Given the relatively delicate and pristine works Japanese authors tend to produce, Nip the Buds is a surprising shock to the system; this spare-nothing parable of broken children in a broken system is, really, all about the adults who abandon them. The portrait is anything but flattering.
Kezaburo Oe / Japanese / 1958 / 192 pages
Translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama
It is a truth that has long fascinated artists of the written word: large scale events bear down-ticket, smaller scale implications. In the realm of large events, perhaps none are more fundamentally stupefying and paradigm-shifting than wars. Generations of young people die, geopolitical boundaries are overhauled, autocrats come and democrats go, and the very social fabrics of countries are rent in two. The microcosmic implications are clear: there’ll be no food at dinner, no brother coming home, portraits of beloved leaders must be taken down from the walls, the mail service moves painfully slow, people move out of cities and into the countryside; the list is endless.
Forsaking the grand vistas perhaps more aptly rendered by cinematic treatment, authors of novels seem rather to gravitate toward this smaller side of warfare. All Quiet on the Western Front and The Return of the Soldier are simple stories about simple men who meet predictably tragic ends. Heinrich Böll and W. G. Sebald were concerned less with Germany’s role in World War II then they were the effects this conflict had on the relationship between fathers and sons and the capacity of people to recall painful memories. Chroniclers of war in Eastern Europe like Schulz, Kundera, and Kristof opt for the domestic over the geopolitical, and novels emerging from other traditions — like A Bend in the River and Miramar — also focus narrow lenses on otherwise broader conflicts to capture arresting snapshots of one single piece of the puzzle.
To an extent, the same strategy is employed by one of Japan’s preeminent authors — Kenzaburo Oe — in his harrowing Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids: during a war, a small group of reformatory boys have to fend for themselves in a rural village once they’ve been abandoned by their adult supervisors. But I get the sense that Oe has sectioned off for himself a smaller piece of the pie not in an effort to make his narrative task more manageable, but rather to use it as a microcosmic representation of broader dynamics. Indeed, his subject is the war itself and all of the problems of allegiance, judgment, and collective action it draws out of people. He doesn’t need to tell the whole story because the tiny set piece he’s crafted is just as useful as any other, hypothetical piece he could have crafted. His localized story is reflective of national symptoms; given the horrifying nature of the story, this makes for a truly unsettling realization.
To begin, consider which social groups you’d protect in the event your country was under attack. Women and children, sure, but what about “reformatory” children, or those kids who were behaving so badly in routine social settings that they were removed altogether and shipped off to a boot camp in the mountains? Would anyone really remember or care about these kids when the bombs started dropping? Not likely. Nip the Buds opens with such a group of delinquent youth being evacuated from their school and marched off to a village, where they’ll be looked after while their teachers / overseers / guards run off to fight for the nationalist cause. Except when they get to the village, the head tribesman doesn’t want them and sends them off to the next group of huts up the road. Same story there. And then again at the next place. The reader is dropped into the middle of the group after they’ve been denied lodging at several towns. Some of the boys have attempted (and failed at) escape, one boy is seriously ill with a stomach ache, morale is low, the situation is tense.
At the end of the road — many days’ walk into secluded wilderness — their marshals finally find a “receptive” set of villagers willing to take in the boys. But they end up sequestering them in a barn with only the barest of food and clothing rations. The boys must work hard labor during the day’s noontime heat and are given little rest or hospitality. The one child’s stomach ailment increases in severity, no doctor is sent for, and the boys awake on the second morning to discover that their comrade has died. This instills in the villagers a fear of a possible plague. They implement a crude form of quarantine whereby they leave the village entirely, blockade the boys inside, and leave no note of explanation. The implicit savagery of their situation gradually dawns on the boys: if there is a plague, they’ll all die without assistance and the villagers will eventually return to clean up the bodies. If there isn’t a plague, they’ll return anyway and coerce them back into their servile existence.
It is against this sinister backdrop that the boys are left to their own devices in the village for a number of days. The first-person (but anonymous) narrator is one of the older boys and his younger brother is also a part of the group. The narrator finds a young female in one of the abandoned homes whom he takes as a lover at the same time that the younger brother finds a stray dog that he befriends and cares for. The boys scavenge for food in the houses and, eventually, learn to hunt in the woods. Life is not idyllic, but it becomes bearable as the boys’ familiarity with one another gradually deepens. They stockpile a large amount of food and hold an impromptu festival with a large bonfire, singing, and dancing.
The situation is too tenuous to sustain itself, however. The younger brother’s dog gets excited during the festival and accidentally bites the older brother’s girlfriend. She takes ill almost immediately and dies the next day. The dog is labeled a carrier of disease and the narrator must restrain his younger brother as the other boys kill the dog and bury its body. The younger brother goes fleeing into the woods and is not seen again. In many respects, this is the central — and by far the most effective — scene of the novel. It breaks the narrator’s resolve, the group’s camaraderie, and the reader’s heart all at once. About this time, the villagers return. The boys are a group divided amongst themselves and are in no position to stand up to the patronizing head tribesman. He offers them safe passage to the next village and a bit of food if they swear that they’ll never speak to anyone of their abandonment. One by one, they all take the deal. The narrator, however, hardened by their betrayal and the events of the past few days, adamantly refuses to aid the villagers in their negligence. The villagers get angry and chase him into the woods, where he meets an uncertain fate. Nip the Buds breaks off like a snapped string of an instrument with the narrator fleeing into the dark underbrush.
Tying all the parable’s threads into their broader geopolitical context would take a better historian than I, but it is obvious that Oe is not as concerned with children at play as much as he is with deeper issues of authority and allegiance. And rather than tackling the typical Japanese literary problem of judging how far to accede to cultural influences from the West, Oe is instead drilling down to dynamics existing solely between the citizens and leaders of Japan. This is a parable about a domestic battle over the soul of Japan as it emerged from the throes of a royal dynasty — not the external military battle its inhabitants were fighting against the West. Nip the Buds is also not a novel about childhood in the same way that, say, A High Wind in Jamaica or The Lord of the Flies are novels about childhood. Kids do bad things, sure. But even bad kids deserve better than what the protagonist receives in this novel. We are invited to think about why.
I’ve been working my way through the Japanese canon this spring and Nip the Buds is a surprising and rewarding read, despite its scant size and breakneck pacing. It is also among the earliest works of an author who has gone on to overhaul his literary stylings and themes on multiple occasions and, eventually, won a Nobel Prize in 1994. I think this novel is a useful addition to one’s stock and I imagine I’ll be returning to the Oe oeuvre in short order.
Rating: 7 / 10