A Respectable Life

Established in June 1985, Studio Ghibli has slowly worked its way up to becoming a royalty in the world of animated films. Producing renowned animated films such as Grave of the Fireflies (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Studio Ghibli has become synonymous to animation and children’s films. In 2003, it soared to even greater heights when Spirited Away (2001) won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. To date, Spirited Away is the only hand-drawn and non-English animated film to cop the award. Unfortunately, Studio Ghibli temporarily halted production when one of its founding directors, Hayao Miyazaki, decided to retire from the industry.

All is not lost, however. In 2017, Miyazaki came out of retirement to direct a new feature film entitled How Do You Live? Lest everyone forget, Miyakazi masterminded Spirited Away, a masterpiece of animation that is revered across the world. Still in the midst of production, Miyazaki’s newest project was inspired by Yoshino Genzaburō’s 1937 novel, Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka (How Do You Live?). With Miyazaki’s announcement, the manga version of the story created by Haga Shōichi and published a couple of months before the announcement, started selling like hotcakes. It was ubiquitous – it can be found in kiosks, in bookstores, and even convenience stores – and in 2018, the manga version was the bestselling book in Japan.

The news of Studio Ghibli’s film adaptation was also the biggest catalyst in the publication of the novel’s English translation in early 2021. It was also accompanied by an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who worked on the English language script for Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. At the heart of the novel is Honda Jun’ichi, a fifteen-year-old boy in his second year of junior high school. He was described as short but he excelled at academics, often coming in first or second in class. Like any normal teenager, he can be quite mischievous. His father has already passed away and was then left to the care of his mother. They used to be affluent and lived in a mansion; his father was a director at a big bank. Following his death, his wife and son moved to the suburbs.

“Of course, we say all the time that the sun rises and sets, and that sort of thing. And when it comes to our everyday lives, that’s not much of a problem. However, in order to know the larger truths of the universe, you have to discard that way of thinking. That’s true when it comes to society as well.”

~ Yoshino Genzaburō, How Do You Live?

Jun’ichi, however, was not bereft of male influences or fatherly figures. Settling in their new home, they were often visited by Jun’ichi’s uncle, his mother’s younger brother. His uncle was fresh out of university after completing his law degree, and also lived in the same neighborhood. Jun’ichi would often visit his uncle’s house to play. As their fondness for each other grew, his uncle started calling him “Copper” (“Koperu”). It was a term of endearment that was never meant to be a secret code between uncle and nephew. After his friend Mizutani heard him being called Copper while playing at Jun’ichi’s house, Copper has become the name Jun’ichi came to be known by, even at school. However, neither his friends nor his classmates knew the provenance of the name.

As one moves forward with the story, the readers get to learn about the origin of Jun’ichi’s name. Through the voice of an omniscient storyteller, the readers learn that Copper’s story begun one October afternoon. Copper was still in his first-year of junior high school when he and his uncle were on the roof of a department store in Tokyo’s busy Ginza district. At an elevated place, Copper saw the world through a different perspective. The busy world that seemed so big spread before him like. He noticed the tumult where people, cars, and various things swirled in a discombobulated harmony. His observation led him to compare people to “water molecules”, an observation he shared with his uncle. This left a deep impression on his uncle who then started to compare his nephew to Nicolaus Copernicus, the proponent of the heliocentric theory.

How Do You Live?, however, does not reduce itself into a study of provenances or etymology. Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka was the final book of a textbook series titled Nihon shōkokumin bunko (A Library for Young Japanese Nationals). Comprised of sixteen volumes, the series covered a plethora of subjects ranging from science to sports to literature. Its primary aim is to convey to its younger audience knowledge that had been removed from the public school curriculum. As the last book in the series, Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka dealth with philosophy. The original version was a textbook but was eventually turned into a novel, the English version of which was provided to the global audience more than eighty years after it was originally published.

