Brien Hallet reviews Juliet Kono's Anshu

Brien Hallett
October 2, 2010

Juliet S. Kono, Anshu: Dark Sorrow. Honolulu, HI: Bamboo Ridge Press, 2010.

Juliet Kono's novel, Anshu, is a lovely book. Easily read, well paced, packed with interesting characters, situations, and events, a feast of well chiseled stories. But to say that Anshu is a lovely novel is only to remark on the mechanics of the novel. How well it is written. Trying to get a grasp of its direction and structure is rather more challenging.

My earliest attempt was to grab hold of the name of the protagonist, Himiko, a child of fire. This "fire girl" was born and grew up on a small plantation village, Kaiwiki, not too far from Hilo on the Hamakua coast. A precocious child true to her name, she nearly burned down her family's house at the age of four. Thereafter, "I burned my fires in secret" (18). The blurb also promised the "secret fires" of youthful passion. At fifteen, Homiko becomes pregnant, and the boy's father insists that she leave the plantation village to hide both families' shame. She is sent to her mother's brother in Tokyo in early November 1941, where she is marooned after the 7 December 1941 attack on Pear Harbor. Could "secret," and not so secret, fires direct the course of the novel? If so, then an arc would be established that swept across the Pacific Ocean, rising from manini children's fires to a larger cane fire to two of the most incomprehensible tragedies World War II, the 9-10 March 1945 fire bombing of Tokyo and the 6 August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The Tokyo conflagration is noteworthy because it is the single most destructive aerial bombardment ever, destroying twice the area of the Hiroshima atomic bombing and causing at least as many deaths and injures. The Hiroshima bombing is noteworthy, obviously, because it is the ultimate fire, a fire that burns with the heat of the sun itself.

While the arc of the narrative surely stretches across the wide Pacific and while the progression of every grander fires punctuates the sweep of the novel, both provide only the flimsiest of direction or support for the novel. The "fires" of Himiko's name produce light, but the words of Kono's stories produce only Anshu, very dark sorrows. Not the ritual sorrows of shikata ga nai, tossed off when things do not work out. Rather, she tells us, "Anshu was different. It struck at the heart through sorrow and reached out beyond resignation. It cut wider, deeper, was darker" (263). For the most part, the sorrows resulted from the minor tragedies of daily life in any family, brothers and sisters quarreling, husbands and wives getting on each other's nerves, but also from the large sorrows of lost love, illness, and the death of a child. Moreover, giving weight to these sorrows, the individual events told in the novel are exceptionally discrete and concrete. They are much too dense with the objects and concerns of daily living to soar. The characters neither anticipated nor dreaded the two bombings. Indeed, both occurred most unexpectedly, literally, out of a clear blue sky, in the case of the Hiroshima bombing. For example, the passages describing the Tokyo firebombing and the atomic blast were striking and horrifying, but accidental. On the one hand, this was as it should be. The reality of the lived lives of the residents of Tokyo and Hiroshima was one that could in no way prepare them for the scale and extent of the devastation and horror that would befall them from the American ruled sky. On the other hand, Kono's fine representation of this accidental reality meant that the novel was not held together either by the sweep of Himiko's Pacific wide journey or by an escalation of the ever more spectacular fires. Neither gave the novel direction or support.

My next attempt was to cast Anshu as a family saga, a three-generation tale of tension and tragedy as experienced by Himiko. This worked better. The novel was then divided between a child's paradise on the Hamakua coast and the grim realities of wartime Tokyo and Hiroshima, with a three-month interlude of calm in Kyoto, the only major Japanese city not bombed during the war. With this structure, Himiko's days in her plantation village were happy until a blue methane fireball attacked her on a cane-haul road one evening at twilight. Her father ran to her rescue, but impaled his foot on a large spike lying on the road. The wound festered without treatment the family could not afford, and he soon died. This threw the Aoki family deeper into poverty, forcing Himiko's mother and elder sister, Miyo, to work. Tragically, this left young Himiko alone without supervision. Without supervision, she played with her leaf and twig fires, until she burned with the fires of adolescent passion. Her teenage indiscretion then exiled her from the poor, but happy, Aoki family outside Hilo to the equally poor, but tense, family of her mother's brother in Tokyo. Her new family was tense for several compounding reasons: the arrival of, not one, but two mouths to feed, after the birth of Himiko's daughter, Sumie; the barely concealed tension between Shiichi and his wife, Harue; and, exacerbating all, the increasing privation of wartime Japan. Reduced rations forced everyone to play the black market and a cherished neighbor into prostitution to feed her children, while the whole family mourned the death of Norio, the eldest son, who died a kamikaze pilot in defense of a lost war.

