A Searing Debut

Kenzaburō Ōe is, without a doubt, one of the most important figures in contemporary Japanese literature. He boasts a prolific career that spanned almost seven decades. His earliest published works appeared in 1957 when he was still in his early twenties. His long and successful career has produced a plethora of novels, short stories, novellas, and essays, most of which are fundamental in the study of contemporary Japanese literature. For his works, he has received several accolades. He received his biggest recognition in 1994 when he was named just the second Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In its citation, the Swedish Committee lauded his writing prowess: “who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”

One of the earliest manifestations of this “disconcerting picture of the human predicament today” was ostensible in his debut novel, Memushiri kouchi (芽むしり仔撃ち), which was published in 1958. However, it was only after Ōe won the Nobel Prize that the book was made available to the anglophone reader. In 1995, the first translation carried the title Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids; the Swedish Committee used a rough translation of the title, Bud-NippingLamb Shooting, in their biography of the highly-acclaimed writer. The book is also available under a different title, Pluck the Bud and Destroy the Offspring.

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids charted the story of fifteen adolescent boys from a reformatory school in World War II Japan. With the war wreaking havoc in the urban areas, the juvenile delinquents were evacuated to the countryside, assisted by a warden and a patrolman. For days, they traveled around the countryside, sashaying from one village after another. They finally settled in a remote village located in a mountainous region; the village can only be accessed through a trolley. There, their survival depended largely on their capabilities to adapt to their new environment. It didn’t take long for them to realize that the villagers did not welcome their arrival and presence. Far from the hospitality they expected, the fifteen boys were treated harshly and were forced to perform tasks such as burying rotting animal corpses. They were also fed raw potatoes and were locked into a shed for the night.

“We were galled by the stubborn procrastination of time and the silence blanketing the valley, and we began to grow tired. And we were expecting something. Anything which restored our integrity and tension would have been welcome, even the return of the villagers. We had broken into and robbed their houses and occupied their living quarters, but already we no longer knew whether or not we hated those who had abandoned us.”

~ Kenzaburō Ōe, Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids

The tension between the boys and the villagers started to escalate after it was discovered that the valley in which the village was nestled was slowly being ravaged by a plague. The locals contracted this mysterious malady. Farm animals were also not spared. As more villagers fell sick, panic permeated the air. Believing that the boys brought the catastrophe with them, the villagers fled to the neighboring village. They abandoned the boys and left them to fend for themselves. To ensure their safety, the villagers put up a barricade. Anyone caught breaching the walls was immediately sent away. With the winter setting in, it seems that nothing was going in the boys’ way. As if a precursor, the book carried an ominous title that graphically described what can easily be perceived as the progression of events: nip the buds, shoot the kids.

Trapped in a remote village, there was no one else they can turn to but themselves;. Bereft of an authority figure, they were directionless. It was at these difficult junctures that a prominent voice rises from the din and takes the lead lest they descend into madness. The boys’ saving grace came in the form of an unassuming boy who was also the story’s main narrator. He answered the clamor and took on the role of being one of the group’s leaders. It was through his lenses that the boys’ experiences under these nightmarish circumstances were captured. He was the voice of reason who quelled everyone’s worries, silently reassuring them. At the same time, he organized them, planning a rational course of action to ensure their survival, the most ostensible of which was seizing control of the abandoned village.

It is no secret that the book was bleak and, at times, hopeless with shades of pessimism. The novel vividly portrayed how fifteen boys were forced to take over their own destinies, thus, it has become imperative to shed every trace of their boyhood. Trapped in a harsh environment, they were forced to mature and assume more vocal roles. Gone were the days of boyish, innocent, and gleeful fun. In its stead was a nagging voice reminding them of the unfavorable circumstances surrounding them, hence, they must act accordingly. The border between boyhood and adulthood was blurred. With no one else to depend on for their survival, they started acting like adults, learning basic survival skills such as hunting and cooking. In the process, they were also learning more about themselves and their capabilities.

