Kappa Senoh's autobiographical novel tells the story of a boy called H who lives through the Allied fire bombing on Kobe, Japan. The boy Hajimi Senoh (called "H") is the child protagonist in Kappah Senoh's autobiographical story set in Kobe, Japan in the 1930s. H is eight years old when the novel begins, and he is older than his years. H is born of Christian parents, but he does not call himself a believer. His father is a tailor. And his mother is a housewife. H is suspicious of the Japanese fascist state, unlike most people in Kobe who unflinchingly accept the status quo; H questions the policies of the state.
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The cover of the book shows a school picture of H, wearing a sweater with his name, “H” stitched on the front (which stands for Hajimi, also the Japanese word for “beginning”). H says about himself, “[I] always assumed an unconcerned expression, as though [I] hadn't a care in the world.” But inside H's mind is an active brain who questions the apparent mores of his school, family and government. Reading about the exploits of the Shinto gods in a book in the library H comes across a story of a goddess who danced “stark naked.” Intrigued by this open expression of the gods he is disappointed that his school-issued textbook does not detail the goddess's nakedness and instead depicts her clothed. Asking his teacher why this is so, the teacher minimizes H's question and tells him he will understand the reason once he gets older. H realizes that his opinions goes against the mores of his school and the unwritten code of behavior imposed on Japan's citizens. He has a fear of being arrested and internalizes the thought that what he says is a slight against the gods (as well as a slight against the emperor who he believes was considered divine).
At a school assembly, H breaks the rules and dares to look at the image of the Emperor God whose likeness is displayed. While the entire school bows to the emperor whom the students believe is a god on earth, H looks up ands sees that the divine image is the same as the photographs of the emperor that adorn most Japanese households. Disgusted by this “lie” as he calls it, he begins to question the state's religious ideology. Mimicking the posture of an obeying citizen though, he responds to his examiner's questions about Japanese intentions to join the war effort with considerable aplomb and diplomacy for a twelve year old. He tells his teachers that Japan is only liberating Asia from the oppression of European colonialism and that “to win the war, every individual must possess the determination to smash the American and British fiends to conserve resources” But at the end of the speech, he thinks to himself, “I'm a cunning devil, though I say it myself!”
H wets his bed, but his sister does not make fun of his enuresis, when she finds out that he has soiled the bed. She is distressed that it causes H suffering. He cannot understand why his sister is so nice to him when he is not a nice person at all. H felt chastened that his sister was nicer than he was. A neighbor accuses the Senoh family of spying for the United States because H has a postcard of the New York City skyline in his room. H, on the outside, postures the appearance of an obeying Japanese citizen, but on the inside, he is rebellious and questions the conventions of society. The story recounts his growing up and reveals his emerging aesthetic and artistic sensibilities. Each chapter of the novel, in some way, details the way H postures an outward reality that conceals his inward real self.
H has a fascination with the cinema. H does not like studying math and “he would suddenly find himself for no particular reason thinking about movies instead." He draws pictures of samurai sword fights instead of sums. He saves up his secret savings to go see the most popular swashbuckling actors of the day. He watches movies while his Father shops for fabrics. H likes Charlie Chaplin and Japanese versions of the cowboy genre. H is horrified by the image of man getting caught in the cogs of machine unable to escape. H's mother takes him to a restaurant. H orders oyakodon, a Japanese dish of mixed chicken, egg and rice. Upon telling the proprietress that he prefers his leeks cut horizontally and his eggs cooked so that they are soft and light, the woman merely smiles at H's precociousness and serves the meal as he had indicated. H promises to return the next week with a crayon drawing of oyakodon that the proprietress would be able to hang in her shop window. The drawing is placed in the shop window, and he and his mother are given a free meal.
The children at H's school are taught to be soldiers at eight and nine years old and are prompted to grow up much faster than they should. H's teacher catches him drawing a copy Manet's nude painting Olympia, and she accuses him of drawing pornography and being “un-Japanese.” The teacher strikes H twice with his fist in front of other teachers who disapprove but say nothing. H retreats to the roof of the school, and in a poignant but resilient moment, his mouth stops bleeding, “but the pain remained, mingled with sadness."
H's father warned him of the possibility that his art could be censored; although unaware of H's sensitivities, makes H feel paranoid when he chides him for sketching the boats that come into Kobe harbor. His father tells him that it is okay to draw them from photos or books “but you must give up sketching the real thing.”
