Debra J. Carlson

Shakuhachi — Synopsis

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine,
or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.

—Matsuo Basho, master haiku writer and diarist (1644–1694)


When bombs fall from the sky over Tokyo on the night of March 9th, 1945, 100,000 people die. Among the tens of thousands dead are Yukiko Nakagawa, eight-year-old Kenji Nakagawa's mother, and his grandparents. As Japan stumbles through the summer into starvation and defeat, so young Kenji slides into silence and despair. Granny Nobu, the village healer who agrees to care for the orphaned boy, relies on her training as a shaman in the miko tradition to heal the boy and guide him back to wholeness. But the devastating loss of his family proves to be almost beyond Granny Nobu's art.

Bombs fall from the sky and dreams speak to the soul.

Thirty years later, in 1974, Kenji illustrates animated films for Muto Studios in Tokyo. Cut off from his past, he neither needs nor wants emotional connection to anyone. When he learns that his mother did not die 29 years ago the truth upends his world. Handed a wooden box containing his mother's ashes, and joined by Japanese-American Megumi Ohashi, Kenji embarks reluctantly on a journey of discovery. As Yukiko says in the opening line of the novel, "The gods do not reply to our cries of why—they simply point the way."

The novel takes its title from the shakuhachi—bamboo flutes—first played by Zen Buddhist monks known as the kumuso or ‘priests of nothingness’. Dreamed into existence by Granny Nobu and hand-crafted especially for him at this time of crisis, a shakuhachi flute ultimately leads Kenji back to his past and reveals his future. Moving seamlessly between the burned out streets of war-torn Tokyo, the snow-bound mountains of northwestern Japan, and the smoke-filled offices of the animation studio, Shakuhachi tells a story of love that transcends time and tragedy.

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