Friday, July 24, 2009

THE MUSIC OF LIGHT by Kenzaburo Oe

The Music of Light, by Lindsley Cameron.
New York: The Free Press, 1998.
$24 - 207 pages.

Let me tell you a story... Or rather, a story, within a story, within a story ...

In 1994, when the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the western world was taken unawares. In America, very little was known about the reclusive writer. In fact, Oe seemed to prefer it that way. When he was asked to comment on his lack of recognition in the United States, Kenzaburo said that his novels were probably difficult to understand in western culture and even suggested that his primary audience consisted of Japanese readers of his own generation. Such self-deprecation seemed puzzling, especially since he readily acknowledged that the major influences on his own writing were William Blake, Jean-Paul Sartre and the Georgia novelist Flannery O’Conner.

In his acceptance speech, Oe told a personal anecdote about his childhood. Born in 1935 on a remote island in southern Japan, Oe grew up surrounded by a kind of patriotic hysteria. As Japan became increasingly desperate in the final year of the war, Kenzaburo remembers being subjected to irrational rants by school officials who continued to stress his “duty to die for the Emperor” if need be. The frightened boy withdrew, spending much of his time alone in the forests surrounding his village.

One of his most distressing memories dealt with the “dog killer,” a governmental official that appeared in his village and demanded that all the children bring their dog to him. The animals were killed and skinned before the horrified children, and the official gave a patriotic speech about how the skins of the slaughtered animals were needed by the Imperial Army of Japan. Later, Oe found the hides hidden in the forest where he played. He said that for the remainder of his life, war in any form was meaningless and irrational.

Surrounded by forests and without friends, Oe turned to literature. He loved folklore and read a marvelous story about a child who had magical powers which enabled him to understand the language of birds. At one point, he became a great snow goose and flew to Sweden. Thus, his most cherished wish as a child was “to understand the language of birds, and to fly to Sweden with the snow geese.”

After Oe became an adult and married, he became the father of a deformed child. Despite the advice of the medical staff, Oe decided to raise the “monster baby” which had two brains. The dead, non-functioning brain was severed, and the severely retarded child was named Hikari (Light). The future appeared daunting, and the child was subject to seizures and a host of handicaps, including 30 percent vision and an inability to speak. Indeed, Hikari appeared to be unaware of the world around him. Then, at the age of 4, he responded to bird song. Oe and his wife were delighted and bought hundreds of records and tapes of birds which played continually in Hikari’s room.

At the age of 6, Hikari spoke to his father while the two of them were in the woods.

“That is a water rail,” said Hikari. When Oe reported the incident to the family physician, he told Oe that many retarded children were skilled mimics and could repeat complex sounds and messages without any understanding of what they were saying. Undaunted, Oe and his wife began to play music for Hikari. The results were astonishing. Not only could Hikari recognize individual compositions, but also he began to request favorite works. “Play Chopin!” he would say, or even, “Play the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony.” Kihari spent his days lying at his father’s feet, listening to classical music.

Then, he began to draw lines on paper and tell his father that he was writing music. The doting father employed a tutor who taught Hikari the musical scale, and Hikari’s music began to resemble “real music.” Then, the inevitable happened. A musician took the boy’s music home and ... played it! At the time Hikari attended a sheltered workshop where he assembled clothes pens. (He wasn’t very good at it.) Again, the verdict was predictable. Hikari was mimicking music that he had heard, said the doctors. Certainly he was not ... composing! But he was.

After countless evaluations, and at the urging of his musical friends, Oe decided to have a recording made of his son’s music. Concerned that the recording would be a financial disaster, Oe offered to buy 200 copies of the CD, “The Music of Hikari Oe.” However, upon the release of the CD, it immediately became a “best seller.” At the present, the CD has sold over 1 million copies and has now reached the United States. A second CD has been completed. The music is described as “pure, innocent, and painfully beautiful.”

What can be said about this extraordinary music? This reviewer has bought both of Hikari’s recordings and can testify to their strange beauty. Essentially, the music is played on flutes and violins and each and every melody seems to instill a sense of peace and well-being in the listener. A number of books have been written about Hikari. Certainly, one of the most accessible is The Music of Light by Lindsley Cameron.

On the day that Kenzaburo Oe accepted the Nobel Prize, he told the story of his son, Hikari. In conclusion, he noted that his childhood dream had come true. His son had understood the language of the birds, and yes, he and his family had finally flown to Sweden in a great silver airplane, much like the boy who came as the Snow Goose in his childhood story.

There is a great deal more to say about Kenzaburo Oe, and I can only briefly summarize. In the majority of his novels, he invariably “creates” a character based on Hikari. Sometimes, the boy is a minor figure and other times, he dominates the action. Regardless, Oe perceives his life as inextricably bound to that of his son. Major works include The Silent Cry, A Healing Family, ( a non-fiction account of Hikari’s life), Hiroshima Notes, A Quiet Life, An Echo of Heaven, A Personal Matter and Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness. (Each work deserves a detailed review and I may attempt a few in the future.) Hikari’s two CDs are: “Music of Hikari Oe” - Denon (Co-78952) and “Music of Hikari Oe 2” - Denon (Co-78953). The recordings can be ordered from any music/record dealer.


  1. David,
    This is an old review that I did eight years ago, but it got little attention and I decided that it was time to publish it again ... right after a friend of mine contacted me this morning about the name of the book about Hikari. For a short time, I did a program on Hikari and it always ended with the music. I have both of his recordings.

  2. Now that is a real love story Gary. I would love to hear one of the CD's!

  3. The music is still available on Amazon.

  4. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  5. Sara,
    Please join my blog. Just go up to the top of the page and click on "Follower." Comment some more.
    It gets lonely on here sometimes.