The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine
By Akiyuki Nosaka
Pushkin Children’s Books
12 February 2015, 112 Pages
Review by Annabelle Sami
Don’t let the title fool you – this collection of short stories contain poignant, melancholic and tragic tales set on the day of Japanese surrender, 15 August 1945.
The issue of war in Children’s stories is always difficult to negotiate and Nosaka certainly doesn’t shy away from the brutal truth of life in Japan during the Second World War. The subjects of Nosaka’s stories meet and create fleeting connections – be it a prisoner of war with a little girl, or a whale with a submarine. Nosaka throws together these symbols of innocence and violence against a bleak landscape. But just as these glimpses of friendship are kindled, they are just as quickly doused – Nosaka does not provide hope where there was none.
Nosaka was born in 1930, and each of these stories is coloured by his own childhood experiences of the horrific implications of war for civilians. Although it is important for children to be presented with the truth, it may be that these stories are a bit too brutal for a child to take. For instance, one of the stories ‘The Mother That Turned into a Kite’ describes a mother’s desperate struggle to keep her child alive using moisture from her own body as they slowly burn to death after an air raid. The desperately sad descriptions, although true to life, may well leave some children with nightmares – they certainly did for me.
This being said, the stories carry potent messages that speak pertinently to adults and those old enough to understand. The subjects of these stories are the victims of circumstance, set up by those in power. On the final page of the book, Nosaka writes, ‘On 15th of August, the war the grownups had started finally ended’ and this is a particularly telling line. The adults’ war and the children’s book share the same harrowing stories – tales that children must know if the book’s pacifist stance is to make an impact. But perhaps this book is best left for educational purposes, rather than bedtime reading, and for children old enough to understand the important messages in the writing behind the frightening narrative.