Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids [1958] – ★★★★1/2

Kenzaburo Oe’s debut should remind of Lord of the Flies [1954] by William Golding, but, undoubtedly, the author had other inspirations too. In his first book, the Japanese Nobel Laureate tells of a group of boys from a reform school that get stranded high up in forested mountains and forced to confront hostile villagers, the possibility of a plague, starvation and inhumane conditions. As the boys take matters into their own hands, their boyish desire to play and youthful confidence/hopefulness clash violently with the necessities posed by the war and traumas experienced by the most desperate. The boys finally realise that they have to choose between truth, principle, loyalty and compassion, on the one hand, and their own lives, on the other.

As Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry, there is the focus in this story on the mentality of one isolated village, on the relationship between two brothers, and on various situations where despair and hope, adulthood and immaturity, and corruption and innocence come face-to-face and collide. Also, as the author’s The Silent Cry, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids paints a disturbingly grim universe that is particular to Kenzaburo Oe only – there is a war raging on in the background, the hostile environment is made even more so by the presence of unfriendly villagers, and dirt and panic are ever-present. Portrayed with brutal honesty, there emerges in this story one of a kind nightmarish scenario as we focus on fifteen undernourished boys. Our narrator is one of the boys who has a brother that has been smuggled reluctantly into these ranks of delinquents. The boys are being evacuated from their current place due to the ongoing war, but they are few other villages that want to take them. Finally, the boys are taken deep into the mountains, a place that can only be reached by a trolley. It is there they have to confront the terrifying and claustrophobic nature of their existence.

Surrounded by gigantic walls”, “buried beneath the heavy atmosphere” [1958: 65] in a place “harder to escape…than from jail” [1958: 25], the boys are soon put to a horrid task of disposing of animal carcasses and clearing the mountain fields. But, is there a more sinister reason behind their task? There is a talk of a plague, so there is a chance of death for the boys not only from the war, starvation and “savage” villagers, but also from a deadly disease. Confronted by hopelessness, the boys find their condition in the new place becoming curious: “time went really slowly and simply wouldn’t pass. Time doesn’t move at all…like a domestic animal, time doesn’t move without human beings’ strict supervision…time won’t move a step without grown-ups’ orders.” [Oe, 1958: 91]. The brutality of the boys’ new existence is still being sometimes softened by the compassion for the weak and a still strong sense of camaraderie among the boys, but how long will these last? This question becomes important when on the scene comes a soldier who escaped his army and our narrator finds “love” in the presence of an abandoned village girl.

Kenzaburo Oe perceptively contrasts the mentality of adults and children when they are faced with unnatural and horrific conditions. On the one hand, the boys that are left stranded in the mountains are slowly turning into adults, assuming control over their lives and their new land, and imitating an adult lifestyle in other ways, such as hunting for their food and developing grown-up relationships. On the other hand, the boys still seem to be engaged in a childish play from time to time and, among all their seemingly “adult” decision-making, display boyish bravado, selfishness and fearlessness that could only come from ignorance. However, amazingly, it is precisely the children that seem to behave more rationally than the adults in certain critical situations, and, in that way, Kenzaburo Oe undoubtedly wanted to satirise the actions of adults in times of war, crisis and confusion: “in that time of killing, that time of madness, we children may have been the only ones to develop a close solidarity” [Oe, 1958: 27-28].

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is a strong debut that is short, disturbing and powerful. From Kenzaburo Oe’s pen spirals out brutal and unforgettable truth as the reader is taken on a slow-moving ride into the chaos and despair.

2 thoughts on “Review: Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburō Ōe

  1. I wasn’t a huge fan of Lord of the Flies, but your review for this book makes me want to read it. I love books about survival against terrible odds, especially dealing with mental and physical turmoil. Even if this book looks super dark, it is definitely going on my TBR!

    Liked by 2 people

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