Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “The Decay of the Angel”

DecayAngel

I have completed reading the final instalment in Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, four novels that follow the life of Shigekuni Honda and his interactions with Kiyoaki Matsugae, Isao Iinuma, Ying Chan and Tōru Yasunaga, supposedly reincarnations. Covering the period October 1912 to November 1970 it is a collection moving through significant historical periods in Japanese history.

Highly symbolic and meditative in style, the four novels are not only difficult to read and digest, a slow reading is almost demanded as you contemplate each reflection, they are also difficult to write about. When I say “difficult” I do not mean your “Finnegan’s Wake” difficult, it is more a case of the narrative arc, character depth and motivations, playing less of a role than the symbolic, the allegoric, the reflective and the meditative.

To recap, the four books that make up the tetralogy are:

Spring Snow translated by Michael Gallagher

Runaway Horses translated by Michael Gallagher

The Temple of Dawn translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle

The Decay of the Angel translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

Interestingly the tone of the novels shifts quite dramatically in the third novel, the feeling of immersion in nature becoming more clinical and then becoming sparse in the final instalment. Is this a reflection on the different translators of the books, or was Yukio Mishima changing his style?

Without revisiting old themes of earth, wind, fire and water, or nationalistic symbols as I have done with previous posts about these books, this time I will simply post a few short thoughts about various questions raised in the final novel.

Chapter Eight, explores in some detail “the five signs…that death has come to an angel”, using various religious texts. There are “variations depending upon the source”, including “lesser and greater” signs;

Here are the five greater signs: the once-immaculate robes are soiled, the flowers in the flowery crown fade and fall, sweat pours from the armpits, a fetid stench envelops the body, the angel is no longer happy in its proper place. (p 53)

Highly symbolic in nature these signs are a glaring motif for the reader to follow, as we observe Honda in old age;

Huge, solid, the buildings spread great wings of steel and glass. Honda said to himself; “The moment I die they will all go.” The thought came to him as a happy one, a sort of revenge. It would be no trouble at all, tearing this world up by the roots and returning it to the void. All he had to do was die. He took a certain minor pride in the thought that an old man who would be forgotten still had in death this incomparably destructive weapon. For him the five signs of decay held no fear. (p55)

Soiled robes, fading flowers worn as a crown, sweat, stench and unhappiness all appear and reappear in various guises throughout. Reincarnated Tōru Yasunaga, for example;

Tōru’s heels looked up from the skirt of his kimono. They were white and wrinkled as those of a drowned corpse, and patches of dirt were scattered like bits of foil over them. The kimono had gone quite limp. Sweat drew clusters of yellow clouds at the neckline.
Honda had for some time been aware of a strange odor. He saw that the dirt and oil on the kimono had mixed with the sweat into the smell as of a dank canal that young men put out in the summer Tōru had lost his fastidiousness. (p219)

Are all the reincarnations angels?

As he lectured to the attentive Tōru, Honda had the feeling that these were really instructions for Kiyoaki and Isao and Ying Chan.
Yes, he should have spoken to them. He should have armed them with the foreknowledge that would keep them from flinging themselves after their destinies, take away their wings, keep them from soaring, make them march in step with the crowd. The world does not approve of flying. Wings are dangerous weapons. They invite self-destruction before they can be used. If he had brought Isao to terms with the fools, then he could have pretended that he knew nothing of wings. (p113)

“Kiyoaki Matsugae was caught by unpredictable love, Isao Iinuma by destiny, Ying Chan by the flesh. And you?” (p206)

As I have previously posted, Mount Fuji becomes a “Temple of Dawn” during the third novel and here the symbolic mountain returns, this time linked to the angels:

He had visited Nihondaira Heights below Fuji, and on his return had stopped by the Mio Grove and seen such treasures as the cloth, probably from Inner Asia, said to be a fragment of the angel’s robe (p9)

We also have the sea as a prominent motif in the final novel;

The sea: a nameless sea, the Mediterranean, the Japan Sea, the Bay of Suruga here before him; a rich, nameless, absolute anarchy, caught after a great struggle as something called “sea,” in fact rejecting a name. (p5)

Recap of Yukio Mishima’s quote about “The Sea of Fertility”; “Or I might say that it superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea.”

