Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 51

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Kenzaburo Oe’s Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is the story of a group of teenage boys who are taken from their corrective center (juvenile detention center, to my American readers) during wartime. They are brought to a village where the intent is for the children to do the grunt work of farming and fielding. Unfortunately, a plague breaks out and the boys are deserted – barricaded into the village until the plague is believed to have dissipated. In that time (about five days), the boys learn to fend for themselves – to hunt, cook, and even to play as they were never able or allowed to before. The story is both similar and opposite to Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It is similar in that it tells about a group of young boys who are stranded alone together and who must organize and function together as a unit; it is different in that, in this case, the children learn that they must work together in order to survive, and they do so without breaking down into animalistic madness. Instead, the adults are depicted as the brutes and beasts, abusing and terrorizing the children. Also similar to Lord of the Flies is the one lone adult who is found by the children and who is at first misunderstood or mistrusted by the boys. What Oe implies, which Golding did not, was that adults are just as likely to act monstrously when fearful or threatened as children are – and that children are just as capable of maintaining order and surviving independently as adults might be. A shared theme, though, is the darker nature of humanity – the “survival of the fittest” mentality and that humans are by nature mistrustful and selfish, regardless of age, race, or social status.

3 – Characters well developed.

The narrator is a boy likely around age 14 who is shadowed throughout the story by his younger brother, likely about the age of 10. They are traveling with a group of boys from the youth prison, where each of the boys were sent for misdeeds which are never really explained, though which the reader is meant to believe were probably relatively minor offenses, such as petty theft. The interaction between the boys is one of camaraderie (in fact, they often refer to each other as “comrade” rather than friend or some other distinction). While we get a general sense of what “adults” are and what “children” are – there are also brief moments of a deeper understanding, such as when the narrator and the doctor from another village interact on three occasions, and the dialogue goes very differently each time. The most developed or explained characters are the narrator, his brother, and their Korean friend Li. We also learn much (or at least just enough) about the boy who is nearest to being the narrator’s friend, Minami. The rest of the boys and villagers, except for the village leader, are left relatively undeveloped and without purpose, other than to fill in the space – particularly in the “mob mentality” moments, when the villagers confront the boys, for instance, or when the boys gang up on our narrator’s brother and his dog, Leo. This does not detract from the story, however, as the point seems to be that there are many “comrades” and “villagers” but few people of distinct personality, capable of independent thought, and those few who are – such as the defected militia man and the narrator, are either killed or are forced to desert. I would have perhaps enjoyed some deeper character interaction and development, particularly in regards to the narrator and Minami’s relationship, as well as the narrator and his “girl’s” relationship. The brothers, too, are interesting to watch, and witnessing more of their bond would have been helpful in terms of creating an empathic link between the story and the reader.

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Oe’s prose calls to mind a mixture of Hemingway’s simplicity and straightforwardness, with Golding’s stamina and honesty, and a dash of Japanese story-telling, redolent of what one might find in Americanized role-playing video games. It’s an odd mixture, but given the subject matter, it definitely works. For instance, Oe seems to me the Japanese mirror of Hemingway in terms of war-time story-telling. The prose is direct and powerful, but reveals a manly type of sentiment. The narration from a child’s point of view is remiscent of what Golding does in The Lord of the Flies, and the simple honesty, the revelatory nature of the prose as seen through a youth’s eyes, the helplessness and ignorance is a style which works oddly well in conjunction with the coldness of a war-narrative prose. Finally, the Japanese story-telling encompasses both natures, so there is a bit of ancient magic woven into the threads of the story – these disgusting and disturbing children can be championed; the vicious, cruel adults can be detested. There is a “good” and a “bad’ but there is no happy ending. One critique, though, is the nature of the prose does not allow for much connection from reader-to-character, nor does it allow for empathy or even sympathy. There is a frigid detachment, which is perhaps intentional – it is as if the story we are reading is cold, hard fact and there is nothing we can do but to witness it. This could very well be the point, but it makes for difficult reading at times and is largely what accounted for my needing an entire week to read such a short book.

Additional Elements:
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

The major themes of this novel seem to be: 1) the nature of the individual in war time; 2) the nature of the collective in war time; 3) the nature of family; and 4) the inversion of the adult/youth dichotomy. Oe clearly has much to say on the idea of war and its impacts on the individual and the “village” – be it hometown, state, or nation. There is a loss of self which is felt when a country is at war. Suddenly, there is nothing important about “me” and all attention must be paid toward the greater good – protecting and honoring the state. Also, he comments continuously on the dangers of a mob mentality and of ignorant persecution of innocents. Family seems to be the only bond which is unbreakable and, when it does snap, the repercussions are permanent and unbearably painful; family seems to be the one thing which remains fearless in the face of adversity so, when family – its protection, its hope, or its memory – is not present, the chances for survival or independence are annihilated. Finally, there is this interesting inversion of the social constructs relating to “adulthood” and “childhood.” Oe reverses the roles, so that adults act like lawless, persecuting, immature children, striking out irrationally at every danger and refusing to think or act within the realm of logic or reason. The children, on the other hand, form bonds and relationships in order to get tasks done, to feed themselves and their group, and to maintain a balance within the community. Oe seems to imply that, when left alone, adults are more likely to turn on one another, whereas children are more likely to work together to survive. An interesting study.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: World War II, Japanese Culture, Dystopia, Fear, Survival, Coming-of-Age

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