The dichotomies between adults and boys were vividly captured by Ōe. The actions of the adult were reflective of the classic adage, “We fear what we don’t understand”. In the novel, there were two things that they feared: one was unseen while the other was a set of young boys. Their fear made them act whimsically, like children. Rather than help them, they abandoned them, viewing them as horsemen of the apocalypse. Their treatment of the boys was very telling of the decline in moralities. The village chief, moreover, didn’t take accountability for the boys and vocally condemned the boys. The dangers of mob mentality were vividly captured by the story. On the other hand, the villagers’ collective action was a reflection of the same collective action that the boys had to undertake in order to overcome the disadvantages leveled at them. No one expected the boys to thrive or even survive under such harsh conditions.

“I thought about death and was gripped by feelings which choked my chest and made my throat dry, a sudden pushing and shoving in my guts. It was a sort of chronic ailment I had. Once that feeling and that agitation of my whole body had begun, I wouldn’t be able to shake it off until I got to asleep. And I couldn’t recall it with the same impact in the daytime.”

~ Kenzaburō Ōe, Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids

While the boys and the villagers locked horns in a battle of wills, the war continued to rage on in the other parts of the world. Despite its remoteness, the war made its presence felt in the village. Ōe, born in 1935, bore witness to the atrocities of the Second World War. These were vividly stamped in the story. In his debut novel, he captured how the war has adversely affected people of the world. The transformation of the villagers into maddened, if not confused adults. Confusion was ubiquitous as uncertainties lurk at every corner. The rural air was pregnant with paranoia which nearly pushed society to the brink of collapse. The fundamental laws of morality were so eroded by the selfish desire to put themselves first that the villagers viewed the boys as “vermins”.

Amidst the confusion of the war and the panic incited by the plague, the book asked the elephant in the room: what does humanity mean? Bleak times, such as wars, pandemics, and natural calamities, often bring out the worst in humanity. Desperation and frustration pervaded the air. But it was also during these challenging times that the best qualities of humanity shine. The boys of the novel learned new life skills to cope with the challenges of isolation. It was an opportunity for them and one of their biggest drivers was the unnamed narrator. It was also the narrator who chose to see the beauty beyond the mob mentality that has seized who were supposedly their hosts. He saw hope beyond the violence. He was a bright spot that illuminated the novel’s bleak landscape.

It is ironic how those who have experienced cruelties are often the first ones to see beauty and hope in times bereft of these qualities. The hero of the story, it was the unknown narrator who also propelled the story. Except for him, Ōe never expounded on the circumstances that led the boys to the reformatory school. His past, however, did not preclude him from developing into becoming a responsible young man over the course of the story. He also had his own sources of hope. His biggest driving force was his younger brother; their father offloaded him at the reformatory school during the diaspora brought about by the war. He knew his younger brother was counting on him, thus, he must keep himself together, even when he was on the brink. The other came in the form of a girl who aroused primal instincts in him. His coming-of-age was one of the novel’s highest points.

The narrator’s younger brother gave the story a distinct complexion. He bore witness to the same level of violence his brother witnessed and yet he was able to keep his sanity and innocence. There was a purity about him that was reminiscent of a flower blossoming in the midst of winter. He was never corrupted by these acts of cruelty. Lest we forget, he and his brothers were outsiders isolated in a densely wooded area. They saw hope in one another. They will ultimately find compassion in outsiders like them. Apart from the only girl whose mother died during quarantine from tetanus, they welcomed, albeit with apprehension at first, a Korean boy and a Japanese war deserter into their nascent circle.

The stink which gushed out, twisting and twining, was impregnated with something that tantalized us. Children who have sniffed eagerly with their small noses pressed up against the hindquarters of a bitch in heat, children who have the courage and reckless desire to enjoy, even for a short while, the dangerous pleasure of rapidly stroking the back of an aroused dog, can recognize the subtle human signal and allure in the stink of animal carcasses. We opened our eyes wide, fit to burst, and inhaled lustily.

~ Kenzaburō Ōe, Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids

The rich tapestry of the deceptively slender novel was woven together by Ōe’s riveting storytelling. His prose had the power to capture the manifold aspects of the unnamed narrator’s mind while, at the same time, vividly painting the direness of their situation. In true Japanese literature fashion, the backdrop made the story all the more haunting. The densely wooded surrounding the village evoked images of another Ōe novel, The Silent Cry. The forest, blanketed by snow and enigma, at times dark, was a reflection of the dark times that crept into its neighboring village. The sense of order was disrupted by discomfiting details of eroticism. Graphic details of the male genitalia were ubiquitous. Adolescence, after all, is the period when our sexuality and desires start to strongly manifest.

