During the Second World War, the Japanese government stirred the people to support its war effort with the image of ‘One hundred million hearts beating as one human bullet to defeat the enemy.’ Kerri Sakamoto, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Japan-Canada Literary Award for her first novel The Electrical Field, draws on this wartime propaganda in her second novel as she casts light on a fascinating figure from wartime Japan: the kamikaze pilot.
These devout young men offered their lives to fly planes into enemy artillery; both human sacrifice and deadly weapon. A cherry blossom painted on the sides of the bomber symbolized the beauty and ephemerality of nature. Coming back alive from a sacred mission was shameful failure. To succeed meant transformation into an eternal flower — reincarnation — as the plane exploded like a fiery blossom in the sky.
In One Hundred Million Hearts, Miyo is a young Canadian woman who has been cared for all her life by her uncommunicative but devoted Japanese-Canadian father. Her mother died soon after her birth, and a disfigurement prevented the left side of her body from developing the same way as the right, causing her to be reliant on her father’s help. One day, commuting to work by subway when he can no longer drive her around, she is accidentally caught in the train doors, and rescued by a man who quickly professes his love for her.
The joy of this nurturing and joyful relationship removes her from the almost claustrophobic shelter of home, but as she grows distant from her father, his strength begins to fade; until one day she receives the terrible news of his death. It is only then that she discovers his secret past. The woman he always called his girlfriend was in fact his wife; they had a daughter in Japan, but gave her up for adoption. Now the daughter, Hana, is an artist in Tokyo. Amazed that she has a half-sister, Miyo travels there to meet her. Hana is bitter about being abandoned by her father, and has thrown herself into her work with almost destructive intensity.
Through Hana, Miyo learns more of their father’s hidden past. Though born in Canada, he was sent to university in Japan; in 1943, Japan was losing the war and the army began conscripting even students. He volunteered as a kamikaze pilot; yet he survived. Hana’s obsession with their father’s wartime history takes the shape of huge paintings of flowers adorned with the faces of kamikaze pilots and the red threads that one thousand schoolgirls sewed onto the white sash of every pilot that made this suicidal mission.
“If only he had not hoarded his secrets,” thinks Miyo as she struggles to understand modern Japan and her father’s past. Why did he not fulfill his ultimate sacrifice, but live to care for her? The reader is drawn into the daily struggles of each of the characters and their rich interior lives through a lyrical portrait of Japanese life that has been compared to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. The Montreal Gazette said Kerri Sakamoto has created in Miyo “a marvelously complex, compelling character who is transformed…to a woman who runs and dances and loves, not in innocence, but in full, terrifying knowledge.”
The lingering shadow of WWII hangs over this second novel, in which Sakamoto (The Electrical Field) again explores the secrets and burdens of second-generation Japanese-Canadians. Miyo, the young protagonist, is born physically deformed and cared for with tenderness by her widowed father, Masao, despite the occasional interference of his would-be girlfriend, Setsuko. Shortly after Miyo moves out of her father's house as an adult to live with her boyfriend, David, her father dies, and she is faced with the shocking fact that Setsuko was his wife and has a child, Miyo's half-sister Hana, in Japan. Traveling with Setsuko to Tokyo, Miyo confronts the fierce love and anger of Hana and learns that her father was a pilot in a kamikaze unit during the war. Hana is a gifted, troubled artist, resentful, of the absent father Miyo has always respected and obsessed with his wartime activities. The novel gains depth and force when Miyo and Hana's stories begin to connect with that of "Buddy" Kuroda, a convicted war criminal, and his wife, Kiku, whose long-ago kamikaze fianc , Hajime, once revealed in passionate final letters his doubts about his great sacrifice and the part he played in determining Masao's fate. The reader is left with some unanswered questions; Miyo's observations are often childishly simplistic, and the tempestuous Hana can't sit still long enough to fully express herself or her feelings. But the novel is redeemed by its deft evocation of Japanese culture and its grave examination of a tragic episode in Japanese history.