For about half the length of How Do You Live?, I read with the dutiful but glum energy of someone completing a homework assignment. Like so many people reading this, I picked it up because Genzaburo Yoshino's novel is the basis for Hayao Miyazaki's new film (when by all odds he should be retired twice over). What kind of story would spark such a surge of creativity? I felt annoyed that by the halfway mark I didn't have an answer, that by then the book seemed little more than a sincere but didactic coming-of-age story clearly aimed at younger readers. Then I started to think about the time it was written in, the prospective audience it was written for, and my feelings about the book did a one-eighty. This isn't merely some genteel life-lessons story, but the quiet plea of a man trying to transmit to the next generation the morality he knew it would need to survive the growing militarism and reactionary violence of its world.
Kid meets world
Among my favorite books of all time is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet, now available in an entirely new translation that restores much material not included in any earlier edition. In that book, a young poet named Franz Xaver Kappus, a mere nineteen years old at the time, exchanged letters with Rilke — then only twenty-seven at the time — about life, art, and what to do with one's self in the world. Rilke's advice, timeless both then and now, was for the young man to understand himself first and foremost, to look into himself for serenity and certainty before looking outwards for approval.
How Do You Live? is entirely fiction, but it has some of the same didactic and epistolary flavors. Set in Tokyo sometime in the 1930s, its main character is a fifteen-year-old boy named Junichi Honda — or "Copper", as he's called, after Copernicus. His family, once wealthy, now lives more modestly after his father died, and a maternal uncle now visits the family. Copper has conversations with his uncle — "big questions" conversations, the kind that young people teem to ask without feeling stupid for doing so, and we get the impression they are the kinds of things he could never talk about with his real father.
The first of these talks seems innocent enough, a realization on Copper's part that human beings are "like water molecules", millions of them teeming side by side, but also part of a larger matrix. The talk inspires the uncle to take a blank notebook and write in it what amounts to a letter to Copper. The boy's worldview changed a little that day, from one centered on himself to one where he sees himself in the world — the "Copernican" view, as it were.
Over the course of the next several months, Copper will have several more encounters, mainly with the little circle of friends he has in school, that will inspire further entries in this diary/open letter. One of them, the underdog Uragawa (who bears the cruel nickname "Fried Tofu" because of his family business), gets picked on, and endures it. When another student sticks up for him and instigates a fight, Uragawa begs him not to make things worse. The whole incident impresses Copper — not just those who rise to Uragawa's defense, but how Uragawa himself tries to minimize that. Uncle's response is to write: Morality isn't something you read about in a book; it's something you live out, and if you can't learn about it from your lived experience you won't get it anywhere. And that just blithely following the rules, whether of school or anywhere else, don't make people "moral".
The real lesson to be learned
The book continues in this vein — the strophe of Copper's experiences with his family and friends, and the antistrophe of Uncle's talks with him and notes to him. Some seem digressive ("Newton's Apple And Powdered Milk"), some are more focused. At one point Copper visits Uragawa's tofu shop and realizes the boy's meekness and reticence hide great reservoirs of personal strength. A visit with a friend's sister, and her adoration of Napoleon, provokes a detailed analysis of hero-worship and the nature of heroes. By the halfway mark, I admitted I was growing impatient with all this, even though I knew full well the book was aimed at younger readers, that I was not necessarily the target audience, and that the didactic nature of the book was common to much Japanese fiction of the time.
Then I said to myself: of the time, and looked at the date of original publication. 1937. Militarism in full force, censorship on the rise, jingoism and violence. All things that would be difficult to confront in any book aimed at young people, and impossible to confront directly in that point in time and place, what with arrests for voicing progressive views commonplace. The only way to confront all that, it seemed, would be to perform an end run around it — to write a book that includes none of these things (you will labor in vain to find even a whiff of Japan's militarism or police-state behaviors anywhere in its pages), but which hints at how it is our responsibility as human beings to not embrace them.
This understanding transformed my experience of reading the book, and forced me to go back and re-read it from the beginning. Yoshino's book has a timeless flavor, but I realized on a second pass it had been written for a specific kind of young person — one growing up in a country fast-tracking its own demise through war. A direct lecture on the evils of something not experienced, let alone understood, by the readers would not do. Yoshino chose instead to take a life ostensibly close to someone in the audience, and to use that as a fine-grained example of what it means to be curious, to be moral, to have conscience, to not be blinded by worldly success, to favor individual connections over the weight of the masses, to know that no one in this world is truly a stranger to us. (Translator Bruno Navalsky's note at the end confirmed and expanded on what I suspected.)
The book does not end on any great explosive note. Its climax mostly involves Copper involved in a small moral dilemma, one that breaks his heart and demands of him that he do the right thing by his friends. They are, as we learn, as upset as he is, as willing to forgive, and (we must assume) growing just as conscious of how the little tiffs of childhood have to fall away to make room for the more complex difficulties of adulthood. Copper's great lesson through all this is that he has had his consciousness of himself awakened, that he can not simply walk through life with his eyes half-open.
Two more things. One, no book should require an explainer to be truly interesting. It needs to work wholly on its own terms. That said, How Do You Live? takes on much greater meaning in light of where and how it was made; maybe the best thing to do is read the translator's afterword first, to give the book the framing Neil Gaiman's charming but twee introduction does not.
Two, I am as curious as anyone else about what sort of film Miyazaki will make of this material. What little he's hinted at implies that it will use the book as a starting point for a fantasy of sorts. What matters most is that he keep the core of the book — the journey of a young man from self-ignorance to something like self-awareness — and give it a new kind of timelessness.