can’t find him, so he starts looking for Z instead, whom he also doesn’t find, so he goes back to his bunk again.’ This is about 90% of the book, I felt. (Though this might be slightly exaggerated.) Probably the intended effect was to disorient the reader, similar to that in Kafka’s The Castle , but its actual effect (as in The Castle) was to completely and constantly bore at least this reader.†
So although it definitely has value as a lifting of the militaristic veil, allowing us to see the human face behind it, reading it was a rather boring task to which I had to push myself through.
(Like a soldier, one might say … )
* Because Sōda is both so priestlike and (probably) like Noma, it may be relevant to note that Noma was a son of a Buddhist priest and was initially brought up to succeed him. What is certainly relevant is that, like Kitani, Noma has spent time in Osaka’s military prison himself.
† To be fair to the author, this could very well be a translation issue. In the original Japanese these may have been very entertaining scenes that were successful in their purpose. In my (Dutch)‡ copy (which is likely a translation from a third language) they weren’t, not to me at least.
‡ In het Nederlands vertaald als Osaka 1945 door Halbo C. Kool (?) uit zoals gezegd vermoedelijk een derde taal. (Waarschijnlijk Frans of Duits, aangezien de Nederlandse uitgave geloof ik een jaar eerder dan de Engelse verscheen.)