Then, after the 9-10 March 1945 bombing had destroyed their home, consumed the life of their daughter, Sa-chan, and their workplaces, in this seemingly endless devastation and deprivation, Shiichi-uncle decided to return to his farm outside of Hiroshima. Gathering their belongings in a wheelbarrow, the remains of the family left war torn Tokyo to experience a brief respite of peace, "There was little sign of war in the county" (176). By the time they had covered the 370km to peaceful Kyoto, they are exhausted. Unexpectedly, fortune smiled, and Himiko found work as a cook in Reverend Hara's temple, the Takatsuji of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Pure Land Buddhism. Himiko also met a young soldier, Kazuo, home recuperating from wounds, who eventually declares his love. Yet, whenever good fortune smiles, ill fortune soon frowns. Shiichi-uncle and his remaining son, Iwao, were both diagnosed with tuberculosis and quarantined in the temple. Three months later, feeling stronger, wanting to return home, and with the money Himiko has managed to save, Shiichi-uncle decides that their interlude in the peaceful Kyoto must end and they must complete the journey to Hiroshima, the final 310km in the comfort of an overcrowded, erratic train.

Arriving home, they are met by Himiko's other uncle and his wife, Hide and Chiemi. After a brief stay at the farm, Himiko decides fatefully to move into Hiroshima City to look for work. She is successful due to a letter of introduction from Reverend Hara to Reverend Seki in Hiroshima. Once settled and working in the city, the atomic blast naturally anchors this penultimate part of the novel. Himiko is deeply scared, loses her daughter, Sumie, and suffers from radiation sickness. Kono intertwines Himiko's experience with the stories of other victims to display the full range of suffering. When desperate enough, Himiko returns to Shiichi-uncle's farm. This is an ill-timed decision because Shiichi-uncle is away in a sanatorium for his tuberculosis. Harue finally lets lose all of her resentments and expels Himiko from the family for good.

With this, my idea of a family sage fell apart. Long since bereft of her family in Hilo, mourning the death of her daughter, scared almost beyond recognition by the atomic blast, and now ostracized by her uncle's family, Himiko is alone. The novel, it turns out, was never about the families; it was about Himiko, her journey. But, it now became clear, her journey had a beginning in Hilo and a middle in Japan, but no end. Unable to reach her family in Hilo, expelled from Shiichi-uncle's family, in desperation, Himiko returns to Reverend Hara in Kyoto. There, the stigma of being an hibakusha, with her disfiguring scares, repulses her love, Kazuo, who marries another women. Surviving yet another bout of radiation sickness, Himiko eventually finds work as a translator for the Occupation Forces. The novel then ends in total ambiguity. Will Himiko return to Hawaiʻi? Will she stay on as a translator in Japan? Not even the suggestion of an answer is given.

And, of course, it is this final ambiguity that finally reveals the direction and structure of the novel. As Kono's title subtly proclaims, the novel is a very Buddhist story about paticcasamuppada, dependent co-arising. Good arises with evil as evil arises with good in an endless chain of ambiguity that is often misinterpreted as "suffering." "Why did this happen?" Himiko asks the Reverend Seki at the cremation of her daughter, Sumie. "No one knows," he responds, "There are no answers to death, the hearts of men, the will of countries–the way of the world. We can only accept things as they are in a tragedy like this" (267).


Brien Hallett is a University of Hawaiʻi Associate Professor at the Institute for Peace.


Born and raised in Hilo, Hawaiʻi, Juliet S. Kono is the recipient of several awards, including the US/Japan Friendship Commission Creative Artist Exchange Fellowship, she has been anthologized widely, most recently in the Imagine What It’s Like: A Literature and Medicine Anthology. In 2006, she won the Hawaiʻi Award for Literature. Her previous publications include two books of poetry, Hilo Rains and Tsunami Years; a collaborative work of linked poems with three other poets, No Choice but to Follow; a short story collection, Hoʻolulu Park and the Pepsodent Smile; and a children’s book, The Bravest ʻOpihi.

Juliet S. Kono's first novel, Anshu: Dark Sorrow, is available in our online bookstore.

Talk story

Leave one comment for Brien Hallet reviews Juliet Kono's Anshu

This website uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to its use of cookies.