Tsukiyama’s latest novel is a gorgeously rendered work,
steeped in politics and ancient Japanese tradition. Spanning three
decades during World War II and beyond, this engrossing tale
captures the lives of two ripped-apart Tokyo families as they
struggle to make ends meet after losing nearly everything during
the war. With fortitude and grace, Tsukiyama weaves a meditative
story full of love and loss that will weigh on readers’
consciences long after the last page is turned.
Tsukiyama begins by immediately introducing readers to her main
characters --- two young brothers, Hiroshi and Kenji, who lost
their parents in a boating accident. Hiroshi, the older boy, is a
visionary. Unlike Kenji, Hiroshi is both outgoing and strong. He
commands respect from his peers and strives to bring greatness to
his family. Kenji, on the other hand, is more subdued. A gentle
spirit, he spends more time alone and in his head than with others,
and prefers the quiet solitude of the mask shop down the street or
his grandparents’ garden. The two are a perfect pair, polar
opposites yet fiercely devoted to each other and their
grandparents, whom they live with in their parents’
Hiroshi and Kenji’s home environment is a solid one, run by
their wise ojichan (grandfather) and their obachan (grandmother).
From the onset, it is clear that while the boys are without their
natural guardians, they are not lacking in love and support.
Despite being vastly different people, their grandparents’
healthy and committed marriage is what keeps the family strong and
provides an anchor for Hiroshi and Kenji as they mature and become
Unfortunately, the luxury of learning how to find their way in a
peaceful, carefree world is disrupted by tragedy on a global scale.
As World War II erupts onto the world stage, life becomes harder
for Hiroshi and Kenji’s family and their neighbors. The lack
of food weighs on their grandparents, and the nagging interruption
of air-raid sirens cloud their peace of mind. Then, when much of
the town is destroyed in a firestorm, followed eventually by
Japan’s surrender, everyone must figure out how to pick up
the pieces and start again.
As Hiroshi and Kenji grow older, the effects of the war never quite
leave them. Hiroshi embarks on a sumo wrestling career with utmost
determination, while Kenji abandons his studies to follow his
passion and continue the work of one of the greatest living
Japanese mask makers, a man he had apprenticed as a child before
the war. Although the death of their grandfather is a major
emotional setback, his legacy is always close at hand, and the two
(and their grandmother) work to rebuild their lives and prepare for
a more positive future.
Before long, Kenji falls in love with a beautiful woman, Mika, whom
he eventually marries. Never far from his brother, Hiroshi --- now
the top sumo wrestler in Japan --- captures the heart of Aki, a
girl he knew during his childhood (their union is somewhat fated,
as Hiroshi was the one who told her about her mother’s death
during the firestorm). Although the two also marry, their
relationship is a complicated one, as Aki suffers from crippling
bouts of depression after the death of their first child. In their
new families and in their careers, Hiroshi and Kenji must figure
out how to balance the needs of their loved ones with the pressing
demands of life, and Tsukiyama does a brilliant job in allowing
their daily struggles to unfold.
What makes THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS so
breathtaking is Tsukiyama’s ability to seamlessly interweave
Japanese history with the very personal lives of her characters.
Her detailed descriptions of the air raids and their devastating
effects on the Japanese people are both riveting and deeply
distressing, drawing poignant parallels to contemporary events
(whether intentional or unintentional). Readers will enjoy getting
to know each of the characters and watch them evolve throughout
time and space (while all of the characters aren’t mentioned
in this review, they are all wonderfully complicated and expertly
rendered). Lastly, Tsukiyama’s clear command of language is
evident on every page, especially in regard to the Japanese words
sprinkled throughout the text (adding flavor) or her flowery,
poetic descriptions of a changing landscape over time. A grand
masterpiece of epic proportions.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on January 23, 2011
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms