The story of this novel by Naoki Hyakuta (2012) is riveting and revealing. The topic is the Pacific War and the kamikaze or suicide pilots Japan is so famous for, a topic that the older generation nowadays in Japan do not care to discuss. Kami means ‘divine’ or ‘of the gods,’ kaze ‘spirit wind.’ This warrior’s sacred intention carried out in a mechanical age is a raucous echo of the medieval Samurai honour code known as seppuku or abdomen-cutting, executed at the warrior’s own hand rather than fall into enemy hands. Both the modern and the ancient version of the realization of this death-wish would seem to come from a highly emotional state induced either by a surfeit of pride, of nationalistic zeal, or the intolerable fear of torture in enemy hands. In other circumstances, such a drastic act or sacrifice of precious life, may issue from a religious or sacrificial source, and although both Samurai and kamikaze pilots tended to be spiritual rather than religious, their setting for such an act secular rather than religious, it is seriously sacrifical for the greater good.
The story of ‘Eternal Zero’ starts with a funeral ceremony, the family assembled clad in back in the traditional way, the furnace doors closing away a human life, which the loved ones were not able to revive with their wailing and entreating. The chief mourner falls to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably, which surprises the gathering. Step-grandfather has never shown such emotion, so what does it symbolize? This breaking down is a symbol of a secret that must come to light, and it is the grandchildren who take the reigns of their legacy and become determined to understand what has been kept from them for so long.
Their search takes them across Japan to interview fighter pilots who survived the Pacific War, in an attempt to unearth the story of their biological grandfather whose existence has been buried until now at the death of his then-wife.
Young smooth-faced men are caught up in the war games of their blustering elders, uncertain of their true motivation for risking their lives and destroying others, but forbidden to question orders. Cheering each other on, they are constantly on standby to launch their fighter planes from the aircraft-carrier, then delighted by the hazardous landings back on deck, their flimsy wheels halted by taught wires. Their task is to disable the American aircraft-carriers at all costs, if not by bomb-drop then by deliberately flying their plane into the target, the most effective way of causing the greatest damage.
Miyabe, their blood grandfather, is painted in many lights by the survivors of his squadron. Hero. Murderer. Varyingly attached to or detached from human life. While on leave to see his wife and new baby, when the moment comes for him to go back to enemy lines, his wife begs him not to go, and he says he will come back even if he dies serving his Emperor and country. He swears he will always protect his family from the spiritual or physical worlds. He speaks out when a senior officer rails the squadron members for the loss of one of their precious planes, suggesting simply that the human life lost is surely more precious than the plane. This is met with a vicious assault around the head and eyes, but with marvelous respect from the squadron members. His skill as a pilot is unsurpassed, the envy of all his comrades, one of whom tries to shoot him down to shift the limelight to himself.
Young step-grandfather becomes a good friend of Miyabe, who visits him in the hospital when he is wounded, and gives him his own warm trench-coat to wear for his convalescence back in freezing and ruined Japan. They each promise to let their families know if they fail to return from a mission, Miyabe entrusting him with his cherished snapshot of his wife and baby daughter, grandmother and mother. And as Japan’s position becomes weaker and weaker, their arsenals depleted, US forces creeping ever closer to invading mainland Japan, Miyabe is required to offer himself up as special-kamikaze attacker, delivering as much of their munitions as possible on a direct hit. He sacrifices himself in the certainty that he is going on the way of the gods, smiling widely from the cockpit during the vertical descent.
Miyabe suffers badly at the loss of members of his squadron who volunteered to sacrifice themselves. It’s clear from the shrines he makes for each of them, displaying their photographs, lighting candles and incense, that he values life for living more than for sacrifice, more than for duty. He has watched them explode around him silently from his cockpit, no radio warnings or may-days possible.
The war is lost, Japan ravaged, America invades. Wives and children are left bereft, without any means, by dead husbands and fathers. Step-grandfather goes to find Miyabe’s wife and daughter from the salvaged photograph as promised. He knocks on the cardboard-covered door, which slides aside swiftly to reveal his wife with a broom held ready to attack foreign intruders. At first, she thinks the shadowy soldier is Miyabe, but then realises that there is official news to be conveyed. There is such hostility, fear, not-knowing and gross shock, which turn her too into a merciless warrior. She does not want the young soldier’s money or pity; her bitterness all utilized to keep her and her infant daughter in some way warm.
But the young solider stays close by. He has promised his sacrificial friend to take care of his family. He tries to gain the trust of the little girl, offering her a coin, candy, most of which are given back by irate mother. Then eventually, the bitterness subsides, smiles emerge, the young child bonds with her father’s replacement easily. The young soldier has found his reason to live, losing site completely of his reason to die.
They marry, have more children, and vow not to ever talk about Miyabe though he will always be their foundation, and spiritual protection, their bridge to the invisible world. And so, life goes on, the war is forgotten, the ‘Way of the Gods’ is buried as Japan pledges never to enter another war.
The secret is out, and the grandchildren rejoice in their heroic Miyabe, and the incredible strength and fearlessness of their ancestors. Finally, Miyabe’s zero-sen fighter cruises past his tear-consumed grandson on a city bridge, and the divine way of the gods is passed on with wing-tip and propeller, gasoline fumes and leather helmet.
This story displays beautifully the refusal of the Japanese spirit to sell out entirely to high-tech and super-power. The way of the gods, of no-mind, remains strong even today.