The short story takes place in Kyoto, Japan, shortly after the end of World War II. When the story opens, Toshi is playing dodge-ball in a city park called Imamiya, and other scenes in the story take place in Makiko and Toshi’s home and on the grounds of the Tanabata Day festival in the city. Although Kyoto was spared bombings and severe damage during the war due to its historic value as a center for art, Kyoto was occupied like other Japanese cities by American troops after World War II, and the occupation informs the story’s setting, creating an atmosphere of tension and forced intrusion.
Point of View and Conflict
The story is told from the third person point of view, emphasizing the protagonist Makiko’s thoughts, feelings, and observations. The primary conflict in the story is internal, with Makiko struggling to come to terms with her own feelings of loss and nostalgia, as she tries to preserve what she has known in the face of inevitable change. At the end of the story, the conflict is resolved by Makiko’s newly found pleasure in current activities that remind her of her pre-war life. Most of the story is propelled by Makiko’s thoughts and feelings, as no highly dramatic events occur in the story.
Several times in “Aftermath” Waters uses the device of flashback to present action that occurred before the beginning of the story. The first flashback occurs while Makiko watches Toshi playing dodge-ball: she recalls how Yoshitsune would affectionately tease Toshi by asking if he was a man, when Toshi was only a toddler. The second flashback occurs after Makiko dreams of Yoshitsune swatting her with a flyswatter, and she wakes to recall other unpleasant memories such as the time Yoshitsune grabbed and shook her in anger. Other smaller incidents from Makiko’s past resurface throughout the story, as current events remind her of past ones. The flashbacks give the reader information about Makiko’s life with Yoshitsune before the war and also reinforce the theme of memory and how memory both haunts and eludes individuals.
Waters uses the motifs of light and water throughout the story. Sun and sunlight convey a sense of nostalgia, representing the golden light of the pre-war past. As Makiko tries to recall the time Yoshitsune held up Toshi on one arm by a sunny window, she conjures the picture of “How the afternoon sun would seep in through the nursery window, golden, almost amber, advancing with the slow, viscous quality of Tendai honey, overtaking sluggish dust motes and even sound.” At the end of the story, Waters again invokes light as a positive force from the past, as Makiko attributes the Tanabata Day’s success to previous celebrations that “emit[ted] a lingering phosphorescence through tonight’s surface.” The motif of water, on the other hand, represents the movement of the present. From the beginning of the story, Waters likens Makiko’s situation to being caught up in a wave, as Makiko “feels unmoored, buffeted among invisible forces that surge up all around her.” The water motif occurs again later in the story, after Makiko wakes from the bad dream about Yoshitsune, and Waters has Makiko thinking, “Tonight she senses how far beneath the surface her own past has sunk, its outline distorted by deceptively clear waters.” Here, the present is compared to a pool that appears calm but is not. The water motif reinforces the sense that the present is constantly in motion, since water is an element that moves and, unlike earth, is inherently unstable. As Makiko is the character who invokes water imagery repeatedly, the motif also points up how distressed Makiko feels in the midst of dramatic and constant change.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Mary Yukari Waters, Published by Gale Group, 2010