Kenzaburō Ōe is a writer I haven’t read much by for one reason or another, so January in Japan is the perfect time to remedy that. I recently acquired three of his works second-hand from Abe Books, and I’m starting today with his first real novel – a book concerning youthful misdemeanours and something far more sinister…
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (translated by Paul St John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama) is a story of reformatory kids during wartime Japan. A group of sullen boys are in the process of being evacuated to a rural village when the narrator is joined by his younger brother. The young boy isn’t a juvenile delinquent though; his dad is just taking advantage of the evacuation.
When the kids arrive at their destination, they soon find that the villagers despise them (and that there’s no chance of escape from the isolated location). However, when an illness breaks out in the village, the kids are abandoned by the villagers, left stranded in the middle of nowhere with no hope of rescue. It’s time to fend for themselves…
It’s a superb story, very easy to read, but with a deeper meaning. We see the young delinquents as the dregs of society, at the mercy of the heartless villagers. After being forced to bury the animals that have died from the sickness, they are left to their fate:
“The primitive Japanese, so terrified of the resurrection of their dead, had folded the legs of the corpses and piled their graves with massively heavy slabs of stone. We too stamped the earth with legs strengthened by fear of our friend, once a comrade of ours, rising up from out of the earth and rampaging in the village where children had been left behind alone and cut off.”
p.102 (Picador, 1996)
Is it all too late though? The germs are spreading…
Nip the Buds,… is a very Lord of The Flies-like novel in the way the young protagonists are left to sort out their own affairs. After the initial confusion, they are forced to concentrate on organisation, including a choice of leader, allocating accommodation and working out how to get food. As they start to hunt and gather, the reader is cheering them on in their quest for survival in the harsh mountainous terrain.
One of the best parts of the book is its depiction of the children, and it’s important to remember that despite their ‘crimes’, that’s just what they are, kids. Initially locked up overnight without water, then abandoned without food, the kids talk big but don’t really understand the greater picture. There are several examples of the children exposing themselves, or sitting around, masturbating, time out from idly killing time in the sun. For children who have never experienced freedom, the question of how to live without a rigid structure is a weighty one.
Another interesting theme is the relationship between the narrator and his younger brother (Ōe doesn’t provide us with many names here…). The central figure is the tough one, the delinquent, and the leader of the group. He becomes increasingly torn between his roles as elder brother and leader, and his growing affection for a girl left behind by the villagers. Despite his best efforts, he can’t keep everyone happy, no matter how much he wants to, and eventually he is going to have to make some painful choices.
There’s a lot more to Nip the Buds,… than this though. It can also be read as an allegory of the atrocities of war and the failure of Japanese society:
“Through our experience of escape and failure as we shifted from village to village, we had learned that we were surrounded by gigantic walls. In the farming villages, we were like splinters stuck in skin. In an instant we would be pressed in on from all sides by coagulating flesh, extruded and suffocated. These farmers, wearing the hard armour of their clannishness, refused to allow others to pass through, let alone settle in. It was we, a small group, who were just drifting on a sea which never took in people from outside but threw them back.” (p.25)
In fact, this is true for all Japanese of the time – you can shut up and fall in line or else. This attitude, Ōe argues, got Japan into this mess in the first place – the horrors of the war were a consequence of ordinary Japanese following the lead of the insane military. Woe betide anyone who thinks of standing up against this system.
At the end of the novel, we see order reasserted, with cruel, savage consequences. It would be nice if we ended on a bright note with hope for the future – instead we are back in the dark, primeval forests, cold and scared. While Ōe believes that the results for society of people blindly following their leaders is tragic, the consequences for individuals who stand up for their beliefs are even worse.