By Jonathan Clements.
Copper is an unremarkable little boy, short in stature, high in grades, with a family in genteel poverty after the death of his father has caused a little bit of downsizing to the lower middle class. But he has a vivid imagination and a kind heart (unless you are one of the beetles he habitually torments), and the reader is dragged along on his flights of fancy as he struggles to conceptualise the number of people on the Earth, the way that societies work, and the best way to be excellent to one another.
How Do You Live? was originally intended as the sixteenth and final volume of a series of educational books for schoolchildren, earlier volumes of which included readers of world literature, including excerpts from Rudyard Kipling and John Ruskin, and Albert Einstein’s “Letter to Japanese Elementary Schoolchildren.” Abandoned by the original author, Yuzo Yamamoto, it was completed in 1937 by his editor, Genzaburo Yoshino, who used it as a means of discussing ethical issues that were increasingly overlooked in pre-war Japan – left-wing ideologies, pacifism, and Buddhism. It is hence a work doubly out of time, a fish twice out of water: the culmination of an educational series unknown to the English-speaking reader; a peace-loving polemic from a militarising nation now nine decades in our past. For it to be selected for translation now is a bold gesture – the sort of thing that only a figure with incredible media clout could ever pull off, and even then, only because of his own heartfelt identification with its message. Then again, it helps that Shoichi Haga adapted it into a manga version in 2018, which became a best-seller in Japan. It was adapted that same year into a live-action TV show, which led to legal action from the author’s estate. And some of you may have heard, an anime version is also on the way…
Like a Japanese forerunner of the inquisitive French gamine Amelie, Copper can’t stop thinking about the smallness of the human individual in the universe, and the greatness of the human heart. Like that curious Norwegian girl who would investigate Sophie’s World, he’s subjected to info-dumps about the cosmos – how people are like molecules, and relationships are like the orbits of planets (he derives his nickname, Copper, from Copernicus). Yoshino’s narrative grounds high-falutin’ discussions of the natural sciences with everyday slice-of-life drama and comedy from the lives of a bunch of schoolboys, pushing each other over in the playground, complaining about food they don’t like, and getting into mischief.
Every now and then, Uncle crops up to explain things, with a loving, earnest duty of care that recalls that kindly, bearded man who would impart such haptic, sensual joy into cleaning a country house in My Neighbour Totoro, or frying up breakfast in Howl’s Moving Castle.
“You know that water comes from oxygen and hydrogen, don’t you? And you’re aware that in water these parts are in a ratio of one to two?… But when it comes to the taste of cold water, there’s no way to teach that other than letting you drink the water yourself.”
Copper is adept at finding out things for himself, and the reader shares in his joy as he uncovers such things as the supply chain that puts a mouthful of Australian dairy milk onto his Tokyo breakfast table – the cows and the milkers and the factory and the freight train and the steamship… Uncle is there to point out that what he is actually talking about is the “relations of production,” and gently tries to inform him about the basic principles of Marxist economics.
Ooh, that’s going to drop like a lead balloon in post-Trump America. Fortunately, there are distractions, like sport, to stop the reader noticing where Yoshino’s philosophy is going. We’re not two pages in before the book is wittering about Copper’s prowess at baseball, a sport much beloved by the Japanese, even in the war years when its American origins were carefully swept under the carpet, and even the language used to describe it was rewritten to sound less foreign. Its presence here in the book is an odd little marker, of time, and of cultural relativism, since although it is discussed in English, it might as well be in yet another language for me. Your mileage may vary, dear reader, but my heart sank every time the characters started enthusing about bunts, and steals and, I don’t know, balls. One chapter gets ridiculously enthusiastic about the prospect of listening to baseball on the radio, an experience not unlike playing billiards in the dark. And yet, and yet, no less an authority than the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has observed that baseball is a sacred space for many Earthlings, an allegory of the dance of life, and symbolic representation no less compelling than Copernican vectors.
Uncle is on hand to talk to Copper about Napoleon, about the history of Buddhist art, and the possibility that a statue of Buddha in Japan is somehow connected, through multiple transitions and translations, to the skill of a sculptor in ancient Greece. Everything is connected, people are linked to each other and to history, generations into the past and future. How we live now will affect the way our descendants live in the future. How do we live…?
I doubt very much we would be talking about this book on this blog were it not for the fact that it forms the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s forthcoming film of the same name. That’s fine, since the Penguin books edition is equally shameless in pointing this out, to the extent of an introduction by Neil Gaiman that largely talks about Miyazaki. However, Gaiman is pushed to the fore not merely because of his associations with Studio Ghibli, but because of his own writings on similar topics – he is, after all, the man who wrote one of the greatest-ever lines in Doctor Who, which encapsulates much of Yoshino’s message: “Are all people like this? So much bigger on the inside?”
Translator Bruno Navasky’s own commentary, placing Genzaburo Yoshino in his context as a dissident thinker in the increasingly right-wing Japan of the 1930s, is confined to the back of the book almost as an afterthought, since it is Miyazaki’s interest, and Miyazaki’s focus that has brought this book to Anglophone attention. Well, that’s all part of Miyazaki’s cunning plan, of course. He’s gone and fooled Penguin, and Gaiman, and me, and you into talking about it, and I am sure he is rubbing his hands with glee at distracting us all from our unthinking consumption and despoiling of the planet for a moment. This is the man who left Studio Ghibli with a wish-list of fifty books worth adapting – a veritable once-and-future business plan for a new variant on the World Masterpiece Theatre anime serials. And as Gaiman trenchantly notes in his introduction, Miyazaki has announced that his adaptation is a work intended for his grandson, a sort of parting gift to the quotidian world, removed far from the context of its origins, a valedictory consideration of the way we looked at and treated the world before Miyazaki was born, and the way we might look at and treat it again after he has gone.