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The story Faithful Elephants is familiar to all Japanese children, since it is recounted over the radio each year on August 15. During the Second World War, Japanese military authorities ordered the director of the Tokyo Zoo to kill all the animals in order to protect the population if bombs fell on the zoo and freed the wild animals.
This did happen and most of the animals were poisoned, but the elephants were too smart to swallow poison and their skin was too thick for a syringe to pierce. So the elephants starved and died after suffering for more than 15 days. Their keepers could not bear to watch them suffer in agony.
At first glance, the simple watercolour illustrations present an idyllic picture despite the raging war. Supple flowering cherry branches frame the first images; elephant trunks raised as if to play the trumpet are in harmony with the spring flora. The illustrator then uses a palette of grey and sienna to depict the inert mass of elephants. The pain of the keepers is reflected in the expression on their faces and in their bodies, bent under the weight of their suffering.
Bruce Roberts has succeeded in illustrating a painful story with great sensitivity and simplicity. He uses Japanese techniques in which quick strokes sketch and suggest. The use of calligraphy and the texture of the Japanese paper add to the authentic character of this book.