Flower Fires


The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, Société Lumière, 1896

by Setsuko Adachi

A clutch of —

Paris, 1895

The audience sat in front of a screen heard ssssssssssssssssss in the darkness. Light flashed. A train appeared on the screen. The train was coming, increasing in size. The audience, they were naïve. They were new to the 2D-3D boundary trick. They ducked, screamed, got up to flee.[1] — The cinema impact represented a feature of the nineteenth century, the century of mechanization and industrialization: technical thrill was speedy and destructive.


Leningrad, 1941-

The Nazis invaded the USSR in June. Leningrad went under siege in September. Luftwaffe planes flew over the starving city releasing bombs. They came down, hissing in the air, ssssssssssssssssss… The civilians ducked, screamed, ran, and died. In the first winter of the 900 days’ siege, bodies were left on streets unburied. Cannibalism was reported.


Tokyo, 1942-

The US conducted their first air raid over Tokyo in April. A seventeen-year-old Japanese youth in Komae, a village at the outskirts of Tokyo, had no doubt that the enemy couldn’t do much damage. The civilian defense system — the neighborhood association system [2] in the Imperial Capital was impregnable. [3]



Peonies, Leningrad, August 1942

Despite the bombing and the starvation, their Philharmonic Hall was packed with people. Leningrad was the city of cultural grandeur, the home of the Hermitage. The pride of civilized superior existence did everything to set the ambience: chandeliers were sparkling, the orchestra was all dressed in black tie, the audience came dressed up the best they could. Speakers were set for those who could not come. And a girl in the barren city miraculously found a peony tree blossoming with magenta flowers that had not been eaten.

It was surreal, the concert. Everyone was immersed in the music. They forgot the horror of their plight. A crystal-clear silence emerged when the music ended. It intensified, then, erupted. The hall shook in the storm of applause. When a bunch of magenta peonies appeared in the midst of it — the scene was “unbearably joyful.”

The magenta glowed in the arms of the conductor: throbbed with the heart of Leningrad.

German soldiers heard the music through the speakers. Some were shedding tears. It was their culture, too.[4]


Rosebud, Nogata (on the outskirts of Tokyo), summer 1943 around noon

Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot …       

Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red…

A faint soprano leaked from a house. Her neighbors had their concerns: Is she singing the enemy’s songs? — It was Franz Schubert’s version of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Heidenröslein — Heather Rose. [5] Their ears could not tell German from English. Has she not heard the slogan: Luxuries are your enemies? … So, Chiyo, an amateur singer, practiced in the darkness, in her bathing suit, drenched in sweat, in the house with all the shutters and windows closed, — no air raid sirens and no visitors would be great.

Music was not a luxury, it was a necessity. Chiyo had received a notice in the morning. She was levied with a No Child Tax. A married female at thirty without a child was useless. The emptiness of her existence in the militarist nationalist patriarchal society was painful. — Since you do not provide the country with a child, pay your fine.


Rosebud, Aoyama (Tokyo), summer 1943 in the afternoon

 Knabe sprach: “Ich breche dich,       Said the boy, “I’ll now pick thee,
Röslein auf der Heiden.”                     Heathrose fair and tender!”
Röslein sprach: “Ich steche dich,       Said the rosebud, “I’ll prick thee,
Daß du ewig denkst an mich,            So that thou’lt remember me,
Und ich will’s nicht leiden.”                Ne’er will I surrender

Singing never felt better. Her whole being had captured the never surrendering rosebud. The song was hers. Chiyo was euphoric. She knew she had reached a higher level of intellect in creative imaginative expression. It took her a long time, a lot of effort, it was complex.

Sehr gut! — Very good!” Eta cried out, very pleased. Chiyo was unfurling.

Eta Harich-Schneider was a renowned Harpsichordist in exile, who was stranded in Tokyo for the entire Pacific war. She came to Tokyo in the spring of 1941, then in the summer of that same year, the USSR-Germany war broke-out, and in the winter, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Eta fled Berlin because she was dismissed from her professorship at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik when she refused to join the Nazi party. [6]

Fate filled Eta and Chiyo, the two critically minded women, with the desire to exercise, to sharpen the sophisticated sensitivity, or sensibility, for sound and mind to rise above the destructive situation. By the third year of WWII in the Pacific, their need to fight their war was urgent: Chiyo went for lessons from Eta almost every day. Eta hosted a salon — a private chamber music concert — every week. For the salon, every effort was made to do it right. Chiyo not only sang but was held responsible for preparing and maintaining the right ambience. Eta channeled her high expectation for sophisticated ears: the guests had to have critical minds that understood the philosophical thrill as poets. Eta would not invite a well-known musician if she thought that the person did not understand poetry.


Wisteria, Early May 1945

A beautiful blue sky spread over her head. Chiyo sat on a chair, anxiety-ridden, looking at the wisteria in full bloom. These days, on a bright sky day like this, the U.S. B29s never failed to appear. Quite recently, she extinguished the bombs that landed around her house all by herself — her husband had been drafted. It was only the other day, when she watched a neighboring house covered in raging flames from the roof and thought: This is it, I am dying.

