One Hundred Million Hearts

by Kerri Sakamoto
ISBN: 0676975127

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A Review of: One Hundred Million Hearts
by Linda Morra

Kerri Sakamoto, author of The Electrical Field (1998) and winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Book, turns her attention to the complexities engendered by conflicting Japanese loyalties and involvement in the Second World War in her new novel, One Hundred Million Hearts (2003). At the book's outset, Miyo Mori, the protagonist, becomes romantically involved with a man, David, who conjectures about her father's unusually mysterious past. As the result of his inquiries, she herself becomes curious and later ascertains that her father, Masao Mori, was a kamikaze, a pilot in the Special Attack Forces of the Japanese Imperial Army. The book's title is meant to suggest its theme of loyalty, national and personal; it specifically refers to the "thousand-stitch belts" which Japanese women made for the kamikaze when they departed on their missions-and the "hundred million hearts that ultimately belonged to Japan" whom the kamikaze were defending.
Miyo's father had patently made efforts to render his past a secret in order to shelter his daughter from the potential for further injury, psychological and otherwise, since she had sustained physical injuries which she finds constraining. These injuries are assumed by some to have been caused by radiation-from the bombing of Hiroshima-yet even Miyo herself is uncertain of their origin. She comes to understand that her initial failure to be curious about herself, her condition, and her father's past will result in many unanswered questions: "Had that been her affliction all along, and she'd never been told? Was that what her mother had died of? All the mysteries of her life that she'd let lie; that she'd never prodded her father to tell."
Yet it is also the death of Miyo's father that triggers her search to know and understand both him and herself. In the process, she also discovers that Setsuko, the woman whom she assumed to be merely a temporary girlfriend in her father's life, was in fact a second wife who bore him a child. Miyo thus learns she has a half-sister, Hana, who lives in Tokyo and whose resentment for being abandoned by their father is only rivalled by her desire to have been loved and accepted by him. Hana's life is dedicated to performance art, to expressions of protest-against the emperor, against the futility of war, against her own ultimate abandonment.
Hana's challenge to traditional loyalties resonates throughout the novel, which also calls into question other kinds of allegiances: Miyo's unswerving devotion to her father (until she meets David) or the manner in which she takes for granted her relationship with David, only recognizing later that it was conceivable "you'd find someone else to take my place"; Setsuko's loyalty to Masao, notwithstanding her secondary role in his life; and that of Masao's to Japan and to his emperor. The latter is of particular interest, given not only Masao's questioning of the kamikaze's commitment to the emperor and of his place as "the one divine descendent of the Sun Goddess" but also the novel's larger concerns: the various characters who travel from North America to Japan, or Japan to North America and how they come to adapt themselves to the culture at hand. Koji "Buddy" Kuroda, for example, learns to stop speaking English in Japan "in order to truly become a Japanese." Setsuko brings Masao's ashes to Japan from Canada because, even though he did not die for his emperor as is expected of the kamikaze, she believes that he merits a proper burial in the Yasukuni Shrine:

"He'd be enshrined forever at Yasukuni, and at last a kami, a god like the others he'd fought with. It was only fitting after the suffering he'd seen, after he'd embraced his own death for the emperor. It was for the one hundred million hearts as one human bullet that he'd volunteered himself to die for Japan and all of Asia."

If patriotism is the primary reason that these pilots sacrificed their lives, Masao's life in Canada is seen as a rebuke and a challenge to what it means to have been truly devoted to the emperor of Japan.
At the centre of the book, and as if in response to whom or what one should be most loyal, is the loving relationship between Hajime, a kamikaze who died in place of Masao, and his wife Kiku, who reads his letters every year in a ritual to exorcise her grief and renew her memories of her first husband. In these letters, Hajime articulates his concerns about Masao's tendency to ask him "questions I often can't answer." He remains unswerving in his commitment to the emperor but, in what seems a treasonous gesture, acknowledges that he loves Kiku "more than I love the emperor" and knows that she feels the same: "I know you love me more than you love our great emperor, and that is why you have sacrificed me."
The poetic resonance of this relationship does not spill over into the language employed in the novel. There are a number of instances when images or metaphors are used that are inappropriate or clumsy: It seems unlikely, for example, that such a character as Buddy would observe how each snow flake is "like a miniature crocheted doily." And comparing the outline of the buildings in Hiroshima to "a child's mouth with some teeth fallen out" seems jarring rather than evocative. There are also leaps in plot and insufficient space for character development, which cause confusion: Setsuko suddenly appears in Chapter Eleven when there was no indication that she was present at all, and David is a shadowy figure whose relationship with Miyo seems sketchy at best. The characters and the exploration of engaging ideas suggest that One Hundred Million Hearts has the makings of a great novel, but the makings do not make it one.

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