Review: The Cake Tree in the Ruins by Akiyuki Nosaka

I received a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

There are many wars going on around the world, many children and families are suffering, but these hardly affect those of us living in peacetime and we become inured to the images of suffering that we see on TV. I feel strongly that people should be aware of the reality of war and why we should do everything in our power to avoid it—whether it affects us directly or not. That is why stories like the ones in this collection are so important.

— Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator

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Akiyuki Nosaka is best known as the author of “Grave of the Fireflies,” an award-winning short story that was adapted to film by Studio Ghibli, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time. The stories in this collection are diverse, but like “Grave of the Fireflies,” they also concern the tragedies of World War II, particularly as seen through the eyes of children and animals. This short story collection is an expansion on the 2015 English-language publication of The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine. It includes five additional stories not included in the original English publication, making a total of twelve.

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Nosaka presents war as a calamity that inevitably strikes innocents who cannot fully understand it or be complicit in its violence. The personification of animals, child-oriented tone, and elements of magical realism throughout the book give the stories a fairy-tale feeling that contrasts with their dark subject matter.

Content below the cut contains spoilers.

Each story is set on the day of Japanese surrender, August 15th, 1945. The date serves as a threshold: some characters die, and others have survived the war for good. However, it is the ones who die that have the happier endings. In “The Mother That Turned into a Kite,” the mother first dries up and floats away while protecting her son. Left alone, he starves until he, too, floats away in the wind. This sounds unbearably sad, but to the mother and son, it’s a blessing because in death they can finally reunite. Similarly, in “A Soldier’s Family,” a starving soldier misses Japan and wants badly to at least die on his home soil. Hallucinating an adventurous journey to his homeland, he dies in bliss.

Survivors, on the other hand, do not find peace. In “The Prisoner of War and the Little Girl,” Steve, an American POW, fails to understand that the war is over and retreats into the wilderness in fear of being hunted, never to be seen again. In “My Home Bunker,” a little boy turns the air raid bunker in his home into a clubhouse where he can pretend his father is still alive, playing with him like an imaginary friend. When the bunker is filled in at the end of the war, he must accept the reality of his father’s death.

Nosaka’s message is clear — for the dead, at least their suffering is over, but survivors must feel the effects of war for the rest of their lives. By setting each story at the supposed ending of the war, he highlights that war does not end just because the fighting has stopped. Families and children are left behind. Towns remain reduced to rubble. Soldiers are stranded far away from home, forgotten.

For children and for adults, this book is educational on multiple levels. On a concrete level, it explains the conditions of WWII Japan and the Pacific theater in digestible increments that children can understand. On a spiritual and emotional level, it places them in the shoes of characters they understand such as animals or other children, teaching them empathy for people in a different time and place. To Americans or English people, Japan was an enemy in World War II, but the book’s narrative demonstrates how ordinary people aren’t in control of the government’s decisions. On the flip side, for Japanese readers, Steve is a sympathetic American figure despite the USA’s bombings of Japan.

In a cursory skim of reviews for The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine, I noticed some reviewers raise concerns that the content is too mature for children to read. I disagree with this notion. Elementary school is the exact time to introduce awareness of the world’s issues to children. When I was in third grade, my class read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr, a novelization of the true story of a girl who contracted leukemia as a result of nuclear radiation in Hiroshima. That book has stuck with me for a long time. With guidance from a sensitive teacher, a majority of the stories in The Cake Tree in the Ruins can be meaningful reads for children around the ages of eight to ten years old.

For American adult readers, this book offers insight into the Japanese side of the war beyond the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American histories of World War II frequently focus on the contributions of the American civilian population through rationing, factory work, and war bonds, but rarely do we discuss Japanese civilians outside of the context of nuclear bombs. Japanese civilians carried out many similar tasks, but unlike Americans, they often did these things in active war zones suffering from American air raids.

The translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori is clean and readable. Nosaka’s signature writing style features long, sprawling run-on sentences, but the collection does not portray this. I suspect that Takemori may have made editorial decisions when it comes to punctuation.

The Cake Tree in the Ruins is a poignant collection of war stories that will bring a tear to your eye, and more importantly, make you think. I recommend it to anyone, but especially to fans of Grave of the Fireflies, to teachers of elementary or middle school students, and to those interested in World War II history.

Additionally, to anyone interested, I suggest reading up on the life of Akiyuki Nosaka. He lived eighty-five fascinating years before his death in 2015.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

Buy The Cake Tree in the Ruins here!

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Check out my masterlist for the rest of my reviews!

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