H befriends a noodle delivery boy and visits him in his apartment to listen to music on his phonograph. With the noodle delivery boy, H learns about arias and opera and listens to a song on a red label record. In this way, he is introduced to art. And he forms a friendship with the delivery boy. But, not realizing the connection between “red” and “communist” H innocently decides to nickname the delivery boy “red label” as a mark of respect. The nickname, though, startles the delivery boy. And the next time H attempts to visit him in the noodle shop, the delivery boy tells him that he cannot visit him. H is hurt by the rejection. He says, “All right, I won't [come]. I expect you've got something private to talk about." Later, when the delivery boy is arrested for having “dangerous thoughts,” H realizes that it is dangerous to have creative thoughts and the life of the artist is under scrutiny.
H passes the side of a house and sees a cart, its top “covered with an oil-stained sail cloth,” carrying the body of a victim of an incendiary bomb. H befriends a film projectionist, nicknamed “Girly Boy,” because of his penchant for taking on a feminine voice, inspired by the movie actresses he projects as his job, onto the screen. The kids in H's school taunt Girly Boy by demanding from him that they see his penis to prove that he is not a girl. When Girly Boy is enlisted by the secret police to join the army, he resists enlistment and hangs himself in an abandoned gas station bathroom. H finds him hanging, “right in front of his eyes, a pair of boots and legs. A human figure was dangling there …. [Girly Boy's] eyes were open, and flies were buzzing loudly about his face. His trousers were wet with urine.”
When the body of a dead Japanese fighter pilot, whose plane had crashed, after a heavy air raid, in the hills beyond H's school, is laid out “in the school's reception area," the “heroic body” of the fighter is venerated by the students, instead of reviled as Girly Boy's body had been. Each child passes the remains and bows their heads in silence. H is humiliated when he is caught poking at his own stool in the woods with a stick, fascinated by undigested bean lodged in it. After wetting his bed, H is caught washing his soiled futon in which he had “mapped” in his sleep a urine pool in the shape of the United States. He goes outside to wash the soiled futon and the girl next door he secretly has a crush on spots him and their eyes met. H is ashamed. Later H goes to the public bathroom and all the stalls are occupied. He sees a boy peeing on a post.
During this time, the Japanese believed their tiny island nation to be impenetrable to attack. It was an outrageous discovery, as is recounted in Senoh's book, when American planes are spotted in the sky and drop incendiary bombs on the city. The planes drop their bombs and fly off. H is certain that it was an American pilot's face that he saw in the cockpit, but his friends at school, who had also seen the plane, dismiss the plane to be American, and instead insist that it is merely a Japanese plane pretending to be American. When a communiqué from Tokyo confirms that the raid was for real, “Everyone was aghast.” For the first time H intimates in his mind that Japan might no be winning the war. The sight of the American planes in the sky does not correspond to the dream world the society had constructed. The Government had informed the people to strengthen their defenses and to dismiss the appearance of the American planes — almost as if it had never happened! — which was reported in the newspaper, “as causing no real panic.” H realizes that there is a disconnect, between what is seen in the sky as real, the dropping of bombs by enemy planes, and the words of the imperial government stating that there is nothing to truly fear.
Houses were equipped with buckets and access to water supplies. These bucket brigades were meant to boost morale, rather than actually prevent the spread of fire in the event of an incendiary explosion. In the same way, school children were taught to distinguish between the three kinds of incendiary bombs the American fighters possessed, that they were the size of soda bottles and to which extent they could destroy buildings and what they were made of, which formed the content of H's classroom instruction. H survives the fire bombing, and lives through the American invasion. He goes to art school, and eventually becomes a professional illustrator.
Best part of story, including ending:
Even though the novel deals with the violence of war, at a playful level the story is humorous. It is easy to love the character of H.
Best scene in story:
H's mother makes him speak the standard Japanese that is spoken on the radio and by foreign missionaries trained to speak Japanese. H protests that the local dialect in Kobe is better and is resistant to changing his language to suit his mother's wishes. But, he does so, while at the same time, reminding himself, when he gets older, he will have to sever his allegiance to his mother's influence. H likes to go to the seashore; thinks of it as his playground. H has a need to break from his mother's rules and frequents the beach with his friends after school. With his friends he lies on the sand on his back, looking up at the stars and "roaring with laughter at private jokes about things their parents knew nothing about.” Before he gets home, he rids himself of the sand grains from his body, from his navel and his clothes to make sure his mother will not discover his transgression.
Opinion about the main character:
H is resilient and he doesn't fit into the totalitarian regime of Japan at the time. I liked most his relationship to his loving family and the contrast with the harsh reality of war and the toll it takes a person.