“Sleepy Summer Afternoon” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui
English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)
Original: Japanese (睡魔のいる夏), 1979
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017
Synopsis: A factory worker exits his work alongside the factory supervisor, both of whom join the crowds at the beer hall where most of the munition factory workers conjoin after their labor. In the sky, they see a single white cloud. Once inside, they begin to realize that they both feel sleepy, that people are cold to the touch, and that others have already nodded off at the table, where they sit, or on the very ground. Again realizing that they’ve been attacked by “that new bomb” (117), they part ways. The nameless factory worker continues to survey the hall until sleep overcomes him.
Analysis: In terms of cause and result, the story is straightforward: the little fluffy cloud results in ubiquitous lethargy as a sign of attack. Considering the munitions factories of the story’s location, it can be assumed that it occurs during WWII in an area such as Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka. As the worker mentions his wife but not his children, we could further assume that he’s young. This sets the scene for the story.
What are some historical parallels to the story? Nearly three years passed between America’s first air raid of Tokyo (April 1942) to the first aerial reconnaissance of Tokyo (November 1944) to the bombing of Hiroshima the Nagasaki (August 1945). This isn’t a brief span of time by any means, but perhaps the onset was an indicator of a greater loss to come, as if any attack on the mainland was the beginning of defeat. That first initial raid was called the Doolittle Raid. Could the author be having a play on words here (Doolittle = do little = lethargy)?
When it becomes obvious that the ubiquitous symptoms of everyone in and around the beer hall stems from the attack, the lethargy spreads, affecting the workers, children, and both genders alike. Even while the nameless factory worker decides to curl up on a cot, the only other person left unaffected is an old man who only complains of the heat rather than his lassitude. As sleep (or death) overcomes the factory worker, his mind shunts from the present (his wife) to the past (his dead mother) and back to the present (his wife again). To his mind and in the state in he finds himself, the past is just that: history. To the old man, however, he remains stalwart to any change, as stubborn as ever in order to recapture the future of the past that’s been lost.
The fatal lassitude of the attack can be seen as a severe strike to morale on the actual post-war population of Japan, perhaps as a complete loss of trust in the government and the emperor or as a complete separation from sovereign destiny.
Review: Only six pages long, the story feels trite without any reflection: There’s an unseen explosion and everyone sleeps. The end. I couldn’t appreciate the story until I began to put some of its pieces together for myself, as is the case with most of the author’s stories. So, this story may not stir the interest of many on the first reading, but, again, like most of Yasutaka’s stories, it is imbued with history and significance.