In Endo Shusaku’s 1974 novel “When I Whistle,” businessman Ozu recalls his youth in the days before World War II, after he happens to meet an old friend. Meanwhile, his doctor son, Eiichi, is ruthlessly advancing his career through dishonesty and some highly immoral medical practices. The novel moves back and forth between the lives of the father and son.
Ozu becomes nostalgic as he remembers hanging out with an old friend, “Flatfish,” falling in love with unattainable girls and worrying about the approaching war.
However, Eiichi’s present is quite different: He puts his career ahead of the welfare of his patients with Machiavellian clarity; he gets one colleague fired and manipulates another rival into resigning; and he conducts trials of a new cancer drug without patient consent.
When another of Ozu’s school friends finds herself being treated by Eiichi — or rather, mistreated — a confrontation between father and son is assured.
To Endo, this conflict is bigger than father and son. Eiichi embodies the materialist side of modern Japan: a soulless and selfish generation pursuing economic success with little regard for the consequences.
Toward the end of the novel, Endo quotes from pro-war propaganda: “At last the time for a confrontation between the spiritual … and the material … has come.” “When I Whistle” is his artistic stand against the overwhelming power of the latter.
Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.
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