Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777
When I Whistle explores the ethos of contemporary Japan and in particular the contrast between two generations, focusing on a father and son. In alternating chapters, Shsaku End shifts the focus from the protagonist, Ozu, who is preoccupied with the memories of his adolescence, to his son Eiichi and his opportunistic medical career. Here End provides the reader with a panoramic view of the very different moral visions animating the young men and women of the war years and their children.
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The novel begins with the protagonist, Ozu, riding along on a bullet train, returning to Tokyo from a mundane business trip. Here he encounters a person who seems vaguely familiar but whom he cannot quite place. This man turns out to have been a fellow student at Nada Middle School some forty years before. Their brief conversation provokes an extended reminiscence that transports Ozu back to a simpler, more serene time in his life. Upon seeing boats on the lake, he conjures up his schoolboy friend, Flatfish, and their adventures together in an idyllic time before World War II, when the Japanese educational system sought to inculcate the virtues of pride and industriousness. While his stern teacher tried to build character, Ozu spent his school hours daydreaming about the young women he and his best friend, the unsophisticated but endearing Flatfish, would pursue, literally, once the school day had ended.
The romance and innocence of his adolescence is captured for Ozu in the enduring image of Flatfish’s “tiny head being tossed about by the waves as he swam desperately for the open sea” in pursuit of a girl, Aiko, whom he had met by chance and with whom both were madly in love. While militarism gripped their nation, Ozu and Flatfish preferred the frivolous joys of childish classroom pranks and chasing girls.
At the end of his trip, Ozu is ushered back into the present and into the grim reality of his own lackluster career and the tension felt between himself and his son. Eiichi is portrayed as an up-and-coming surgeon at a metropolitan hospital, whose aggressiveness and insensitivity to his patients and colleagues is well-known but is excused as part of the new generation’s tools for survival. “Times are different,” Ozu’s wife observes, “Young people now can’t survive if they don’t push others out of their way. There’s really nothing else Eiichi can do.” Like his dubious role model, the imperious Dr. Ii (who prescribes worthless drugs for his patients because the pharmaceutical company which produces them funds his research), Eiichi is a “natural” product of his environment, experienced in “using” people—from a nurse to a doctor’s daughter to a colleague—and perfectly willing to use untested drugs on his unsuspecting terminally ill patients.
Ozu is unable to whitewash his son’s behavior and again retreats into his reveries of the years just before the war and Flatfish’s dogged determination to win Aiko’s hand in marriage. The beautiful Aiko, “like a chrysalis transformed into butterfly,” in fact becomes for Ozu the living symbol of all that is pure and authentic in Japanese culture. Ozu’s flashbacks come to an end, however, when he recalls learning of Flatfish’s death from a battlefield disease and his search for Aiko to tell her of his passing. The death of Flatfish confirmed for Ozu that “every source of human happiness...vanished” after the humiliating defeat in World War II.
The two generations are brought into sharpest relief as the story nears its end and Ozu learns accidentally that Aiko, widowed from the war, is one of Eiichi’s patients, an “experiment,” no more and no less important than anyone else, since “patients come and go. There’s no time to get sentimentally attached to each one.” The practice of medicine for Eiichi is a business more than a profession; efficiency, “progress,” and profit are its hallmarks. Ozu is shocked by his son’s materialism and coldness; impulsively, he sends flowers to Aiko in Flatfish’s name as he mourns the past and dreads what he sees of the future.
Tormented by Aiko’s eventual death, Ozu finds himself driven by overwhelming nostalgia to locate his old school, which he finds modernized and depersonalized. When he seeks out Aiko’s childhood home, he finds that it has been bulldozed, and he resigns himself to the fact that “beautiful things, things from the treasured past were now disappearing all over Japan.” Groping for “a meaning of life concealed somewhere,” Ozu realizes that “he alone is still alive” to preserve a semblance of the proud but humane civilization that once was.