Monday, July 15, 2013

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, by Gail Tsukiyama

In this WWII- and post-war-era story that takes place in Japan, two orphaned brothers were growing up with their grandparents. Tall, strong Hiroshi is drawn to the tradition of sumo, while younger, sensitive Kenji wants to be an artisan and create masks for the Noh theater. When the war hits, their plans are put on hold.

This sweeping saga covers 30 years and several parts of Kenji and Hiroshi's eventual families. Gail Tsukiyama, who is part Japanese and part Chinese, paints a clear picture of what it was like to live in Japan during the war. For example, I wasn't aware that Japan had a brutal military police similar to the Stazi, called the Kempeitai. During the bombing raids, all the Japanese had to protect themselves were hand-dug, flimsy bomb shelters in their yards, which were highly ineffective and exposed them to the constant bombings. At the same time that the Japanese military was carrying out horrific abuses and terror throughout Asia, the everyday Japanese people, many of whom did not support the war but could not say so publicly, were suffering as well.

Eventually after the war, Japan began to rebuild itself, and Kenji and Hiroshi were able to pursue their personal passions. They both got married, and Kenji rebuilds his relationship with his Noh mask sensei, who had escaped to the mountains during the war. Much of this book is very sad, as war-time stories often are. Because of my fondness for Japan, I enjoyed learning more about sumo and Noh theater, and perhaps might have a greater appreciation than other readers for the Japanese language and culture woven so artistically through this book.

It doesn't move particularly quickly, but it's beautifully told. It's more of an artistic story than a gripping tale. Kenji and Hiroshi's grandparents are fascinating characters, although I would have liked to have better understood Haru and Aki, daughters of Hiroshi's sumo master. Aki, in particular, was an enigma...both girls were traumatized by what they saw in the war, and Aki never really recovered from this trauma. I also would have liked to know modern, independent Mika (Kenji's wife) better...she was another mystery. She represented a new type of woman in Japan, but how did she come to be that way? We never find out.

For someone who usually writes such strong female characters (I greatly enjoyed Tsukiyama's Women of the Silk and The Language of Threads), I'm surprised that her female characters were lacking substance.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is about a changing Japan, and tells stories of how the Japanese were forced to adopt new ways of life and new forms of culture (such as western dress). In spite of modernization, Japan still clings to many forms of its traditional culture, more than most industrialized countries, in fact. For example, women are still not allowed to enter the sumo ring, for fear that the "unclean" women would pollute it with their presence.

I enjoyed this book, but it was not my favorite of Tsukiyama's. I learned a lot of new information about Japan, but I think richer information about the female characters would have made it so much stronger.

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