Review of Yoko Tawada's 'The Last Children of Tokyo'
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
By Conky Kampfner.
When faced with the unbearable it is only human nature to look away. But in The Last Children of Tokyo, that is no longer an option. In this vision of the not too distant future, the earth is crumbling beneath people’s feet. The seas and ground are full of toxins, earthquakes have wrenched Japan further out into the Pacific, and nations have responded to global crisis by sealing themselves off from the rest of the world. Language is disappearing.
And the old, who remember a time when progress still seemed something that could be grasped and moulded to fit individual will, are doomed to live forever: “along with the gift of everlasting life, they were burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die”.
This novel - written by Japanese author Yoko Tawada, and translated by Margaret Mitsutani - is a startling read, a poetic warning against the dangers of complacency. It turns upside down the idea that those born early enough won’t have to witness the worst effects of their behaviour. Witnessing, in all its horror, has become the activity of the day, and Yoshiro, who is past his “middle-aged elderly” 90s and well into his hundreds, channels all of his surprising energy into trying to preserve the life of his great-grandson, the sickly Mumei.
Tawanda’s visceral prose is often difficult to read. The failing of Mumei’s joints and the crumbling of his bones are rendered in vivid detail. His baby teeth fall out in the space of a day, and his elderly dentist delivers the news that worse is to come, his own pitying smile perfect and robust. Great-grandson and great-grandfather take each day as it comes, the simplest acts are a struggle for the child and the profoundest of rituals for the old man. The task of preparing a glass of orange juice for Mumei almost tips the great-grandfather over the edge:
“His mission — to seek out the noble drops hidden deep inside the fruit, protected by impenetrable walls of fiber, and deliver them to Mumei — had him trembling”.
Like many great dystopian works, what makes the Last Children of Tokyo so eery is what is left to our imagination. The chain of events that have led to this state of affairs are hinted at, yet never fully described. The world Mumei and Yoshiro inhabit is familiar precisely because of its hazy contours. In this way, Tawanda’s work bears great similarity to P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men, adapted for film in 2006 by Alfonso Cuarón. In James’s imagined future, mass infertility has struck and the world is steadily depopulating. No single event or moment marked the beginning of the end. Children just simply stopped being born. Why? We aren’t ever told, but the legacy of human error lingers somewhere in the background.
The impossible, messianic birth of the first child in eighteen years offers a glimmer of hope in The Children of Men. So too in The Last Children of Tokyo are answers hid in small, frail bodies. Despite their closeness Mumei is a “utterly mysterious” to his great-grandfather. He seems to be free of self-pity and wise beyond his years, and Yoshiro “had not a single thing to teach him about life”. Because when the rules no longer apply, it is the young who are charged with re-writing them.
Teachers no longer teach, but look on amazed as children tumble over and into one another: “like lion cubs… these children were learning about the earth through physical contact”. As they twist and tumble, it might just be possible that the sickly children are experiencing a form not of devolution, but of evolution. Mumei is like a bird, an octopus. His sense of self blurs with the world around him. The boy gazes at a map of the world: ‘This map is definitely my portrait, he thought… My lungs are the Gobi desert; the stretched-out palm next to it is Europe’. Is this death or transcendence? Is this how the anthropocene ends?