The phone rang. It was Eta. “Come, please, immediately before the air raid siren inhibits you from reaching here.” Eta said she was having a very special concert that afternoon. Chiyo with music sheets in her arms quickly headed for Eta’s.

The program consisted of four short pieces. Wigenlied, a lullaby, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, another Wigenlied by Carl Maria von Weber, Frühlingsglaube (Faith in Spring) by Franz Schubert, and Heidenröslein (Heather Rose) another by Franz Schubert. Eta’s instruction was not to worry about making mistakes or singing well. She wanted her to sing the songs with the utmost genuine feeling.

The air raid siren went off and was lifted. Soon after, three cars halted at the door.  The German ambassador, high ranking officials, and their wives came in. Nobody said anything, no greetings. Each one went straight to a seat. Not a smile from the familiar faces. The room became tense. Chiyo quickly was beside herself.

Und der wilde Knabe brach               Now the cruel boy must pick
‘s Röslein auf der Heiden;                  Heathrose fair and tender;
Röslein wehrte sich und stach,         Rosebud did her best to prick,—
Half ihm doch kein Weh und Ach,    Vain ’twas ‘gainst her fate to kick—
Mußt’ es eben leiden.                         She must needs surrender.
Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot,             Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Röslein auf der Heiden.                      Heathrose fair and tender!

Gut — good,” she heard Eta say in a small voice, which brought her back to herself and into the intense silence. It was as if everything else had vanished and only this room existed. The guests sat wordless, some with tears in their eyes. The energy, the passion that words fail to convey, filled the air. Chiyo was transfixed; the guests were gone with the end of music.

Chiyo did not know. The news was not released yet: Nazis Germany had lost.


Banked fire [7]

May 25, 1945

It was dark. In Komae, a village at the outskirts of Tokyo, the siren went off. B29s flared the night into day. Father and brother were on their house’s roof extinguishing the sparks. From the roof, the father yelled to his daughter and niece to run. They did and hid in the wheat field. The fluttering sound of the ears of wheat wrapped them and settled their fear.

A plane appeared, and with ssssssssssssssssss bombs were dropped, targeting fourteen, fifteen houses, the size of a neighborhood association system. The trained civilian defenders were powerless. The enemy’s bombing killed a pregnant woman. From the next day on, a crowd of onlookers gathered to see the site in the village, that for whatever reason, the enemy had singled-out as their target to destroy. The crowd said nothing, not a word of sympathy or encouragement. They just watched the homeless residents repeat the labor — pick up the shells, fill up carts, roll them away,  dispose the shells — as if it were a scene on a screen in cinema.[8]

Planes appeared over the city, and with ssssssssssssssssss bombs were showered over Tokyo. People ducked, screamed, looked for water. Eta’s residence, the Baroque furniture, and the graceful salon were all gone. The city became a burnt field.

In the clattering cries demanding peace and democracy of postwar Japan, Chiyo’s ears heard “democratized love.” All year round, the popular song programs on radio discharged sweet words in the same tone. It used to do the same with “militarist national love.” A fire was lit in Chiyo; she began hosting a salon in her house, which survived the  bombing. — But that is another story.

Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn,      Once a boy a Rosebud spied,
Röslein auf der Heiden,
                    Heathrose fair and tender,
War so jung und morgenschön,
      All array’d in youthful pride,—
Lief er schnell es nah zu sehn,
         Quickly to the spot he hied,
Sah’s mit vielen Freuden.
                 Ravished by her splendour.


[1] The Lumière brothers’ silent film, The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat), fifty seconds, was one of the earliest films that was most widely seen and is claimed to be the first to be shown commercially in Paris on December 28, 1895. The film was dispatched to every continent and speedily seen in most countries within one or two years. See Mark Cousins, The Story of Film, Pavilion, 2013, pp. 23-24.

[2] The neighborhood association system – tonarigumi was implemented in 1940 by the Japanese government as a national mobilizing – control mechanism. Each unit was comprised of some ten houses. It was the rationing unit; it was responsible for taking care of the war-bereaved families of soldiers in their unit, and it was the civilian defense – fire and air raid drill unit.

[3] 「東京発[初]空襲のこと…当時の日記から」Komae City HP,,305,349,2101,html

All translations from Japanese to English, unless otherwise noted, are by the author.

[4] See Jason Caffrey, “Shostakovich’s symphony played by a starving orchestra,” (BBC News Magazine, January 2, 2016. “A bunch of flowers” was presented at the occasion, however, that it was a bunch of magenta peonies is a fictional insertion made by the author.

[5] The translation of the poem used here is Edgar A. Bowring’s in 1853.

[6] Eta Harich-Schneider (1897-1986), Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997), Bach Cantatas Website,

[7] The title is taken honoring Chiyo Takeyama and her memoir titled, A Record of Banked Fire (竹山千代『埋火の記』) privately published in 2001. The author was particularly inspired by her short essays on her World War II experiences.

[8] 平沼(旧姓三角)松子「私の空襲体験」Komae City HP,,615,349,2101,html