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Loss of innocence in war for a youth looking for some meaning

by David Cozy

Koji Obata, the protagonist of Hiroyuki Agawa’s novel, tends not to feel strongly about things. He is, however, convinced that this detachment is an aspect of his character that he’d like to change. Early in the novel he decides that “he [is] looking for something he could confront openly, something — immoral or not — that could really engage his emotions.” He has this realization after a couple of visits to prostitutes convince him that casual sex will not give him the emotional frisson he seeks.

CITADEL IN SPRING: A Novel of a Youth Spent at War, by Hiroyuki Agawa, translated by Lawrence Rogers. Kurodahan Press, 2013, 241 pp., ¥1,500 (paperback)

He wouldn’t be the first to find commercial sex less exciting in practice than in anticipation, but things that would get a significant reaction from most of us — the atomic bombing of one’s hometown, for example — leave Koji, who is in China when his native city is destroyed, more or less unmoved. Reading in an article immediately after the event that “everyone in Hiroshima must be dead … Koji felt no surge of melancholy or anger, only the sense that what was to happen had happened.”

Agawa’s choice of a narrator as unemotional as Koji is the making of his autobiographical account of “youth spent at war.” There might be a certain satisfaction in joining a more volatile character on an emotional roller coaster, or in sharing such a character’s outrage at actions we also find outrageous, but there is a pleasure both subtler and more substantial in the quiet observations of Koji, and of the author who created him.

We follow Koji from his years as an unenthusiastic literature student at Tokyo Imperial University through his time as a code-breaker in the navy where he hopes he will find that elusive thing: something he can care about. We follow the courses of his friendships, his literary aspirations, his romances, and finally — graphically and movingly presented — the destruction of his hometown, Hiroshima.

Koji seems, at times, to have found, as a part of Japan’s war effort, something that inspires the passion his life has lacked. When, for example, a more cynical friend remarks after the Emperor visits their facility that “getting a peek at our little Emp sure as hell isn’t going to make my day,” Koji reflects that his reaction had been different: He had been “deeply moved.” As Koji grows more familiar with military life — drunken, thieving, brutal officers — and as it becomes clear that Japan will lose, the nationalism that briefly inspires him fades away.

With the bombing of Hiroshima we move from China, where Koji is based, to the city where Koji’s parents, friends and the girl who loves him, live. Here Agawa jettisons the detachment that Koji is, perhaps, only able to maintain because he is not at home for the bombing.

We get the horrific images that are inevitable in such accounts: “a school girl, her face deathly white and her eyebrows burned away; a soldier, the skin of his face peeling off and dangling in the air like a dust mop turned on end; a woman, her face scorched charcoal black, vomiting blood.” The quieter details Agawa evokes, however, make a deeper impression than the horrors. We learn, for example, that in the wake of the bombing, mosquito nets are unnecessary: “[T]here were … no mosquitoes flying about that night. Perhaps they had been killed off too.”

“I grew up in the midst of war,” Koji realizes toward the end of “Citadel.” In his portrait of Koji, Agawa shows us what such an upbringing — unheroic and inglorious — does.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and a professor at Showa Women’s University.