There are links and hints in every chapter, a giant circle of reincarnation, revisiting and learning. The four novels weighing in at 1,376 pages (Vintage Classics Editions) means there are opportunities galore to sow a seed and slowly allow it to germinate.

Decay, it is not only for angels, our protagonist is now in his 80’s, his health is failing;

But it had come to seem that there was no distinguishing between pain of the spirit and pain of the flesh. What was the difference between humiliation and a swollen prostate? Between pangs of sorrow and pneumonia? Senility was a proper ailment of both the spirit and the flesh, and the fact that senility was an incurable disease meant that existence was an incurable disease. It was a disease unrelated to existentialist theories, the flesh itself being the disease, latent death.
If the cause of decay was illness, then the fundamental cause of that, the flesh, was illness too. The essence of the flesh was decay. It had its spot in time to give evidence of destruction and decay. (p209-210)

The Vintage Classic edition of Yukio Mishima’s final novel, “The Decay of the Angel”, finishes with “The End: The Sea of Fertility; November 25, 1970”. As we know on that same date the then 45-year-old Yukio Mishima staged a failed coup d’état and then performed seppuku, a ritual suicide originally reserved for samurai. Seen as an honourable way to die, the ritual consists of using a short blade to disembowel oneself, a “kaishakunin” is appointed whose role is to behead the one who has performed the ritual, in Mishima’s case the kaishakunin, political activist Masakatsu Morita, was unable to complete the task and it was then left to Hiroyasu Koga to behead Mishima, and subsequently Morita, who had stabbed himself in the abdomen.

As I have mentioned in previous posts about Yukio Mishima’s final four novels, it is difficult to read these books without the sceptre of his final day looming large over your thoughts, however Yukio Mishima’s attention to detail with minor matters such as clouds, waves, grass, flowers, is often more significant than the death of a major character. The observation of natural elements may run to pages, whilst a death may be a clinical short paragraph. Is he telling us to observe, enrich and submerge ourselves in life?

It is 48 years since Yukio Mishima finished his writing, I do plan to revisit these four novels in 2020 (two years’ time), the 50th anniversary of his death, and I have the added bonus of knowing how long they will take me to complete. A collection of books that demands rereading, simply to draw all of the threads together. But then again I have made many a reading plan that hasn’t come to fruition…

 

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Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “The Temple of Dawn”

TempleOfDawn

Further reflections on Yukio Mishima’s final books, “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy. The four books that make up the tetralogy are:

Spring Snow translated by Michael Gallagher

Runaway Horses translated by Michael Gallagher

The Temple of Dawn translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle

The Decay of the Angel translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

I have now completed reading the first three, with the shortest of the four books remaining. The allegory, metaphor and symbolism continues in The Temple of Dawn, sky, clouds, dawn and the evening sky the prominent subjects.

Of the three volumes read to date, I found this one a lot harder to engage with, it could be the change in translators, although the subject matter was less focused on character development and action, with significant portions dedicated to musing on Buddhist and Hindu theory.

