My post on “A World of Ulysses” was quite popular, generating a few social media comments, and garnering a higher than usual number of views. Today I look at the “Japanese Ulysses”, as identified by Joshua Cohen, Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” (translated by Alisa Freedman), Cohen advising us:
This lurid novel, teeming with teen prostitutes and slumming littérateurs, earned its author the prize that eluded Joyce, the Nobel. Originally published in a daily newspaper—surely one of the strangest serializations ever—Kawabata’s monster is a manic crawl through the dingy Asakusa: Tokyo’s red-light district.
I can assure you this novel does share something with Joyce’s work, it is a difficult read.
The “Foreword” by Donald Richie advises that Kawabata was part of a group labelled the “New Perception School”. His “ambition was to view every incident of the human condition through new eyes….one of the tenets of the new aesthetic movement, modernism.”
The first thirty-seven chapters of the novel originally appeared as a serialization in the Tokyo Asahi newspaper between 20 December 1929 and 16 February 1930, at the bottom of the first page. From September 1930 chapters 38 through 51 appeared under the title “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” in Reconstruction (Kaizō, volume 12, number 9), with Chapters 52 through 61 appearing as “The Red Sash Society” in New Currents (Shinchō, volume 27, number 9). This format leads to a repetition, especially in the first 37 chapters, where the “action” is repeated to emphasise the crucial narrative beacons to new readers. In later chapters the narrative flow smooths out and therefore becomes a little more readable.
In a nutshell the story is about the region of Tokyo where the bawdy revues sit alongside the homeless, the young girls of Asakusa who have been tricked into prostitution, and the shady dealings of the inhabitants of this region.
The Scarlet Gang uses votive stickers, but they do it in a way all their own. It’s not that they are curious enough to want to learn that the practice of using votive stickers was begun by Emperor Kazan, who stuck them on all the places of worship he visited, and that stickers were even designed by ukiyoe artists like Utagawa Toyokuni. Also, they don’t believe in the efficacy enough to go around slapping them on shrines and temples just for that reason. I’ll give you an example. One day that little tyke Boat Tokikō (his father is a boatman on the Ōkawa, so he is called Boat Tokikō) said to me: You know the Five Story Pagoda?
– The one at the Sensō Temple?
– Yep. On the third story counting from the top or the bottom on the corner near the Nio Gate, there’s this ridge-end tile sticking out. It’s got a monkey’s face on it, and its eyeballs are all gold. Well I want to stick my sticker flat on the monkey’s face.
So just like that, under the cover of night, they stick their Scarlet Troupe votive stickers at truly inappropriate locations. For example, the middle of the three big paper lanterns at the Nio Gate entrance to the Sensō Temple, or on the black-lacquered bottom of that lantern from Irifune-chō, or the horns of the cow statue in the grounds of the Ushijima Shrine over in Mukōjima. (p6)
As you can see, from this short quote, the dialogue is presented as though you are listening in on a conversation, the different speakers delineated by em dashes, in this example it is a reportage of a conversation, however in other sections you are only glimpsing part of the conversation. To understand who is speaking is very difficult, and at time to know what they are speaking about is even more cryptic.
Unlike other works by Kawabata, this appears as an experimentation, the future winner of the Nobel Prize, honing his craft with different styles, methods of creating, reportage. However the imagery remains vivid, the themes, where sexual undertones float aplenty, are forming in the young writer’s mind.
A young woman in a red dress is pounding the piano in the entryway. The bright red stands out against the black of the piano, and the white of her legs, bare from knees down to feet, is young, fresh. The entryway isn’t much wider than a wooden sandal is long, and from where I stand, just outside, it seems as though I can reach in and give that black ribbon around her waist a tug. This ribbon is the only decoration, but because the dress is sleeveless with a low neckline, it’s something like an evening gown. No, even here at home she’s wearing something for the stage – a dance costume? Traces of white powder cling to the nape of her neck, and above it her hair is cropped close as a boy’s. (p10)
We follow this girl, Yumiko, she does fade from view only to return later, and the sexual references continue, for example where she is on a boat with a “customer” Kawabata advises us “And Yumiko polishes the glass globe, her head lowered, cheeks flushed, lost in thought” (p70).
All the seediness of Asakusa bubbles in the background, as our novelist wanders the streets and parks at night, relaying to us his observations;
Right under your nose, you can find lady bums dressed as men. You just laugh them off. But a man dressed as a woman, face thick with white powder, elaborate Japanese-style wig, all decked out in red, slipping off with another man into the dark alleys behind the temple – this sends chills up your spine like you’ve just seen a peculiar lizard or something. (p51)
The horror of child prostitution is also peppered throughout, young girls from the country taking work, during the Depression, and being tricked into prostitution;
It’s not so surprising that the little girl who rode the holy horse in the May Sanja Shrine festival already now in June has to sell her body to support her family. (p128)
Although a cast of 100’s move in and out of view, it is the seediness, the lure of the erotic, and the area of Asakawa that is the focus here:
Asakusa is Tokyo’s heart…
Asakusa is a human market…
The words of that popular writer Soeda Azenbō: Asakusa is Asakusa for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive…The masses converge on it, constantly. Their Asakusa is a foundry in which all the old models are regularly melted down to be cast into new ones. (p30)
A work that is a dichotomy of styles, the writing is influenced by the modernism of the West, the revues are snippets of the West, but there is a lament for the loss of Japanese culture;
For example, dear reader, have you listened to manzai lately? Manzai used to be funny. But in 1929, because the manzai people have been pushed by the “modern”, by that wild reckless nonsense straight from America, they have become pathetic clowns in both senses of the word. (p93)
There are historical laments too, a section set just after the massive earthquake of 1923 where Asakusa was flattened. And as you can see in the above quote, the direct address to you, “the reader”, occur frequently, as does the theme of Kawabata writing this book:
I tossed around the idea of writing a long, strange novel. And, dear reader, in these pages, after ten years, I have finally begun to do that. (p133)
This edition contains a very useful Foreword and Afterword by Don Ritchie as well as a Translator’s Preface, where the difficulty of translating the slang and references to Japanese culture and literature are explained, as well as an extensive Glossary and Selected Bibliography, greatly assisting academics, and the University of California Press should be congratulated for bringing this little known work into print.
A difficult read given the dialogue style, the lack of character development, and the subject matter, this is a curio in Kawabata’s work, one where he is experimenting with styles and the modernist, as well as serialized approach. It is a worthwhile addition to the world listing of Ulysses, and it is an interesting addition for readers who have enjoyed his more famous works such as “Snow Country”, “The Sound of the Mountain” and “The House of the Sleeping Beauties”, however I would not recommend starting your 1968 Nobel Prize winning journey with this book.