Nobel prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe was only 23 when he wrote his first novel, but Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids reads neither like a first attempt nor like the work of someone barely out of their teens. But then all the teens I've met didn't live through their country's defeat at the end of a World War, the disintegration of their nation's faith in their emperor as god-like, and the occupation of their country by US forces.
The 23-year old Oe was a very mature young man, and saw clearly what the war did to his country as well as what his country decided to use the war as permission to do, on both national and individual levels.
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is about the individual level, telling the story of a group of reform school boys being evacuated out of Tokyo. On their way to an un-named location in the mountains, they are meant to stay a week or so in a rural village along the way. Upon arriving in this village, they are abandoned almost immediately by the villagers due to an outbreak of the plague; the villagers, to try to stop the contagion, block the boys in and threaten to kill any boy who tries to escape. The boys spend 5 days alone in the village, during which time, they form a sort of cohesive community amongst themselves almost completely free of the petty fears and violence of their adult caretakers.
Soon, however, their paradise begins to break apart as the plague is shown not to have left with the villagers. As well, the villagers return and through threats of death and abuse if the boys don't keep quiet about how they were abandoned, their fragile community shows just how tenuous it really was.
According to the translator/editor of this book, this story also functions as a loose allegory for Japan's treatment of its citizens and soldiers during the war:
Nip the Buds presents its hero as an absolute outsider, a delinquent ostracized by the unbelievably brutish and callous villagers. Oe's anger against his elders' sheeplike complicity in the disastrous militarist adventure, against the generals who led the people to the end of the road only to abandon them, against the craven reversal of [national political] ideologies, is venomously evident [in this novel]. (p.8)Yes, "venomously evident" is, I think, the appropriate phrase. Even if the allegory isn't detectable by those unfamiliar with the specifics of Japanese history, the bitterness with which Oe describes his young characters' abuse at the hands of those who hold them in their power certainly is. His utter disrespect for the way in which fear and self-preservation dictate every move of his adult characters is no less vicious. As such, this was a very difficult book to read, even as I found myself deeply admiring the imagery and the writing throughout.
Oe studied French literature at university and his admiration for the French realists I think shows itself quite clearly here; however, I would say that his rejection of the more traditional aspects of Japanese literary practice (i.e., the emphasis on sincerity and true sentiments) in favour of harsh realism and ideas (p. 10) far outstrips the French models that influenced him in his early career. The visceral nature of the realism here would simply not have made it into any of the 19th century novels I've ever read - but then, I haven't yet read Zola so it may be that I'm about to get schooled. And when I say "about to get schooled" I probably don't mean that something by Zola will be my next French book.
I need something light and happy after 2 books in a row on the horrors of war. And I don't think Zola = light and happy.