Review: The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

The Last Children of Tokyo CoverThe Last Children of Tokyo [2014] – ★★★★

Yoko Tawada sets her book in near-future Japan where the elderly regain their powers and live beyond one hundred years old, while the young become weak and sickly. Everyone is concerned in the story because, due to some catastrophe, “the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined” [Tawada, 2014: 14]. The central characters are an old man called Yoshiro and an orphaned boy named Mumei. While Yoshiro is the very definition of health and vigour at his age of one hundred plus, his great-grandson Mumei is feverish, vitamin-deficient, and in the course to face a slow death. This short dystopian novella, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is both beautiful and unsettling, and is a fascinating read, even though most of the time it reads like an essay on some highly imaginative dystopian future, rather than like a story with a linear plot. 

It is interesting to read about the strange dystopian world presented. Through her writing, Tawada makes an improbable scenario seem probable, and this is the power of fiction. She presents the world where “the adjective healthy [does not] really fit any child” anymore, and where “the aged [cannot] die” [Tawada, 2014: 36]. The elderly has to endure “the pain of not being able to die” [Tawada, 2014: 55], while children struggle with their soft teeth, fevers and constant tiredness. The great thing is that super-abilities of the elderly are introduced as something unremarkable and unquestionable in the story. The novella begins with Yoshiro’s problem of finding a right dog to run with him each morning. Yes, at the age of over one hundred years old, Yoshiro would like to jog in the morning to burn his extra energies before the day even began. This observation is presented so matter-of-factly at the beginning, the readers cannot really question it afterwards. This is the foundation of the story.

Tawada then sets out her story drawing on geography, politics, and, especially, on linguistics, paying attention to the cultural transformation in the society. Near-future Japan is once again an isolated country where the young generation is forbidden or discouraged to learn and utter foreign words, especially English words. Such words as “jogging” or “a walk” are outdated, and people do not write in katakana anymore. When presenting environmental changes, the story hints at some catastrophe, such as an earthquake, which led to mass contamination. Most trees became sick, and there are hardly any wild animals in existence. There is a talk of a cellular destruction ongoing, but the author also knows that to impress and frighten to the maxim, it is essential to keep the danger and its source vague in the story. That way, the atmosphere in the story is even more unsettling.

It is no wonder that the story of such nature should come from Japan where cataclysmic disasters are never too far away from peoples’ minds. The Last Children of Tokyo is actually a very topical story since there are currently many environmental concerns around the world, and the topic of climate change is on the global agenda. In that way, the book tries to focus on people’s current fears, and these fears also concern the current global trend of increasing population, especially elderly citizens (the UK example), and of low birth-rates in some countries (the example is Russia). The references to electric appliances and bats in the novel may also not be coincidental. In Tawada’s story, the government discourages people to have electric appliances in homes because they cause nervous disorders, and this can be compared to the current growing fears surrounding technology which emits electro-magnetic fields and its potential negative impact on human health. Bats are referenced in the novel because their milk is preferred over that of cows, but it is also generally known now that bats may hold the key to anti-ageing since these creatures have been found to have age-defying telomeres.

In other ways, The Last Children of Tokyo is a very Japanese novella with references to tatami mats, dragonflies and octopuses. It is unassuming in its potency, and, also, naturally, focuses on memory and everyday objects, such as shoes and bread, to reveal particular insights. The only problem with the story is that more plot development is wanted. The author delights in descriptions and observations, but the result of this is that the plot is a bit unsatisfying. In that way, The Last Children of Tokyo is more of a contemplative book, rather than the one filled with action or character insights.

Overall, the novella is an unusual and interesting read. It is slightly repetitive in its message and stirs towards an essay-like style of presentation, but the the future it presents, containing all sorts of oddities, is fascinating to contemplate, and the indeterminate nature of the story, style and format is exactly the kind of a thing particular discerning readers will seek out. Therefore, The Last Children of Tokyo can be misunderstood, but Tawada manages to conjure up a lot in few words, and the story will definitely appeal to those who want something unusual and thought-provoking to read.

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