The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, Gail Tsukiyama, St Martin's Press, 2007, 422 pp
Gail Tsukiyama is a beloved author in Los Angeles, where she lives at least part of the year. This is the first novel of hers I have read, though she has written several. While she did not win me over as an author, the story was a good contrast with a recent book I read, The Piano Teacher, because while that book showed the effects of Japanese aggression on Hong Kong during WWII, this one gave me insight into the lives of Japanese civilians who went through their own hardships as their Emperor set out to conquer the world, losing in one the most stunning defeats of the 20th century.
Hiroshi, who becomes an acclaimed Sumo wrestling champion and his brother Kenji, destined for fame as the carver of masks for actors in Japan's traditional Noh theater, are raised by their grandparents. The boys were orphaned at a young age when their parents drowned in an accident.
The book is long and follows their lives along with other key characters from 1939 into the 1960s. The style is leisurely and as precise as a Japanese tea ceremony. Though these men both achieve their goals, so much suffering and loss accompanies their successes that I felt mostly sad when I wasn't slightly bored as I read.
I was enlightened on the details of both professions. As usual, the women suffered the most. The author celebrated the hard working and resilient character of the Japanese people, who within two decades after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were back in the game as a world power, at least economically.
I used to practice macrobiotics, a form of vegetarianism based on Japanese foods and philosophy. One of its sayings was, "The bigger the back, the bigger the front." Gail Tsukiyama demonstrates in her story that behind the intricate beauty of Japanese culture lay an equal cruelty and violence. In the Tao and in macrobiotics, we sought balance which would promote health, because in extremes are found illness, death, loss and sorrow. Mankind apparently has a hard time with that lesson.
(The Street of a Thousand Blossoms is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)