Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In When I Whistle, End is concerned to draw a number of disturbing contrasts between wartime and present-day Japan while scrupulously avoiding, in translator Van C. Gessel’s words, “painting either period in a romantic light.” What, End asks, is the legacy of the war generation, what kind of Japan has resulted from the devastation of World War II? Part of his answer is seen in the life-style of Eiichi, the ruthless young surgeon of When I Whistle; unaffected by the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and unable to see his patients as anything but specimens for his own experiments, he extends the imperialistic impulse of prewar Japan by ignoring the past and worshipping the present. The accumulation of material possessions is the only source of meaning for the new generation.

This striking thematic element in When I Whistle is made more powerful by its pervasive medical and hospital imagery. Chronic heart and lung problems have plagued End throughout his adult life and consequently he has spent much time in hospitals; in the early 1960’s, End underwent a series of major surgical procedures, resulting in the removal of one lung. Japan emerges in When I Whistle as one large cancer ward, the malignancy of rampant materialism uncurable, the placebo of success a momentary distraction in the face of a godless eternity.

As a Christian, End is an apologist for a set of values he believes is indigenous to the West but foreign to Japanese soil. A convert who recognizes the irony that Japan has become less spiritual as it has become more Westernized, End constructs themes which generally revolve around a protagonist confronted with the ruins of a native culture to which he is drawn and by which he is repulsed. Ozu is thus an exemplar of End’s despairing vision of the postwar era—an open-hearted Japanese seeking answers and finding only the echoes of the past.