The book’s title itself was a philosophical quandary that was echoed through a teenager’s observation one October afternoon. Copper’s water molecule observation set the tone for the story, establishing its atmosphere. The narrative proceeded to provide details of Copper’s school life, mainly revolving around his interactions with his friends – Kitami, Uragawa, and Mizutami – and his classmates. These are typical experiences that high school students and even normal people grapple with, including bullying, educational struggles, and poverty. These quotidian experiences and interactions provided Copper a microcosm upon which to understand and appreciate the bigger world he was living in.

“But between the people who produce things over and above what they consume, and send them out into the world, and the people who don’t produce anything and who do nothing but consume, which are the great human beings? Which are the important human beings? If you ask yourself this, it’s not much of a puzzle, is it?”

~ Yoshino Genzaburō, How Do You Live?

Copper was never remiss in sharing and discussing his observations, and how these made him feel to his Uncle. Each illustrative chapter was succeeded by elucidatory notes from Uncle’s Notebook as he attempts to provide answers to Copper’s experiences. These notes accentuated the story and were presented in a different typeface from the rest of the book. Each notebook entry was unique and carried its own unique title: On Ways of Looking at Things, On True Experience, On Human Relationships and the Nature of Real Discoveries, On Poverty and Humanity, What Makes a Great Person: On the Life of Napoleon, and On Human Troubles, Mistakes and Greatness.

These notes were, however, no puerile attempts to provide answers to the mysteries of life Copper experienced; Copper was treated like an adult all throughout. Pouring in intricate details into these notes, Yoshino made the notes an integral part of the narrative. Each note elucidated on several seminal and weighty subjects. To elucidate on poverty and social inequity, Uncle tackled capitalism and consumerism and how they have influenced the economy. These also contained vestiges of Yoshino’s own political ideologies. There was also a note about Napoleon and his exploits. In highlighting Napoleon’s heroic deeds, the Uncle highlight not only bravery, and courage but also the recognition of one’s limits and acknowledgement of the enemy’s strategies and strengths. These are thought-provoking and insightful mini-masterpieces of philosophical thought.

The subjects of Uncle’s notes are often universal – art, science, history, and philosophy. Perhaps the most profound of the philosophical discourses can be found in the opening chapters of the narrative, when Copper’s Uncle elucidated on the origin of the nickname he gave his nephew. When Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, he was constantly challenged. His heliocentric theory wasn’t recognized until other succeeding astronomers came to the same conclusion. As he ruminated on the reason for the Copernican theory’s rejection, Copper’s uncle stated that: “But if you think one step further, it’s because human beings have a natural tendency to look at and think of things as if they were always at the center.”

Beyond the philosophical intersections, How Do You Live? is also a coming-of-age novel. The readers witness how Copper, with the guidance of his uncle, grew and developed a mind of his own. The novel’s reached its emotional climax when Copper witnesses his friends being beaten by the school bullies. He made a vow with his friends that should one get in trouble, the rest of them will stand up. However, as he contemplated in standing up with his friends, the moment ended. His failure to intervene weighed down on him, causing him mental turmoil that led to a decline in health and esteem. As his guilt and cowardice continued to torment him, he wrote a sincere letter of apology. This led to a heartwarming resolution.

“When I think how sometimes people can be brave enough to overcome any fear, any hardship, it gives me a feeling I can hardly describe. To charge right at the things that are painful, break through to the other side, and take pleasure in that – don’t you think that’s truly fantastic? The greater the suffering, the greater the joy in overcoming it. So you don’t fear death anymore! I think that’s what a heroic spirit is all about.”

~ Yoshino Genzaburō, How Do You Live?

The narrative was juxtaposed on a nostalgic backdrop. Yoshino did a commendable job of painting a vivid portrait of the suburban neighborhoods. The subtlety and the simplicity complimented the story. The story, however, does take time to develop. The pace was slow and stunted at parts. The extremely didactic nature of the story can also turnoff some readers. Nevertheless, the novel’s finer qualities were glued together by Copper’s anonymous uncle (even his mother was anonymous, simply referred to as “mother”). Whilst dialogue between uncle and nephew were sparse, his adult voice resonated all throughout the narrative in the form of his journal.

