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Manoa 13.1 (2001) 208-209
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Rabbit of the Nether World
Rabbit of the Nether World by Reiko Koyanagi. Translated by Hiroaki Sato and illustrated by Monica Tamano. Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 1999. 62 pages, paper $12.
Rabbit of the Nether World is a unique and often compelling memoir--a fragmentary, poetic re-creation of Reiko Koyanagi's wartime childhood and its many painful events. Traumatized by air raids, relocation to the countryside, and one loss after another, a lonely girl searches for connection and comfort amidst the ruins. She finds these mainly in spirits from the netherworld: a parade of dead aunts and uncles and an odd rabbit, who keeps her company on moonlit nights.
First published by Kashinsha in 1989 as Yomi no usagi, this book received the Poet's Club Prize the following year. The author, who runs a Tokyo art gallery, has a highly sensitive eye: she creates a "shipwrecked two-story house" in disarray, a child's secret garden, grass-leaf soup, white bombs that fall "even into the ocean," and an uncle who looks like a "skinny European dog." The atmospheric drawings by Monica Tamano lend the text a childlike air, and Hiroaki Sato's translation is seamless. Despite its sobering subject matter, Rabbit of the Nether World is often charming and, at its best, evokes the humanistic work of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
The narrative charts the girl's loss of innocence and follows the author, as an adult, on her journey to come to terms with her painful past. It begins in 1989, when the narrator takes a train and returns, almost mythically, to the house where she grew up. Raised in poverty by a single father whose love of math is more easily expressed than love for his daughter, she suffers rejection, hurt, and anger at her father. When her mother leaves them for a lover, the girl asks, "Father, wasn't there a mathematical expression that would keep Mother's heart moored to yours?"
Ironically, it is mathematics--the "useless talent" that hurts the daughter--that transports the father away from his everyday difficulties. "When I'm in math," he says, "I can forget that I must keep you alive." They travel to her father's hometown in the countryside, to the clan in the Valley of Winds, to which he never intended to return. Attempting to steer clear of the air raids and the hideous "frying pan" bombing tactics, her father carries her to the safety of the storehouse, but it has two holes--one an entrance to the netherworld, down which the girl threatens to slip. The author imagines the girl's death, and in this rendering, the father goes to pay respects to an electronic calculator in its last moments instead of going to his daughter's bedside.
In the feverish realm of near-death, the girl speaks to apparitions of her relatives, half-human, half-smoke figures pulling her towards death. With Japan's defeat around the corner and the "fragrance of death" pervading the air, she has befriended the rabbit of death, making peace with the "enemy." By the book's end, he says to her: "It was long ago, there was a war. This town also had an air raid and was surrounded by fires. I tell you, it was terrible. Burning a small rural town like this, well, I bet the other side had an awful lot of excess bombs." Then he ascends to the heavens, honored in an imaginary festival. [End Page 208]
Having suffered the loss of her mother, the loss of her home, and the deaths of various relatives, the young girl survives. Though Koyanagi claims that her mother "was utter nonsense to her" and that she couldn't hate her because "hatred has the power to bring people together," the emotional subtext and her anger at her father undercut this denial. In the end, the daughter's search for a numeral "that doesn't exist anywhere in the world" comes down to the search for love. It's not a...