Perhaps Tsukiyama’s most ambitious undertaking to date, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms covers the years before World War II through the slow awakening and gradual recovery of a severely damaged country.
Two orphaned brothers, Kenji and Hiroshi Matsumoto, live with their maternal grandparents, raised in the Yanaka district of northeastern Tokyo. The elder, Hiroshi, harbors a great ambition: to be a sumotori, trained by Sho Tanaka, who operates a nearby school for such gifted young athletes.
Kenji’s aspirations are less grand but also unconventional. Although he will study for a degree in architecture, his great love is the delicate craft of masks used for iconic Noh Theater. He frequently visits the shop of his sensei, Akira Yoshiwara, who encourages the boy’s talent until the war renders business intolerable and Akira flees to the mountains.
The encroaching war touches the lives of everyone, first with rationing then scarcity, families suffering the loss of husbands and sons to the war effort; the daily bombings they endure in homemade bomb shelters. While Hiroshi stays near his grandparents, Kenji is sent to the country, in as much danger as in Yanaka. No one dares make plans for the future, bombs screaming through the night and death at every turn.
When Hiroshima and Nagasaki are annihilated by the Americans, the country is devastated, none more so than those whose loved ones are consumed by the inferno that follows. Sho Tanaka’s wife is lost, her two daughters, Aki and Haru, returning to their father with news of the tragedy. In time families are rejoined, the long, slow process of recovery undertaken, and deferred dreams reignited.
Hiroshi is able to attain his goal, training with Tanaka, eventually ranked the top sumo wrestler in the country, much admired by his fans. But Hiroshi’s secret ambition is to win the heart of Tanaka’s beautiful daughter, Aki, complicated by her sister’s secret love for the young man as well. Sorely missing his sensei, Kenji also finds happiness in his own mask shop, happily married to the woman he has loved since childhood.
Of course, there is no happily-ever-after. Both young men, while outwardly successful, are plagued with the problems of maintaining happy relationships, aging parents and grandparents, and the loss of those they love. Both men are challenged by unexpected events, their joys and sorrows mitigated by unconditional support for one another.
While the men’s reactions are deceptively direct, it is the females who truly reflect the emotional balance of these relationships, focusing on problems that are not easily resolved - the loss of a child, fidelity, commitment to marriage and all it entails. Given the enormity of the tragedy, the emotional impact of the bombing of Hiroshima sets a tone in the novel that is difficult to sustain. While Tsukiyama’s attention to the quintessentially male characters dominates, it is her intimate awareness of the female perspective that gives the novel its power, injecting a poignancy that surfaces too seldom as Hiroshi and Kenji muddle through their lives.