Published when Ōe was just twenty-three years old, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids was a compelling display of literary prowess that would define his career as a writer. In less than two hundred pages, he was able to deliver a masterful literary piece about a plethora of subjects such as fear, cowardice, dynamics of family relationships, and companionship among the outliers. Beyond these subjects are deeper messages. One of the novel’s finer displays was its indictment of war-time cruelty and how it has adversely shaped society. Written and published in post-war Japan, it was also a subtle image of a nation still reeling from the consequences of war.

Amidst all the furor was the blossoming of a young man. He himself had to witness various instances of cruelties but he only saw beauty where the others saw cruelty. He saw hope where everyone was restless. He was the voice of reason and his coming-of-age was one of the novel’s finer facets. Above all, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is a story about our existence and about humanity. It is a magnanimous masterpiece from one of the world’s most talented writers.

“But I didn’t know what do do to get away through the night forest, fleeing from the brutal villagers, and escape harm. I didn’t even know if I still had the strength to run any more. I was only a child, tired, insanely angry, tearful, shivering with cold and hunger. Suddenly a wind blew up, carrying the sound of the villagers’ footsteps growing nearer, closing in on me. I got up, clenching my teeth, and dashed into the deeper darkness between the treees and the darker undergrowth.”

~ Kenzaburō Ōe, Nip The Buds, Shoot The Kids
Ratings

86%

Characters (30%) – 27%
Plot (30%) – 
25%
Writing (25%) – 
22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

I used to be apprehensive of Kenzaburō Ōe. Sure, I kept encountering his works on must-read lists and in the bookstore. What ultimately made me avoid his works, at first, was his reputation as one of Haruki Murakami’s staunchest critics. I like some of Murakami’s works but I soon overcame this prejudice. I was ultimately drawn to his works because of the sheer power of curiosity. Besides, he belonged to one part of the literary world I loved – Japanese literature – and to top it off, he was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. My first Ōe novel, The Silent Cry, left a deep impression on me. From this springboard, I resolved to read more of Ōe’s works. A year later, I was able to acquire Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, a morbid title if I may say so myself. When I learned it was his debut novel, I didn’t hesitate in reading it ASAP; I resolved to read the debut works of the world’s most popular and influential writers. It was equally enchanting as The Silent Cry. They shared several similarities while, at the same time, staying distinct. The book only further convinced me to read more of the Nobel Laureate in Literature, a testament to his brilliant strokes. And he had it published when he was just twenty-three years old!

When I started Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids, I didn’t know of the similarities it shared with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I was astounded to learn that it was Golding’s debut novel. Golding, like Ōe, was a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. However, I have yet to read one of his works.

Book Specs

Author: Kenzaburō Ōe
Translator (from Japanese): Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama
Publisher: Marion Boyars Publishers
Publishing Date: 1995
Number of Pages: 189
Genre: Historical Fiction, Bildungsroman

Synopsis

The first novel by Japan’s most celebrated living writer, Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids recounts the exploits of fifteen teenage reformatory boys evacuated to a remote mountain village in wartime. The narrator who acts as nominal leader of the small band, his younger brother and their comrades are all delinquent outcasts, feared and detested by the local peasants. When plague breaks out, their hosts abandon them and flee, then blockade them inside the empty village, together with a young Korean, an army deserter and a girl evacuee. However, the boys’ brief, doomed attempt to build autonomous lives of self-respect, love and tribal valour inevitably fails with the reflux of death and the adult nightmare of war.

Nip The Buds, Shoot the Kids encapsulates all the qualities that distinguish Ōe’s writing: his radical anger; his evocation of myth and archetype and his extraordinary poetic style. Distilling a vast range of influences, from Twain and Golding to Mailer and Camus, it burns with the agony of the existential hero in a time and place where any deviancy meets with savage retribution.

Indisputably the greatest post-war Japanese novelist, Kenzaburō Ōe has won every national literary prize, many international awards, including the 1989 Prix Europalia, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. He is also revered as the conscience of Japan’s modern left. His translated works include Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, A Personal Matter and The Silent Cry.

About the Author

To learn more about the recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature, Kenzaburō Ōe (大江 健三郎), click here.