Embers centers on a private high school in central Japan and covers a school year, from spring blossoms to the winter fire festival, following the tribulations of pupils as they grow into adulthood. The collective growing pains mirror the maturation of the country, a transformation as pronounced as what the West experienced in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In 2006 an innocent faith in the collective good, in progress, is being replaced by cynicism about authority, sexual curiosity and a crumbling of social foundations. For the small group of graduating classmates and their teachers, it is a painful but hopeful process, through an absorbing storyline tinged with humour, tragedy, love and eroticism.
Sayaka is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. Chika survives a suicide attempt but not the personal struggles that spurred it. Moniwa Koji, an English teacher, is broken by the end of his affair with a married woman. The second years Miho and Yukako experience a sexual awakening with consequences. Barry, a Canadian assistant teacher, in inheriting greater responsibility in the classroom grows into his role and his evolution in Japan. A platonic love develops between Moniwa and Sayaka.
The novel’s twelve chapters each contain an episode from Moniwa’s own high school exchange year in Melbourne, which loosely mirrors a difficulty in the present.
Sayaka’s condition improves under a new treatment regimen and Moniwa’s romantic interest, to survive months longer than doctors had given her. Her struggle for life becomes an inspiration for the awkward, bullied Chika, and her death before the end of the school year is also tinged with hope in the beauty of continuity.
The title refers to the ‘embers of innocence’ of the book’s final line and has multiple connotations. Some students lose their sexual innocence, Moniwa his emotional naivety, Sister Takeishi prevaricates on the innocence of faith, while Japan itself is in an intermediary era when cultural and societal innocence is slowly embering, on the cusp of resurgence or dimming to ash.
Although the 105,000-word novel is rooted in a strong sense of place and time and is movingly personal – describing a non-idealized Japan that actually exists – the evocations are disturbing but familiar. Unlike formulaic, stereotypical Western takes on the country, Embers is written from a Japanese point of view. Sadness, rage, humour, sex and other facets of the human condition interweave to tell a story of Japan in whose reflections we see ourselves.