Cocoon: Machiko Kyo

cocoonThis is a place for books, it’s true, specifically a place for my brain to battle books. But my brain is up for almost any challenge and will take on any media—music, painting, sculpture, magazines—if that is what has to be done. And as an amateur fighter, my brain particularly enjoys the battles with the cinema. This year has been an especially great one for cinema (if you have not seen The Tribe or White God, you are seriously missing out, my friend), but even in such a banner year, some films simply batter my brain into delighted submission. And Mad Max: Fury Road (or Fury Death Road, pushed to the extreme in the Japanese title) is one of these films. It is a masterpiece, exquisitely crafted and so beautiful my eyeballs would happily drown in it. I keep going back to the theatre to see it again and again. I will probably keep shelling out to see it until they finally pull it from the screens. Go see it. It is magic.

Given my deep and enduring love for the death road of fury, you can imagine my delight when I turned on a podcast of an interview with Machiko Kyo recently, and she recounted how she had seen it four times so far and was planning to go a fifth. The interview then devolved into excited conversation between Kyo and the two hosts of the show about how great the movie is. As Kyo went into detail about what she loved and why, my love for her grew ever deeper, and I remembered that I haven’t actually read anything by her in a while, an unfortunate oversight. Luckily, I happened to have Cocoon on the shelf of unread books.

I knew that Cocoon was about war, but I thought it was about war in the same vague and adorable way that Strawberry Wars is, girls in uniforms cuddling up to cakes and bathing in cups of tea in the jungle. As I read, it became very clear that Kyo was talking about a very real war in a very real way, but it wasn’t until a two-page spread featuring fallen comrades that I realized how very real Kyo was going to make this story. But there’s a fascinating bridge of sorts between that horrific reality and the fantasy I was expecting in the form of the main character San and her almost unrelenting desire to work hard for the sake of her country. And in her best friend, Mayu, the school prince(ss), who offers her charms and spells when things get really bad. “Mayu” can also mean “cocoon”, and that is exactly what she gives San, an imaginary cocoon to keep them all safe from the horrors of the war.cocoon_Kyo

Like most war stories I’ve read, things go from bad to worse to unbelievable in far too short a time. San and Mayu attend the top girls’ school in Okinawa, and when the book starts, they are mostly stuck on hole digging duty for the war effort, instead of studying or attending classes. Still, it’s not a bad life, except for the occasional air raid. They even get to go home to their parents (mothers, since the fathers have all been drafted. This is a society of women) for a night. But even at the beginning, we get a taste of how bad things are and how much worse they’re about to get. After classmate Yuri is wounded in one of the air raids, her twin Mari jokes that now people will be able to tell them apart. But when she lifts her sister’s shirt to show San and Mayu how much better the wound is, the disconnect between her joking tone and the scale of the burn there is jarring to say the least.Cocoon_Kyo

As the war progresses, the girls end up assigned to nursing duty at makeshift hospitals in the many natural caves of the Okinawan islands. San is terrified of being around men, never having been around any but her own relatives, but Mayu tells her that all the men are only white shadows; she has nothing to fear. And so all the men in the book become white shadows. Only women and girls have faces or any kind of physical detail to them, another way in which Kyo draws attention to the female makeup of society at this time and tries to dig into what that means exactly. Her gentle watercolors and lines make this blurring of reality with fantasy so natural and easy. Groups of white shadow men fit in perfectly on a page full of the loose warmth Kyo brings to manga. And much like the cartoonish, stylized characters against photorealistic backgrounds of Mizuki’s Onward toward Our Noble Deaths makes the story he’s telling so much easier to digest and yet more horrible, Kyo’s warm brushstrokes help you keep reading and also make the horror that much more awful.

cocoon_KyoSomewhat uniquely in the war story genre, Cocoon focuses entirely on the girls caught up in this nightmare in Okinawa and how they survive (and don’t), peripherally depicting the larger picture of the war through them. Kyo deftly captures the conflicting messages these girls get—fight for their country even as their country attacks them mentally and physically—and shows them coping the best they can, escaping from reality into dreams and fantasy only to be yanked ever-so-harshly back to the real world. Kyo based the whole thing on actual accounts of schoolgirls in Okinawa during the war, and it has a feel of terrible authenticity. Because honestly, some of the scenes in here are just too awful to imagine.

Cocoon is beautiful and horrible and very much worth reading, especially given that this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the war. Before too long, the survivors of this terrible time will all be gone. We need books like Cocoon to keep showing us the nightmare they lived through, so that, hopefully, we don’t make anyone else live through the same thing.



  1. Human beings always forget, unfortunately. People don’t like to re-visit horrible memories and the new generation would be bound to repeat everything and suffer all over again. When it comes to Japan, I am always conflicted. A lot of their people suffered so much too but listening to my grandparents’ stories about Japanese soldiers, I couldn’t imagine the cruelties and the cold blooded atrocities they have committed as the aggressors. Last August, the books that I read coincidentally were about WWII/Japanese occupation. Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists. I was completely drained. And like a masochist, I proceeded to watch White Light/Black Rain. The Japanese people who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were victims too. Wars suck, man.

    1. We are indeed a forgetful group. Which is why I really appreciate works like this one that take the time to remind us. Because wars do suck. For pretty much everyone involved. If you want another manga look at WWII, I’d suggest Onward Towards our Noble Deaths by the late, great Shigeru Mizuki, if you haven’t read it already. If you can handle more WWII stuff, that is. It’s a painful and beautiful look at the lot of Japanese soldiers during that time. (Full disclosure: I translated it, but I would recommend the hell out of this book no matter who translated it.)

  2. Thanks for the recommendation! Is it something like All Quiet on the Western Front?

    1. I haven’t read All Quiet, but Onward is written from the perspective of a Japanese private, showing what he and his fellow soldiers are up against in the war. It’s intense, very worth the read.

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