Originally published to cater a younger audience, How Do You Live? can also apply to an older audience for it contained several truths that make one think. Some of the philosophical discourses can even be applied to one’s life. Contrary to expectations, How Do You Live? does not offer conclusive answers. However, Yoshino reminded his readers the basic tenets of of obtaining a respectable life. The conversations between Copper and his uncle that covered a plethora subjects, ranging from science and literature to religion and history, highlighted one’s moral and civic duties. However, the world and life in general are both shrouded in mystery and that there are no absolute answers.

One profound message holds through, however: life is a perpetual cycle of learning. One never stops learning and lessons are abound, if only one knows where to find them. How Do You Live? also underscored a seminal message about the value of thinking for one’s self. Although it was published in 1937, the novel still resonates in the contemporary as it vividly captured the beauty of innocence and the power of learning.

Ratings

79%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

Before this year, I have never heard of Genzaburo Yoshino or his novel, How Do You Live? Earlier this year, booksellers started sharing about the book. I was curious but not enough to reserve a copy of the book. Things changed when I learned that not only was the novel published in pre-World War II Japan but it was also Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite childhood book. To the uninitiated, Miyazaki is one of the brains behind Studio Ghibli, the famed animation film studio that produced masterpieces such as Spirited Away (also directed by Miyazaki), My Neighbor Totoro, and Grave of the Fireflies. I have also learned that Studio Ghibli is currently in the process of adapting How Do You Live? into an animated film. As I admire most of Studio Ghibli’s works, I finally bought myself a copy of the book. I understand why Miyazaki considered it as his favorite childhood book. There was very little plot but the philosophical intersections made the coming-of-age narrative flourish. Copper’s uncle raised interesting points about a plethora of subjects.

Because of its philosophical nature, the novel reminded me of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, although I liked the Japanese work better. I am excited to see how Miyazaki translates the novel into an animated film; according to the latest information, the film could be released some time in 2023.

Book Specs

Author: Yoshino Genzaburō
Translators: (From Japanese) Bruno Navasky
Publisher: Rider Books
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 276
Genre: Bildungsroman

Synopsis

The streets of Tokyo swarm below fifteen-year-old Copper as he gazes out into the city of his childhood. Struck by the thought of the infinite people whose lives play out alongside his own, he begins to wonder, how do you live?

Considering life’s biggest questions for the first time, Copper turns to his dear uncle for heart-warming wisdom. As the old man guides the boy on a journey of philosophical discover, a timeless tale unfolds, offering a poignant reflection on what it means to be human.

About the Author

Yoshino Genzaburō was born on April 9, 1899 in Tokyo Japan.

The son of a stockbroker, he planed to be a lawyer. However, his interests shifted when he attended Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo). He ultimately studied literature and graduated with a degree in philosophy. Following his graduation from the university, he served two years in the army and took a job as a librarian at the Library of Tokyo. He also became increasingly political and in 1931, he was arrested for helping a communist meeting. A member of the army, he was court martialed and was sentenced to imprisonment of four years. However, his original sentence was commuted to eighteen months imprisonment and three years of probation after his friends reached out to the writer Yamamoto Yūzō.

Unable to find a job, Yoshino was eventually engaged by Yamamoto in 1935. Yoshino was given the task of being the chief editor for a 16-book series titled Nihon shōkokumin bunko (A Library for Young Japanese Nationals). The last installment of the series was Kimi-tachi wa Dō Ikiru ka (How Do You Live?) which Yamamoto originally planned to write. However, he fell sick and asked his friend Yoshino to write it in his stead. The book, which was intended to be a guide to philosophy for young readers, has been reedited and republished more than eighty times (at least twice by the author himself) to reflect the changing Japanese landscape and culture.

Yoshino passed away on May 23, 1981.