The work opens with our protagonist, Honda again as the main thread throughout the tetralogy, travelling to Thailand and India. A slight hint of travelogue style allows Mishima to present a detached view of Nationalism;

Traveling through a country like Thailand, Honda realized more clearly than ever the simplicity and purity of things Japanese, like transparent stream water through which one could glimpse pebbles below, or the probity of Shinto rites. Honda’s life was not imbued with such spirit. Like the majority of Japanese he ignored it, behaving as though it did not exist and surviving by escaping from it. All his life he had dodged things fundamental and artless: white silk, clear cold water, the zigzag white paper of the exorciser’s staff fluttering in the breeze, the sacred precinct marked by a torii, the gods’ dwelling in the sea, the mountains, the vast ocean, the Japanese sword with its glistening blade so pure and sharp. Not only Honda, but the vast majority of Westernized Japanese, could no longer stand such intensely native elements. (P26)

Early in the novel we are introduced to the Temple of Dawn, Wat Arun in Thailand;

The pagoda had long served as a morning bell tolled by its rich hues, resonant colors responding to the dawn. They were created so as to evoke beauty, a power, an explosiveness like the dawn itself.
In the eerie, yellowish brown morning light reflecting ruddily in the Menam River, the pagoda cast its shining reflection, presaging the coming of still another sweltering day. (pp14-15)

However later the temple becomes Mount Fuji, this is post WWII Japan now and Honda is shifting from ignoring “the mountains”, he can “stand such intensely native elements”;

The next morning Honda awoke alone in the villa, and for protection against the cold, donned a woollen scarf, a cardigan, and a thick winter coat. He crossed the lawn and walked to the arbor at the west end of the garden. More than anything else he had been anticipating watching Fuji at dawn.
The mountain was tinted crimson in the sunrise. Its tip glowed the color of a brilliant rose stone, and to his eyes it was a dreamlike illusion, a classical cathedral roof, a Japanese Temple of Dawn. (P157)

The references to reaching for the divine, whether in Thailand, Japan or India (Honda travels to India too), add to the spiritual angle of this work, and whilst the thread of Honda’s interactions with reincarnated characters continues here it is a less prominent element to the novel. The references to architecture showing an ageing Honda is adding structure and order to his life. Although dawn is representing newness, freshness, the potential for a brighter future, there is also the foreboding of twilight;

There is a time of day immediately before dusk when the outline of every object becomes sharply delineated. It was just that moment. The lacerated edges of wooden beams in the wreckage, the freshness of the rents in the shredded trees, and the curled zinc sheets with their puddles of rain water – everything appeared almost unpleasantly vivid. In the extreme west only a horizontal line of scarlet was to be seen in the sky between two or three towering black burned-out buildings. Flecks of scarlet were also visible through the windows of the ruined structures. It was as if someone had turned on a red light in a deserted and uninhabited house. (p140)

We had already been forewarned;

“Art is a colossal evening glow,” he repeated. “It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky; even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile. Before the brilliance of evening, before the surging evening clouds, all rot about some ‘better future’ immediately fades away. The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending. (p12)

It is this luminescence just prior to the “ending” that fascinates Mishima;

The evening sky was already casting its gentle rose color over the river; passing sails dropped dusky shadows on the water.
It was a time of opulent, mysterious luminescence before the dusk of evening. A time controlled by light, when the contours of all things were perfect, every dove painted in detail, when everything was dyed a faded yellow-rose, when a languid harmony reigned with the exquisiteness of an etching between the reflection on the river and the glow in the sky. (p61)

In my previous posts I also referred to the moon references, well the tetralogy IS called the Sea of Fertility and in the Vintage edition notes on the author, Mishima is reported to have said, “The title, The Sea of Fertility…is intended to suggest the arid sea of the moon that belies its name. Or I might say that it superimposes the image of cosmic nihilism on that of the fertile sea.”

I’ll finish this post with two pertinent quotes about the sea of fertility, keeping in mind Mishima’s failed coup d’état and subsequent ritual suicide immediately after finishing the tetralogy;

But the feeling of disillusion and despair – as if one had seen the other side of the moon – which overtakes the successful revolutionary makes death merely an escape from a wilderness worse than death itself. (p87)

He was certain that unless the moon were permitted to stay clear, the emptiness and disgust that flooded his heart would expand and expand, and the dark turmoil would be transformed into sexual desire. It astonished him to discover that it was just such a landscape that awaited him at the end of his life’s journey. (p183)

I will continue to slow methodical march of our protagonist Honda (and Mishima) to his death, as I’m sure that is what awaits me in the final novel.

