Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727


Ozu, an aging Japanese businessman entering his senior years. Ozu is a humble clerk, preoccupied with memories of his youth and greatly troubled by his increasing fear of the different moral vision animating the youth of postwar Japan, as exemplified in the unadorned avarice and ambition of his son, Eiichi. Nostalgic for an older, more disciplined, and even militaristic Japan, he finds in the present a predatory industrial power immune to simple human compassion and idealism. His mental search recalls Nada Middle School and his impish friend Flatfish, who whiled away his youth with Ozu, longing for female companionship. Both had sought the affection of the nubile, beautiful Aiko. Ozu’s flashbacks and reveries of his youth and postadolescent contacts with Flatfish come crashing to a halt when he learns of Flatfish’s death from a battlefield disease. He determines to search for Aiko to report this bad news. Finding her accidentally, as one of his son’s terminal cancer patients, Ozu sees Aiko as merely one laboratory rat, prey to medical science’s preoccupation with advanced objective knowledge at the expense of nurturing care and concern for individual persons. While locating Aiko’s childhood home, now bulldozed in the name of progress, Ozu sinks into despair as his generation fades into the bleak sunset of Japan’s moral resignation in the midst of its economic and technological triumphs.


Flatfish, Ozu’s childhood friend and constant companion in the idyllic days before World War II. Flatfish is an undisciplined, unintellectual parody of Japanese manhood, always in trouble at the Nada Middle School, where he and Ozu met, and unconcerned about career advancement in his chosen employment. Irrepressible, frivolous, and hopelessly attracted to the young girls in his class and older ones, Flatfish surrenders any claim to scholastic prowess or responsible citizenship, choosing to remain an adolescent as long as he can. He tempers Ozu’s basic reserved nature and teaches him to revel in the spontaneous and childish. Living only in Ozu’s flashbacks, Flatfish is a vivid contrast to Ozu’s son, Eiichi, in his free, unpretentious pursuit of joy and immediate fulfillment. Flatfish is the buoyant, unfettered spirit of Japanese manhood that has died in the aftermath of the wars. Ozu’s discovery of his death triggers the novel’s denouement as Ozu seeks out the lovely Aiko to share his grief, only to discover more.


Eiichi, Ozu’s son. Ambitious and without scruples, Eiichi is desperate to rise within the medical profession as a surgeon. He is completely identified with a grim, work-oriented Japan: He is driven, technological, spiritually barren, and the epitome of Western imperialism that his father fought to defeat. He finds his father’s basic humanism debilitating and unprogressive, a needless sentimentality that impedes efficiency and his ultimate career goals. His reputation for callousness and insensitivity are well established when father and son are united by the illness of Ozu’s beloved Aiko. Here their differing ethics are underscored and foregrounded. As his patient, Aiko represents to Eiichi (an aptly drawn representative of the new generation of Japanese professionals) only a convenient subject for an experimental cancer treatment, not a person deserving care, love, or basic dignity.


Aiko, a patient of Eiichi and the object of Ozu’s adolescent infatuation. Aiko is a war widow and the living symbol to Ozu of all that is pure and authentic in the Japanese culture of his youth. She lives in the novel more as a memory or an icon than as a living, breathing human being, trapped as she is in Eiichi’s experimental cancer program. Her death signals to Ozu the final victory of technological imperialism over the tenderness and compassion representative of the Japanese character to him in his adolescence in prewar Japan.

Dr. Ii

Dr. Ii, a malevolent, unscrupulous doctor in the hospital where Eiichi works. Dr. Ii is an imperious, natural product of postwar Japan’s rigid determination to rise from the ashes of ignominy and defeat. He is experienced in using people and is perfectly willing to prescribe worthless drugs for his patients if the pharmaceutical company that produces them continues to fund his research. As the dubious role model for Eiichi and other medical personnel, Dr. Ii manifests the greed and indifference to civility that Ozu finds manifested everywhere in the new Japan.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 315

When I Whistle reveals a key aspect of End’s talent, the ability to create contemporary characters with realism and subtlety, while avoiding excessive sentimentality. Effectively using flashbacks from prewar and postwar Japan, End ironically juxtaposes the “new” Japan with the old in his novel’s main characters and finds modern Japan, though presumably more open to the West, in its own way even less congenial to the Christian values and simple human kindness the novelist seeks to inculcate.

Ozu, the protagonist, is a humble businessman; his contempt for the ethos of modern Japan and his general nostalgia for the older Japan is slowly revealed in his conversations with acquaintances on trains and with his family. Everywhere he turns he finds evidence of disintegrating respect for life, but especially in his enterprising son; Eiichi’s professional success and worldly sophistication are vivid contrasts to his father’s simple concerns for trust and commitment among his fellows. Ozu is increasingly drawn to a world of shadows and dreams, wherein he can revisit Flatfish and the lovely teenage Aiko. While these memories are vividly drawn, the characters of Flatfish and Aiko are evoked more than developed.

Eiichi, desperate to rise within his profession, identifies himself with a grim, work-oriented Japan: driven, technological, spiritually barren, the culture of Western imperialism his father had fought to defeat. Eiichi finds his father’s basic humanism backward and unpleasant, a needless sentimentality that impedes his career goals. When father and son are united by the illness of Aiko, their differing values are highlighted; for Eiichi and his colleagues, Aiko is not a person with dignity, deserving of care, special attention, or love, but a convenient subject for experimental cancer treatments.

Ozu parts from his son in muffled despair, confronting a predatory Japan, conquering no longer with bayonets or aircraft but with sheer economic and technological prowess, devoid of a spiritual center.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

Allen, Louis. “Rastignac of Tokyo,” in The Listener. CI (April 12, 1979), pp. 530-531.

Cunningham, Valerie. “Death in the Afternoon,” in New Statesman. XCVII (April 13, 1979), p. 527.

King, Francis. “Experiments,” in The Spectator. CCXLII (April 14, 1979), pp. 23-24.

Mathy, Francis. “Shsaku End: Japanese Catholic Novelist,” in Thought. XLII (Winter, 1967), pp. 585-614.

Rimer, J. Thomas. Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions, 1978.

Updike, John. “From Fumie to Sony,” in The New Yorker. LV (January 14, 1980), pp. 94-102.

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