Tetsuzo, the orphan protagonist of Kenjiro Haitani’s A Rabbit’s Eyes, lives with his kindly grandfather near a garbage disposal plant. Quick to anger and nearly mute, the first-grader’s only animal companions are the flies he raises from eggs and maggots: fruit flies, blowflies, green bottle flies, all but the commode-loving houseflies, which the boy deems too dirty to keep as pets. Inspired by a young, idealistic teacher, Tetsuzo transforms from sullen pupil and potential felon into the precocious “Fly Professor,” learning where various species like to spawn, and why certain ones thrive in bathrooms. In the end, he becomes a local hero when he uses his knowledge to save a ham factory that has become infested with houseflies.
The book became a bestseller in Japan when it was first published in 1974. The narrative turns treacly when Haitani moves from the entomological to the sociological, from fly diets to hunger strikes and recycling drives, but it’s sweetly earnest, forgivable melodrama, the humble insects serving as a metaphor for Japan’s poor treatment of its lower classes and ethnic minorities. Haitani spells it out: “[Flies] prey on nothing, feeding instead on the refuse of society,” Tetsuzo’s teacher reads in a library book. “It is neither a heroic life, nor a cruel one; rather, it is an extremely modest life, like that of the common people.” A Rabbit’s Eyes is a satisfying boy-and-his-pet tale, as well as a peek into the weirdly dichotomous world of Japanese schools, where Mary Kay Letourneau–esque flirting and student whackings happily coexist.