Music to Bomb To
Last month, I had the honor of being featured on Largehearted Boy, David Gutowski’s inspired music blog. The quest: to come up with a playlist for The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. No easy task–but after much ruminating and iTunes-searching and all-around musical procrastination I managed to compile one. Here is the result:
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a novel about many things—war and reconciliation, violence and romance, destruction and redemption. Set before, during and after America’s 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, it was an intense and sometimes draining project to write. But like my central heroine—the pensive and piano-loving Yoshi Kobayashi–I found a lot of solace and encouragement in music. In fact, most of the works below were on one playlist or another for me during the time I worked on the novel, and some are in addition contemplated by one of the six Japanese and American characters through whose eyes we see war unfurl and then subside. All, however, speak to key moments of the book’s multi-layered narrative—the sensual and the violent, the dark as well as the light.
“Such Great Heights” – Iron and Wine
Four years before Pearl Harbor: we ascend skywards on a Ferris Wheel with aspiring pilot Cam Richards and his tart-tongued date (and future wife) Lacy. They are young, idealistic and a little horny, and inside their swinging cage occurs an exchange of dreams, smeared lipstick and mutual euphoria over having found what each soon realizes is “the one.” This classic Iron and Wine song sums up the mood.
“Devil’s Gonna Get You” – Bessie Smith
While Cam and Lacy make their rickety climb, Czech-American architect Anton Reynolds is hosting a dinner party in Kuruizawa, Japan, with Bessie Smith playing in the background. A former disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, Anton has spent the last two decades infusing prewar Tokyo’s skyline with modernity, little realizing that he’ll soon help bomb it to smithereens. In the shorter term, however, he encounters a bombshell of a different type—the beautifully morose Hana Kobayashi, wife of his favorite Japanese builder and mother to the then-6-year-old Yoshi. Anton’s attraction to Hana will prove as tragic, as damaging and as inevitable as his role in Tokyo’s Phoenix-like reduction to ash. Or (as Bessie croons): It’s a long, long lane that has no turning, and it’s a fire that keeps on burning…
“Blue Skies” – Irving Berlin
1942: America, still reeling from Japan’s surprise attack on Oahu and conquests in Southeast Asia, is in desperate need of a buck-up. Hope comes in the skybound shape of the Doolittle Raid, a secret mission led by aviation legend Jimmy Doolittle in which 16 B-25 bombers—each weighing over 20 tons—perform the unprecedented feat of taking off from an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific. The planes have just enough fuel to reach Japan and bomb it before crash-landing in enemy-held Chinese territory. Cam Richards is a lead pilot, and the rush he gets after successfully lifting off the pitching deck of the U.S.S. Hornet leaves him humming this Berlin tune, which is also his and Lacy’s favorite song. Little does he know how short-lived his euphoria will prove to be….
“How You Survived the War” – The Weepies
By 1943, Anton Reynolds is back in the United States, where he now is working with the U.S. military. His job: to recreate Japanese-style houses so that high-tech firebombs (destined for Tokyo) can be tested on them for efficacy. Reynolds tells himself that his efforts will help end the war quickly, thus saving both American and Japanese lives. But as he watches the flames devour the building he’s created, he nevertheless keeps seeing Hana Kobayashi’s slim silhouette in his mind’s eye. There is a nostalgia and sadness in that moment that for me echoes in this melodic but haunting Weepies tune: You get back to the wall/And put your hands up/It’s a holdup/You give up like every time before/That is how you survived the war.
“Life in a Northern Town” – Dream Academy
As Anton watches one building burn in Utah, 13-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi watches another rise in Northern China. She’s in Japan-occupied Manchuria visiting her father, who oversees the construction of Japan’s frontier villages there. And she arrives an idealist, convinced—as are most Japanese at the time–of her nation’s calling to lead Asia away from under Western imperialism and into the modern era. What she sees on the Mongolian steppes, however, will shake her sense of country (and of self) to the core. This 1985 ballad–with its pristine, chilly harmonies and profound vibes of lost innocence–capture her experience nicely for me.
“Black Mirror” – Arcade Fire
By 1945 the U.S. military—with Anton Reynold’s reluctant help—has perfected the manufacture of petroleum-packed incendiary bombs and is ready to use them on real targets. Tokyo is first up. So around midnight on March 9th, hundreds of enormous B-29s fly over the capital at extremely low altitude, unleashing 1,700 tons of napalm-packed explosives on a city constructed largely of paper and wood. The result is a firestorm unlike anything seen before or since, through which Yoshi—now 15—races, trying to find safety.
Honestly? I had a hard time finding appropriate music for this one. The Clash’s Charlie Don’t Surf came to mind, as did U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, but each of those bears a very distinct national stamp. In the end, then, Arcade Fire’s Black Mirror—both cryptic and apocalyptic—came closest for me: I know a time is coming/all words will lose their meaning. Kind of says it all.
“Mulberry” – Yoko Ono
In the wake of the March 9th bombing Tokyo is a graveyard. 16 square miles of city have been turned to ash; 100,000 civilians are left dead. Survivors like Yoshi face the grim task of trying to find their families–or what is left of them—and then finding ways to survive themselves. That sense of utter devastation and surrealness was something I struggled as a writer to understand–and one I think Yoko Ono captured with amazing skill in this performance piece. The title is a reference to the berries she picked for herself and her siblings during the time they were evacuated to the Japanese countryside, when there was little else for anyone to eat. But the song itself (if you can call it that) is more like a gut-level, multi-textured scream—discordant, desolated, unbelieving.
“Gymnopedie N. 3” – Eric Satie
In the months following Japan’s surrender, Anton Reynold’s son Billy—a tortured 21-year-old with a big secret–returns to Japan for the first time in over a decade, there to be part of MacArthur’s Occupational Forces. Deplaning, he sees “not the burgeoning, erratic skyline of his memory, but a sweeping and charcoal-black plain, one studded with standing buildings, empty but for rubble piles and makeshift shanties.” A few hours later, he sees something even more unsettling in some ways–a beautiful young girl playing Satie at a brothel. This is the piece I always imaged Yoshi to have been performing when Billy finds her—as haunting and lonely as the city she’s been left with.
“Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” – The Flaming Lips
Ok—so major mood change. This song, like many FL compositions (and—let’s face it—their band name) is pretty silly. But it’s also energized, exuberant, rich and determined, and it fills me with inexplicable joy whenever I hear it. It features a Japanese girl named Yoshimi (who might well be nicknamed “Yoshi”—who knows?) who battles impossible odds—in this case enormous, pink killer robots. But given her black belt in karate and all the vitamins she’s taking, she’d probably kick ass against the challenges faced by my Yoshi in the postwar years–including an evil brothel madam, demeaning Occupational Forces officers and potentially abusive husbands. And if she’s sometimes silly in the process, all the better—for as I also try to demonstrate in my novel, in the end humor is a key ingredient to survival.
“We Are All Water” – tUnE-yArDs (as YOKO)
Another Yoko Ono original—performed by the experimental/pop band tUnE-yArDs. Apparently Yoko discovered this group before their first album came out and fell in love with them. For my part, I simply fell in love with this song. Between the tUnE-yArDs’ buoyant and syncopated rendition and Yoko’s inspired lyrics, I also feel like it pretty much sums up the ending of my book, in which the different pathlines of all six of my American and Japanese characters end up intersecting–on a beach, no less:
We’re all water from different rivers
That’s why it’s so easy to meet
We’re all water in this vast, vast ocean
Someday we’ll evaporate together.
[For the full LHB post–and a zillion other cool playlist by cool writers–go here.]