Book review: ‘A Street of a Thousand Blossoms’

Early in Gail Tsukiyama’s sixth novel, the grandfather of the book’s two central characters warns, “Just remember.”

Yoshio said quietly to them, “Every day of your lives, you must always be sure what you’re fighting for.”

“A Street of a Thousand Blossoms” opens in Tokyo in 1939 and is adorned in aphorisms. A few pages later, we read, “Just don’t ever think you deserve to be beaten.” And shortly thereafter, “It’s not about fighting,” the wise grandfather says, “It’s about using your strength.”

These are just a few of the maxims that raise this book — seemingly about the 30-year saga of the brothers Hiroshi and Kenji who, first, lose their parents to a freak boating accident and, then, survive starvation and bombing of World War II — to universal lessons applicable to any culture, in any time.

Hiroshi and Kenji are raised by their maternal grandparents in the northeast district of Tokyo called Yanaka on a street that gives name to the novel.

Outgoing and strong, Hiroshi listens to sumo matches on the radio with his ojichan — grandfather — and dreams of becoming a sumotori. “The growing ambition was as subtle as swallowing. One day it was just a part of who he was.”

As is often the case with siblings, Kenji is Hiroshi’s opposite. Kenji is quiet and gentle, mocked by his classmates as “Kenji the ghost” and, thus, prefers the friendship of the nearby mask maker for the Noh theater to that of children his own age.

Tsukiyama deftly weaves the cultural traditions of sumo and Noh theater throughout her story, slipping in many Japanese words for aspects of each brother’s world without bogging down the story or losing her reader. That’s not to say the story zips along swimmingly. Rather, the story moves forward in a ritualistic manner, like two sumotori stomping, slapping and throwing salt before the start of a match.

Both brothers are well on their way to realizing their dreams when Japan bombs “a place called Pearl Habor in the Hawaiian Islands.”

Then, dreams are shelved. Cupboards go bare. The boys build an air raid shelter in their backyard. Local military police demand the brothers’ grandmother’s gold wedding band, claiming, “Every little thing will lead to our nation’s victory.”

In the hands of an eager author, these could be overly dramatic scenes but Tsukiyama’s prose is restrained. So restrained that it’s not until “the wind and flames merged with a terrific force” and “the air was on fire” that the reader realizes the bombs that are falling are not just any bombs; they’re atomic.

In the aftermath of what Tsukiyama’s characters call “the firebombing,” Hiroshi and Kenji finally realize their dreams — Hiroshi becomes a champion wrestler and Kenji crafts masks commissioned by the actors of the Noh theater. The two brothers find happiness, and love, but not for long. It’s not until Hiroshi’s and Kenji’s happiness is threatened some 300 pages into the book that Tsukiyama finally breaks through her restraint and her writing blossoms. For the reader, it’s the reward. Patience pays off. It mirrors Tsukiyama’s theme of redemption echoed throughout the book and reinforced in the novel’s final words, “Just outside the gates of the stadium, a new Japan prospered and grew; the ghosts of the past were put to rest as new generations moved forward into the world.”

• Kim Steutermann Rogers is a Kaua‘i resident and a freelance journalist with a voracious reading appetite.

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