He was dressed in a three-piece tweed suit, worsted wool from London, with a paisley pocket square peeking over the selvage and a gold watch chain dangling from another cavity into the fabric. He had always been a dandy, and now, in his new prosperity, in his high office, with his surfeit of imperial spoils, he could afford such finery. He shook an English cigarette from a box and lit it with an American lighter.
I had been seated at my drafting table, working on some pen and ink sketches, and as the ink was still wet I did not cover the illustration before answering the door. Kunugi immediately crossed the room and inspected the drawing, a mother and son, each tightly bundled in a kimono, walking on a country road, first snow falling. The mother was carrying a military uniform bound in white string. My first attempt had them walking with a crippled soldier hobbling on crutches, still in uniform but with one leg missing. In this version, I had tried it without the soldier, and it was more effective, his absence implied.
This does not inspire, Kunugi observed as he exhaled.
I can see the painting in my head: I can see Kunugi. The juxtaposition is a powerful statement, a terrific opening scene that snared me right in to this story. And the painting itself, with the emphasis on what is implied by what is not there, begins a key element of this story: the importance of what is not said.
I realized right away I’d read very little about life in WWII Japan. The same period in Germany and the rest of Europe is richly documented in fiction, biography, memoir, documentary, etc. Greenfeld, in his Contributor Note, says he hadn’t, either, so he was interested in examining the period, particularly the repression of art that did not meet national goals.
He does so by way of Ohta, a middle-aged artist and university teacher whose career is dying “by attrition” as the “liberal” magazine that published most of his work was shut down, and young people had no time or thought for art. His art school classmate, Kunugi, appears. The two weren’t friends; Kunugi was far more recognized as a student, though Ohta hasn’t seen his name in connection with art in quite some time. It was Kunugi who issued the memo shutting down the magazine, and now Kunugi comes to Ohta with an official national problem:
Mickey Mouse, he began, is on the list of enemy characters.
This did not surprise me.
Kunugi, decked in English and American finery, assigns Ohta the task of creating a character that will displace Mickey Mouse, better personify the Japanese culture, and boost morale. Ohta is a bit dubious, since he’s never done animation, but it’s work he needs, and he reports to the appropriate office.
They took my card and my identification card, filled out a form on onionskin paper, and rolled that into a leather-capped bamboo tube which they dropped into a pneumatic cylinder beside them. With a shhhhoooop, the bamboo tube was sucked away.
I love that touch of detail, the bamboo tube used in a pneumatic chute: the familiar and the exotic. It’s one of the many things that makes this story work so well. Greenfeld is very good at describing details that stand out, not because they are beautifully worded but because they are unique and resonant. It’s a story of implication.
Over the years as the war progresses, Ohta brings many sketches for his Japanese Mickey Mouse to the supervisor – “a badger, a deer, a pair of monkeys, and a sympathetic ape in a samurai headdress” – but none are acceptable. There’s a wonderfully rendered scene with Kunugi, now in uniform, the second and final time they meet. Ohta has just sketched a scene from the subway stampede where he was caught during the first bombing of Japan; Kunugi glances at it while rifling through the Mickey Mouse work, and when Ohta suggests he find someone more suited to the task at hand, Kunugi slaps him and tells him to bring one of the sketches, a cat in uniform, to the supervisor. It, too, is rejected, but Ohta continues to work on the project, as it’s a source of income and access to art materials.
Eventually the propaganda office, too, suffers from attrition, as war reverses change the tenor of things from imminent victory to waiting for defeat. Ohta is drafted, but unable to serve in combat, survives the war; Kunugi does not.
The story ends – with an ear-splitting whisper that sent me back to the beginning to re-read with a different set of eyes – with an exhibition of Ohta’s work a few years later; he was surprised it, too, survived the war, crated in the University basement; surprised there was interest in putting on an exhibition; and surprised by excellent attendance. He’s also surprised by Kunugi’s widow, who seeks him out:
He said you were a real artist. He said it was important that a real artist like you survive the war.
She looked around the gallery. I expected her to compliment my work.
But she had already told me what she came to say.
I’ve always thought of Greenfeld as a journalist, but now I’ve read three of his short stories (including “Partisans” from One Story). I think it’s time I started thinking of him as a fiction writer with a day job. Because this story reminds me that, for all our efforts to make a living and secure a future, it is art, expression, creativity, that we live for.