Not much is more startling to read than a paragraph beginning

“At about noon on the day Hiroshima was bombed I went for a walk … “

There are many such sentence surprises in The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath a nine-story volume of Japanese writing on the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 1945, and the decades following.  Edited with a short introduction in 1985, by Kenzaburō Ōe, one the best known of the eight writers, it is a sad, even wrenching, read. Of course; but a necessary one.  Published on the 40th anniversary year it is a small counter the often exciting, valorous accounts of men who make the wars.

With the express purpose not only of telling sad and even wrenching stories but “of highly significant vehicles for thinking about the contemporary world over which hangs the awesome threat of vastly expanded nuclear arsenals.”

The opening story, using a flower as a symbol of how transitory life is, will likely be the least compelling to western readers, for whom the delicacy and familiarity of the image, deployed here in the most indelicate of deaths, will not resonate as strongly.

“The Crazy Iris,” by Masuji Ibuse (author of the novel Black Rain on which the film of the same name is based) begins,

“Shortly after Hiroshima was bombed, I was at a friend’s house … looking at an iris which had  flowered out of season…”

Unlike other stories to follow, it is a rather low-key account of that day, talking with neighbors and wanting to buy a particularly lovely water jug from its unwilling owner.  By late morning, the narrator, along with others, is under evacuation orders to the country-side; U.S. leaflets have warned that the city will soon be bombed. In retrospect he knows that had the hills not hidden it, he might have seen the mushroom-cloud 100 miles away.    Two days later, Fukuyama, from which he had been evacuated, is bombed by conventional means. The calamity of war is not just two days, two cities and two bombs.

“By now almost all the cities and big towns on the Inland Sea had been raided.  Hiroshima had been destroyed and before that Okayama Imabari, some distance from the sea, had also been pulverized.  Okayama, like Fukuyama, was bathed in incendiary bombs; Imabari and Amagasaki were attacked with high explosives.”

The surrender is announced a few days later, and the troubles are just beginning.  Young men who had rushed to Hiroshima to help with the pre-bomb evacuation, and who survived, are arriving at clinics horribly burned, or reporting biting pains in their bodies; the medical staff has no idea what the problem is.  It is called “volunteer illness”  Town people are called into large squads to carry equipment and supplies for possible redistribution,  but the end of war is not yet peace.

After we had waited for nine hours in the school playground, our group was ordered to proceed to the square in front of the main saké brewery … here again we waited.

We had become accustomed to this sort of treatment during the war and it occurred to me that it was to become part of our lives in peacetime as well.”

 Tamiki Hara, one of the writers to directly experience the Hiroshima bombing, has two stories in the collection.  “Summer Flower,” is drawn from his own experience of being in the city to place the ashes of his recently deceased wife in the ancestral tomb.
It was on the third day after my visit to the grave that the bomb was dropped.

His is the first of several to attempt an eye-witness description of the indescribable — his own screaming, not being able to see, the clothes being blown from his brother’s body.   Houses crumbling, searing heat, big trees disappearing. “The bamboo grove had been mowed down.”  In the tornado winds that followed “faces were so puffy and swollen you could hard tell whether they were men or women, with eyes that were mere slits and horribly blistered lips.”

“Nearing a water supply station I beheld the large burned head of a human being slowly drinking hot water out of a cup; the enormous face seemed to be made up of black soybeans, and the hari above the ears was burned off in a staight line where the man’s cap had not protected it.”

Only the stark letters of katakana can express what he sees:

The strange rhythm of the human bodies,
inflamed and red,
That mingle with the glaring wrecks
and the cinders of grayish white
In the vast panorama—

­
And the day after the bomb “our miserable life–of the aftermath–truly began.”

Hara fought against the censorship imposed by the Occupation, refusing to omit the gruesome details of what he had seen.  During the Korean war, five years later, fearing the use of nuclear weapons again (a real worry as Dan Ellsberg writes in The Doomsday Machine) he committed suicide.

“Human Ashes,” by Katsuzō  Oda is, like “Summer Flower,” a direct experience of the bombing, though unlike Tamiki Hara, Oda was not a professional writer.  His direct, nonliterary reportage is one of the most powerful in the volume.

“We could hear a roar from the black smoke streaming up from the downtown area .. I saw a naked woman so badly burned she had fallen to the ground, a small child standing close beside her  … calling to its mother. Not, it was not just one woman who had collapsed from burns.  There were dozens of people there, struggling painfully to reach the water of the river.”

In another, fireflies seem to be the souls of the dead. In “The colorless Paintings” a couple in a museum looks at paintings

“… done entirely in shades of white tinged with gray. … Framed in thin, white pieces of wood, surrounded by a world of bright colors, [they] seem like softly moaning heretics.”

Two stories, at the end, explore the world of women, years, even decades, after exposure to the radiation, unable to give birth, miscarriage following miscarriage, and days of bleeding following each.  Those who have not yet married live with the fear that they are unwanted, outcasts, likely unable to bear children as well, because their age and dialect puts them, in the eyes of others,  in the proximity of one of the “secret weapons.”

A collection like this — of which we need many more– turns the headline tags in our minds –“Atomic Bomb!’  “Hiroshima!”  Nagasaki!” or the black and white photos of high school text books, into the real, comprehensible, lives of others,  others who like us live in small familiar ways of friends and family, school and home, but who in an instant are turned upside down, the small and familiar terribly magnified through the lens of modern warfare.

Ω

Decidedly modern in style, sometimes with unmarked shifts in time and location, difficulties in reading may also arise as characters without set introductions appear in a story, making us discover to whom this “strange” Japanese name refers, and what her relationship is to other still-in-discovery-characters with other strange names.

Additionally there are slight blemishes of translation in all – as though done by excellent speakers of English, but not native, or perhaps first time, still amateur, translators. From a minor oddity of having a Japanese young man write as though an American,

“The water jar we spoke about the other day is broken clean in two”

to three sentence in a row beginning with “They, ” to the poetic inversion of

“This iris it was that now brought the incident to my mind,”

the translations gets a bit in the way of full appreciation of the stories. Each is also translated by a different translator, and some in different decades, so the unifying effect which a single translator brings is missing.

Nevertheless, The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermathis a necessary read in these years of shock-and-awe when the actual, lived reality of war is easily forgotten.

Another, slightly more recent collection including some of the same authors is:
Hiroshima: Three Witnesses, 1990, translated by Richard H. Minear.

Ibuse’s Black Rain is available in a 1988 translation, as is the film, on YouTube.  As with some of the shorter stories in The Crazy Iris, Ibuse uses testimony, written and oral, from victims, to tell his story both of the scenes of devastation and the ostracization of young women anywhere in the vicinity of the bombs.

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