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, allegory and metaphor

RunawayHorses

Today I continue my reflections on Yukio Mishima’s final books, “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy. The four books that make up the tetralogy are:

“Spring Snow” translated by Michael Gallagher
“Runaway Horses” translated by Michael Gallagher
“The Temple of Dawn” translated by E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seqawa Seigle
“The Decay of the Angel” translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

I am half way through book two “Runaway Horses” and will avoid discussing the rampant Nationalism and the right-wing bent until a later post – I may even wait until I’m done with all four titles.

Today I’m going to look at metaphor and allegory, Mishima making it easy for the reader to identify a number of metaphors;

Yet if Iinuma had been more honest with himself, he would undoubtedly have noticed that he used an excessive number of metaphors having to do with emotion. He would undoubtedly have recognized himself as one who had indeed once lived out the original poem but who now made do with mere echoes of it, constantly applying the images of the moon, snow, and blossoms of long ago to scenes that were altering with every passing year. What he did not realize, in short, was that his eloquence had grown hollow. (‘Runaway Horses’ p178)

I have already written about the moon in my first post of the collection, little did I know Mishima was going to point out that the moon is a metaphor!!! Snow, obviously featuring in the title of the first volume and throughout. The protagonist Kiyoaki’s and his love Satoko consummating their love whilst taking place in a rickshaw ride:

As he looked up, the sky above seemed to be a fury of boiling white. The snow was now lashing down right on their faces. If they opened their mouths, it lay on their tongues. To be buried in such a drift…it seemed like heaven.
“Now there’s snow in here,” she said dreamily. Apparently, she meant that it had melted in a trickle from her neck to her breast. There was nothing anarchic in the falling snow, however: it fell with the steady solemnity of an ordered ritual. He felt his cheeks grow cold, and gradually became aware that his heart was fading within him. (‘Spring Snow’ p90)

The sun is also a feature, of course the rising sun features on Japan’s National flag, and the Emperor of Japan is said to be a direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. “Runaway Horses” set primarily in unrelenting heat;

Only on this drill ground was the hand of the sun working with a mathematical clarity and precision. Only here! The will of the Emperor penetrated the sweat, the blood, the very flesh of these young men, piercing their bodies like X-rays. From high above the entranceway of regimental headquarters, the golden chrysanthemum of the imperial crest, brilliant in the sunshine, looked down upon this beautiful, sweaty, intricate choreography of death.
And elsewhere? Elsewhere throughout Japan the rays of the sun were blocked.
(‘Runaway Horses’ Page 150)

Later during a discussion about “capitalism devoid of national allegiance” there is a further sun/Emperor reference;

The sorrowful sun, the sun glittering with a chill whiteness, could give no touch of warmth, yet rose up sadly every morning to begin its course. This was indeed the figure of His Majesty. Who would not long to look up again to behold the joyful countenance of the sun? (‘Runaway Horses’ p229)

Flowers also feature heavily, as seen in the excerpt above, “the golden chrysanthemum of the imperial crest” the flag of the Japanese Emperor;

Flag_of_the_Japanese_Emperor

Image from By Zscout370 – 皇室儀制令 (in Japanese). Archived from the original on 1 May 2009., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1093355

 

Takashi Fujitani’s book “Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan” explains;

While the chrysanthemum had had close associations with the imperial household since the reign of Gotoba (1183-98), the sixteen-petalled Imperial Chrysanthemum Crest was first recognized as the exclusive emblem of the imperial household in April 1868. The Imperial Flag bearing the chrysanthemum emblem was an early Meiji invention as well. The idea of an imperial flag dates from 1870, and in 1871 the prototype for all future imperial flags was unveiled: a gold chrysanthemum on a red background. Since in this early period court ritualists themselves were experimenting with imperial emblems, it seems safe to assume that for most people, especially those living in the provinces, the chrysanthemum need not have signified the imperial household.

