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Requiem (1973): Barefoot Setsumo

Shizuko Gô, Requiem (Kodansha International, 1973)

[originally posted 4Nov2002]

An artist's rendition of a Japanese countryside, with a violent slash of red over the horizon, adorns the cover of the book.

Other than that, Mrs. Ozaki, how did you like the war?
photo credit:

One of the review blurbs on the back of Requiem calls it “The Japanese counterpart of Anne Frank’s diary…”. Actually, Requiem is a much better book than The Diary of a Young Girl; Gô does a fine job of weaving her main character’s dying moments in with recollections of the last year of her life. Gô gives us no illusions from page one; her main character, Setsumo Oizumi, is lying in a bomb shelter close to death, clutching a grey notebook containing letters from her best friend, Naomi Niwa, and the flashbacks alternate between letters between the two of them and scenes from Oizumi’s life.

Where this short novel fails, and this is rare in Japanese novels, is in its lack of reserve. Gô wanted to pen a horrors-of-war novel, and for the most part she succeeds. Much of the book uses the imagery of war, and Oizumi’s developing disillusionment with the war effort, to convey its pacifist message. But every once in a while Gô drops the veil and comes out with a passage where the message overrides the medium; the book goes from a fine, sparse novel to a political polemic. There is never a point where this gets out of hand, and Gô recovers herself quickly every time; still, one feels that perhaps one final revision under the watchful eye of an editor concerned more with the craft of writing than the art might have been a good idea.

Still, there is much to like here. You can safely ignore another of the reviewlets on the back (“Should be compulsory reading for every Western schoolchild.”) that would imply this to be a “bad Americans! go to your room without supper!” polemic; there is more of All Quiet on the Western Front here than there is Johnny Got His Gun, and Gô’s message is directed not at any one set of allies but at the futility of war in general. There are no guilt trips to be had aside from those all of humanity shares. Recommended. *** ½

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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