Genzaburō Yoshino’s How Do You Live? has become a classic in Japan since it was first published over 80 years ago, but until now it’s never seen an English translation. Though it’s a little outside the realm of Gizmodo’s usual sci-fi and fantasy fare, we’re thrilled to be revealing the cover and sharing an excerpt today for one big reason: How Do You Live? will be the basis for Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, capping his career by paying tribute to what was his favourite book as a child.
The new edition, which is translated by Bruno Navasky and features a foreword by Neil Gaiman, comes out this October. Here’s a brief synopsis for some context: “How Do You Live? begins with fifteen-year-old Copper, who has recently suffered the loss of his father, gazing out over his hometown of Tokyo, watching the thousands of people below, and beginning to ponder life’s big questions. How many people are in the world? What do their lives look like? Are humans really made of molecules? The book moves between Copper’s story and his dear uncle’s journal entries, in which he gives advice and helps Copper learn pivotal truths about the way the world works. Over the course of a year in his life, Copper, like his namesake Copernicus, embarks on a journey of philosophical enlightenment, and uses his discoveries about the heavens, earth and human nature to determine the best way to live. Yoshino perfectly captures the beauty and strangeness of pre-war Japan — the changing of the seasons, the fried tofu and taiyaki stands, and the lush landscapes, as Copper explores the city on his bike and learns from friends and family what really matters most in life.” And here is the lovely new cover, with art by Yuta Onoda.
Gaiman, who worked on the English-language script for Princess Mononoke, writes in his intro: “Miyazaki makes films for whole people and makes films about consequences … In How Do You Live?, Copper, our hero, and his uncle are our guides in science, in ethics, in thinking. And on the way, they take us through a school story set in Japan in 1937, to the heart of the questions we need to ask ourselves about the way we live our lives. We will experience betrayal and learn about how to make tofu. We will examine fear, and how we cannot always live up to who we think we are, and we learn about shame, and how to deal with it. We will learn about gravity and about cities, and most of all, we will learn to think about things — to, as the writer Theodore Sturgeon put it, ask the next question.”
A Strange Experience
It happened one October afternoon last year, when Copper was still a first-year student. He was with his uncle, the two of them standing on the roof of a department store in the Ginza district of Tokyo.
A fine mist fell quietly and ceaselessly from the ashen sky, so that it was hard to tell if it was raining or not, and before they knew it, small silver droplets had fastened everywhere on Copper’s jacket and his uncle’s raincoat, and they looked as if they had been covered with frost. Copper was silent, gazing down at the Ginza Boulevard immediately below.
From seven stories up, the Ginza was a narrow channel. At the bottom, cars streamed past in great numbers, one after another. From Nihonbashi on the right side, flowing beneath him to Shinbashi on the left, and from there in the opposite direction, from the left side back to Nihonbashi, the twin currents slipped past each other, waxing and waning as they went. Here and there between the two streams, a trolley crawled sluggishly by, looking somehow world-weary. The trolleys looked as small as toys, and their roofs were slick with rain. The cars, too, and the asphalt road surface and even the trees lining the road and all else that was there were dripping wet and gleaming with the brightness of daylight shining from who knew where.
Tokyo was submerged, motionless at the bottom of the cold and damp. Copper had been born and raised in Tokyo, but this was the first time he had ever seen the streets of Tokyo show such a sad and somber face. The hustle and bustle of the city came welling up endlessly from the depths of the heavy wet air to the seventh-floor rooftop, but whether this registered in his ears or not, Copper just stood there, transfixed. For some reason, he had become utterly unable to look away. At that moment, something began to happen deep inside him, a change unlike anything that had happened to him before.
Actually, this change in Copper’s heart is related to the story of how he got his nickname.
What happened first was that Copper saw, floating before him, the rain-beaten, dark winter sea.
That image may have come back to him from memories of a time Copper went with his father to the Izu Peninsula on a winter holiday. As he watched the streets of Tokyo spreading far away into the mist, the city beneath him came to seem like a vast expanse of ocean, and the buildings standing here and there looked like crags jutting up from its surface. Above the ocean, the sky hung down, threateningly low.
Copper, lost in the grip of his imagination, thought vaguely that there must be human beings living at the bottom of this ocean.
But when he came to, for some reason, Copper shivered. Those little roofs packing the earth just like sardines — under those innumerable roofs were any number of human beings! While that was a natural thing, at the same time, when he thought it over, it gave him a sort of scary feeling.
Right now, beneath Copper’s very eyes, as well as in places he couldn’t even see, some hundreds of thousands of people were living. How many different sorts of people were there? What were they all doing now, while Copper watched from above? What were they thinking? It was an unpredictable and chaotic world. The elderly in their eye- glasses, little girls with bobbed hair, young women with their hair done up, shopkeepers in aprons, office workers in their Western clothes — all manner of people were at once materialising before Copper’s eyes and again disappearing.
“Uncle — ” Copper started to speak. “I wonder how many people there are just in the places we can see from here. I mean, if we estimate that we can see one-tenth or maybe one-eighth of the city of Tokyo from here, then wouldn’t the number of people be one-tenth to one-eighth of the population of Tokyo?”
“Well, it’s not quite that simple,” Copper’s uncle replied, laughing. “If Tokyo’s population were an average, even distribution everywhere you went, that would be correct — just as you say. But in actuality, there will be areas of heavy population density and, consequently, light areas as well, you see? So you ought to give proportional weight to these areas in your calculations. And what’s more, you have daytime and nighttime — the number of people will vary immensely, you know.”
His uncle went on. “I suppose, to hazard a guess, one could say that there are some hundreds of thousands — no, maybe even, say, more than one million people — flowing in and out, rising and falling like an ocean tide, hmm?”
Above the two of them in their conversation, the misty rain continued to fall. Copper and his uncle stood a while in silence, gazing at the city of Tokyo laid out below them. Beyond the falling rain, shimmering and trembling, the darkened city streets continued to run off to places unknown, where not a single human figure could be seen.
Yet below them, without a shadow of a doubt, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people were thinking their own thoughts, doing their own things, and living their lives. Yes, and those people, every morning, every evening, were rising and falling like the tides.
Starting to speak, Copper turned a bit red. But he pulled himself together and spoke. “People are . . . Well, they seem a little like water molecules, don’t you think so?”
“Indeed. If you are comparing human society to oceans and rivers, individual human beings could certainly be considered to be their molecules.”
“And, Uncle, you’re a molecule, too, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. And you are, too. An extra-small molecule, in fact.”
“Don’t make fun of me! Molecules are automatically small, aren’t they? Uncle, you’re too long and thin to be a molecule!”
Copper had an odd feeling. The watching self, the self being watched, and furthermore the self becoming conscious of all this, the self-observing itself by itself, from afar, all those various selves overlapped in his heart, and suddenly he began to feel dizzy. In Copper’s chest something like a wave began to pitch and roll. No, it felt as if Copper himself were pitching and rolling.
Then, in the city spreading boundless before him, the invisible tide welled up to its highest point. Before he knew it, Copper had become just another droplet inside that tide.
From How Do You Live? © 2021 by Genzaburo Yoshino, translated by Bruno Navasky. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
How Do You Live? will be released October 26; you can preorder a copy here.