In fact, during Emperor Meiji’s progresses there was sometimes a great deal of confusion in the popular mind about which floral emblem to associate with the emperor. Kishida Ginko, a newspaper reporter for the Tōkyō nichinichi shinbun who was then accompanying the 1878 Hokuriku -Tōkaidō Tour, noted that red cherry blossoms had been placed on lanterns hanging from the eaves of houses along the processional route in Niigata Prefecture. When he asked a local if this emblem stood for the province of Echigo, the customary name for the Niigata area, the reply was that the red cherry blossom was the crest of the emperor (tenchōsama no mon dasuke).

Emperor Meiji also took with him two of the imperial regalia, the Sacred Sword and Curved Jewel, and he passed through villages and towns that had been ornamented with Rising Sun lanterns (hinomaru chōchin) and national flags. But again, the great masses of people were not familiar with any of these symbols. How could they have known that the heavenly gods had conferred the imperial regalia upon Ninigo-no-mikoto, the grandson of the Sun Goddess, with the injunction to rule over the land? The authorisies, it must be remembered, had difficulty enough explaining that the emperor was descended from the Sun Goddess.

The Rising Suns gracing Japan’s national flag and the hinomaru lanterns had an even longer history of association with the imperial household than the chrysanthemums did; but like the floral emblem, the rising sun had no exclusively national or imperial meaning for most commoners until the modern era. (Pages 48-49)

In “Spring Snow”, Kiyoaki’s and Satoko meet clandestinely again, this time during the festival of the cherry blossom. There are innumerable flower references throughout the works, I’m sure many symbolic, if I come across any obvious metaphors or allegories I’ll put up another post.

I had prepared a post about the flag references, the purity of volume one “Spring Snow” and the whiteness of the snow possibly being the background to the Japanese flag, volume two “Runaway Horses” with the unrelenting heat and the red sun possibly being the rising sun on the flag. I decided against a lengthy post because I am possibly reading too much into the symbolism, where would volumes three and four go? We have water (ice, snow) and fire (heat, sun) in books one and two, will three and four be earth and wind? I better get back to reading to find out…

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, more thoughts

SPringSnow

Today, more thoughts about the first book in Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, “Spring Snow”.

It is difficult to read books by writers such as Édouard Levé, Qiu Miaojin, Sadegh Hedayat, Osamu Dazai or Stig Sæterbakken, all writers who committed suicide, where the characters in their works also contemplate the final act. You bring a pre-conceived thematic notion to their works. Yukio Mishima is no different, his failed coup d’état and ritual suicide – seppuku – always lingering, especially with his final books, the tetralogy being completed in the days prior to his failed attempt to restore the power of the Japanese Emperor.

“Spring Snow”, a slow, contemplative, meditative novel where the narrative arc is simple, also contains a raft of detail about Japanese history, Western influence on their culture and debates about various religious or traditional ceremonies.

It is generally through dialogue that the various opinions and arguments take place.

Early in the novel, Chapter 13, two of the main characters, Kiyoaki and Honda, discuss time, the style of an era (“I’d be more inclined to say that the style of the Meiji era is still dying.”), history and their individual roles in such;

“Europeans believe that a man like Napoleon can impose his will on history. We Japanese think the same of the men like your grandfather and his contemporaries who brought about the Meiji Restoration. But is that really true? Does history ever obey the will of men? Looking at you always makes me ponder that question. You’re not a great man and you’re not a genius either. But, nonetheless, you have one characteristic that sets you quite apart: you have no trace whatever of willpower. And so I am always fascinated to think of you in relation to history.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“No, not a bit. I’m thinking in terms of unconscious participation in history. For example, let’s say that I have willpower –”
“You certainly have.”
“Say that I want to alter the course of history. I devote all my energies and resources to this end. I use every ounce of strength I possess to bend history to my will. