One Hundred Years of Vicissitude is a blend of historical novel, surrealism, a mystery and noir; there's fantasy and a wee bit of romance in there as well, and I'm always ready for a hardboiled moment or two.
Included in this mix is an homage to classic Japanese cinema by the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki, and Satoshi Kon, along with actors Toshiro Mifune and Meiko Kaji.
There are nods to manga and comic books, medieval potboilers, Melbourne, Lewis Carroll, and Osamu Tezuka - along with the only visit to Tokyo by the Graf Zeppelin, saké, an eight-headed dragon, the sumo, geisha, James Bond, the Japanese Red Army, and a lot of other wayward stuff people might expect of me.
Also included is a pivotal dramatic tipping point, one that relates to the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March 1945.
Not long after I first arrived in Japan in 2001, I remember an elderly student, a child in that firebombing of the evening of March 9th and the morning of March 10th, 1945.
He recounted a story that the Kanda River ran red. Whether from blood or the reflection of the fires all around, I was too timid to ask.
For the novel I ended up doing a lot of research into that fateful night. After doing so, I abridged several pages to put together a three-page summation. I toyed with this as the prologue for One Hundred Years of Vicissitude - but ditched the notion and instead integrated most of the facts and figures into survivor Kohana's diatribes about the event, early on in the story.
Coincidentally, I was writing up the fictional account here in Tokyo this past March, around the same time as the 67th anniversary of the aerial strike - though I was too immersed in the yarn to notice.
If you're squeamish, you may want to bounce out now, in light of one of the final pictures here, which shows the aftermath of the March 9/10 bombardment.
Disclaimers out of the way, let's start with the B-29.
You might recall the one from the opening credits of the Watchmen film, emblazoned with "Miss Jupiter".
The American B-29 bomber had every right to call itself a ‘Superfortress’, since the contraption was a flying stronghold.
This was the largest aircraft inducted during World War II, a four-engine beauty flaunting a dozen 50-calibre M2 heavy machine guns mounted in five turrets, and one 20-millimetre cannon in its backside. All that was missing was a catapult.
While the plane’s length doesn’t ring so impressive - 99 feet, or just over 30 metres - the wingspan was 141 feet (43 metres) and it had an area of 1,736 square feet.
The bugger weighed in at 33,600 kilograms, prior to cramming in its particularly lethal payload.
The B-29 pushed the throttle to 357 miles per hour and it had a flight ceiling of 12 kilometres - making it practically immune to ground-based anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter planes such as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which flew slower and lower.
I don’t know how you feel, but all these facts and figures bamboozle me.
In a nutshell, this was a huge thing that was well armed, flew higher and faster than anyone else, and carried a lot of bombs.
“The success of the development of the B-29 is an outstanding example of the technical leadership and resourcefulness which is the American way of doing things,” U.S. Major General Curtis LeMay wrote in the foreword to the airplane’s Combat Crew Manual, which also includes Disney-like cartoons and useful tidbits like what to do in case of snakebite.
The B-29 also acted as a high-flying postman, dropping propaganda leaflets that said things like “America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people,” alongside images of Japanese soldiers shoving civilians over a cliff.
There were also happy-snaps of Japanese cities with the shadow of a B-29 looming across.
Each Superfortress was crewed by eleven men, who typically tagged the forward fuselage with a kitsch painting of a half-naked pin-up girl, along with monikers like ‘Dauntless Dotty’, ‘Fertile Myrtle’ and ‘Jughound Jalopy’.
However, unlike its successor the B-52, the B-29 never inspired a hairdo.
Perhaps barbers remembered this was the same aircraft that did a fly-by in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, gifting each city respectively with atomic bombs named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’.
After hostilities ceased, the B-29 was reverse-engineered by the Soviets (from crash-landed aircraft that had been interned during the war) to create the Tupolev Tu-4, and the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, the rocket-powered Bell X-1 piloted by the legendary Chuck Yeager, was launched from the bomb bay of a modified B-29.
The 334 B-29s that flew over Tokyo from the evening of March 9th through to the early hours of March 10th, 1945, were also a break from the mould.
For this lower-altitude raid, dubbed Operation Meetinghouse, they had much of their defensive armament removed so as to be able to carry more fuel and greater bomb loads.
“You're going to deliver the biggest firecracker the Japanese have ever seen,” U.S. Major General Curtis LeMay reportedly told his crews beforehand.
He was spot on.
They didn’t come together, like the Valkyrie swooping to select the dead on some Norse battlefield. The bombers came in waves of three planes every minute, 334 Superfortresses powered by 1,336 twin-row turbocharged radial pistol R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone engines (manufactured by a company originally founded by aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright).
They flew in staggered formation from as low as five thousand feet.
Tokyo’s residents, who had become accustomed to nightly visitations by the B-29s, paid little attention to the warning sirens.
The aircraft had 2,000 tons of incendiary explosive - a hotchpotch of white phosphorus and napalm, the new jellied gasoline mixture concocted from a Harvard University recipe of oleic acid, naphthenic acid derived from crude oil, palmitic acid derived from coconut oil, and aviation fuel - neatly tucked away in their bellies.
This luggage they dropped on a city with a wartime population of about five million.
The M-69 cluster bombs, nicknamed ‘Tokyo Calling Cards’, sprayed napalm over a 100-foot area before or after landing, and then exploded; sending flames rampaging through densely packed wooden homes. Asphalt boiled in the 1,800-degree heat; super-heated flames air sucked people into the flames. U.S. aircraft returned to their bases with blistered paint underneath. The fires could be viewed 150 miles away.
Operation Meetinghouse was the most devastating air raid in history.
Two percent of Tokyo’s residents, between 80,000 and 130,000 people, most of them civilians, perished. The lucky ones died quickly in the initial explosions of TNT charges; others would be burned or boiled alive. 25 percent of the city - 267,000 mostly wood-and-paper buildings in the downtown Shitamachi quarter - was destroyed.
Tsukiji Fish Market (these days one of Tokyo's most popular tourist attractions) and Kanda Market were swallowed up in the conflagration.
One million people were made instantly homeless.
“We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night, 9th-10th March, than went up in vapour at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined,” LeMay later boasted.
More people died in one night than the combined military fatalities in the Vietnam War for the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
There were casualties amidst the raiders.
About 42 of the bombers were damaged, 14 B-29s crashed, and two hundred and forty-three U.S. airmen were lost.
While some planes were shredded by flak, several had non-combat related technical problems and one aircraft was struck by lightning. A significant number of B-29 losses were due to vortex updrafts from the fires that tore the wings off one bomber.
A B-29 nicknamed ‘Tall In The Saddle’ crashed in Ibaraki, killing nine crew-members. One of the three survivors was executed by the military police and the other two, interned to Tokyo’s military prison, burned to death in an air raid by another 464 B-29s on May 25.
After seeing action in the Korean War, the B-29 was retired off in 1960 and replaced by the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress - a plane perhaps better known because of the hairstyle, a cocktail (combining Kahlúa, Baileys Irish Cream, and Grand Marnier), and the band.
On December 7, 1964, the Japanese government conferred the First Order of Merit with the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun upon General Curtis LeMay -who had by then turned his bombing attention on Vietnam, suggesting the use of nuclear weapons and declaring “We're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.”
It was no accident that the gung-ho character of General Buck Turgidson, played by actor George C. Scott in Stanley Kubrick's biting satire Dr. Strangelove (1964), was based on LeMay.