Like many of the stories in Waters’s acclaimed collection The Laws of Evening , “Aftermath” focuses on the life of an individual dealing with post–World War II conditions in Japan. The protagonist, Makiko, is a young widow whose husband has been killed while fighting the Allied forces during the war, and the plot is driven by Makiko’s attempts to hold onto her pre-war past in the face of rapid modernization. Makiko is particularly concerned with preserving memories and traditional customs as a way to provide a legacy for her seven-year-old son Toshi, who seems to become more and more Americanized, as she raises him in the years right after the war. Waters uses the motifs of light and water to convey Makiko’s sense of distress over her situation and to elucidate the story’s central theme of memory and how memory influences people coping with difficult pasts.
Throughout the story, much of the dramatic conflict centers around Makiko’s attempts to preserve memories of Yoshitsune, her deceased husband, for herself and for Toshi. Makiko is disturbed by the fact that Toshi only recalls one memory of his father, and she encourages him to remember more by asking him questions and having him participate in a nightly prayer ceremony to honor the memory of his father. To keep Toshi engaged with the ritual, Makiko rotates the items associated with Yoshitsune, sometimes displaying letters or different photographs. However, although Toshi enjoys lighting the incense on the prayer altar, he hurries through the ceremony, so that he can eat his dinner sooner, much to Makiko’s dismay. Obsessed with preserving the past, Makiko scolds Toshi for rushing, telling him that “A man who forgets his past . . . stays at the level of an animal” while she scoops rice into his bowl.
Through her portrayal of Makiko, Waters conveys that memory is a slippery and uncontrollable process. Although Makiko doggedly tries to preserve “good” memories of her pre-war life with Yoshitsune, dwelling on the times when her husband affectionately interacted with their son, she also attempts to banish less pleasant memories, but with little success. In one scene, Makiko wakes up from a dream in which Yoshitsune is hitting her with a flyswatter, and she then recalls other disagreeable memories such as the time during the early years of their marriage when Yoshitsune shook her in anger. This scene illustrates how all types of memories persist and influence Makiko’s current post-war life, even as she attempts to control what kinds of memories get through. Waters emphasizes Makiko’s distress, as she describes her at the end of this scene: “She has tried so hard to remain true to the past. But the weight of her need must have been too great: her need to be comforted, her need to provide a legacy for a small, fatherless boy. Tonight she senses how far beneath the surface her own past has sunk, its outline distorted by deceptively clear waters.” Here, as elsewhere in the story, Waters uses the motif of water to describe Makiko’s present, likening Makiko’s current life to a pool, which appears calm but is roiling with memories below the surface. The comparison of Makiko’s life to a body of water occurs again when her younger brother Noboru teases her for being so zealously clean, invoking the expression, “Nothing grows in a sterile pond” and then jokingly extolling the virtues of dirt.
Earlier in the story, Waters compares Makiko’s situation to being pushed around in a wave, as Makiko “feels unmoored, buffeted among invisible forces that surge up all around her.” By associating water with Makiko’s life in post-war Japan, Waters conveys the idea that the present is constantly shifting, as the element of water is—unlike wood or earth—always moving. In using this motif, Waters also points up Makiko’s sense of fear regarding how quickly things are changing, as water is an inherently unstable element that threatens to obscure or wash away what is left of the past.
Makiko’s relentless efforts to preserve memories and rituals such as the prayer ceremony can be seen as her attempts to hold onto something definite in the face of enormous personal and cultural changes. In addition to grieving her husband, Makiko also mourns the loss of an entire way of life, as she sees traditional Japanese customs and values disappear when Japan embraces the process of modernization during the American occupation. Waters contrasts Makiko’s reactions to the situation with those of Noboru, who heartily welcomes industrialization as a way for Japan to recover, rebuild, and free itself from U.S. occupation. Makiko, by contrast, resists these changes, wishes that her son and her culture were not growing so rapidly. She longs for a time when her life and Japanese society as a whole were undisturbed by the trauma of war and by recovery from its aftermath.
Waters uses light to show how nostalgically Makiko sees the past, casting her memories of the pre-war years in a golden sunlight. Although she herself cannot recall Toshi’s one memory of his father—a seemingly inconsequential moment when Yoshitsune carries him on one arm next to a sunny window—Makiko imagines, “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.” Sunlight also imbues the present with a kind of nostalgic quality. On the way to the Tanabata festival, Makiko notices the setting sun “casting a pink and orange glow on the charred wooden lattices where shadows reach” and Toshi’s “long shadow sweeping the sunlit fence as sparrows flutter up from charred palings.” In these descriptions, Waters conveys how Makiko’s focus on the past affects her perceptions of the present, giving even current events a sad, lovely, and fleeting feeling. In these ways, Waters uses sunlight to convey a sense of nostalgia and Makiko’s particular longings for a less complicated earlier life. At the end of the story, however, as night descends, and the softer glow of moonlight emerges, Waters alters the motif slightly. Following the Tanabata festival, Makiko stands alone on her veranda thinking about the night’s festivities and feeling happy for the first time within the time frame of this story. After noticing the moon and how bright and strong it is “awash with light, pulsing with light,” Makiko attributes her contentedness to the fact that, for her, it is the past and her memories of former festivals of her youth that have imparted a sense of joy to her recent experiences at the new Tanabata festival. She thinks: “Surely tonight’s festival owed its luster to all that lay beneath, to all those other evenings of her past that emit a lingering phosphorescence through tonight’s surface.” In this description, moonlight leads her to consider memory as a transformative force that imbues the shabby, difficult present with a kind of beauty that Makiko finds consoling. In this final scene, memories of the past have become less haunting and more reassuring, as the protagonist finds a way to envision her future. In the last few paragraphs of the story, Waters also mixes the motifs of water and light, with the reference to “tonight’s surface” referring back to the pond motif that is used earlier in the work. In addition, Makiko acknowledges that her beloved memories are “dissolving in her consciousness” like liquid beads, reinforcing the idea that memory is uncontrollable in spite of her fervent efforts. And in the last paragraph, Waters employs the light In this description, moonlight leads her to consider memory as a transformative force that imbues the shabby, difficult present with a kind of beauty that Makiko finds consoling.” motif once again, as she describes Makiko hoping that Toshi will recall their life when he is older: “Perhaps Toshi will remember this night. Perhaps it will rise up again, once he is grown, via some smell, some glint of light, bringing indefinable texture and emotion to a future summer evening.” By drawing on both of the major motifs of the story in these concluding descriptions of Makiko’s shifting perceptions, Waters conveys how the character has experienced a moment of happiness and a reprieve from grieving, as she is able to feel how the light of the past informs her uncertain present and will continue to glimmer into the future.
Anna Maria Hong, 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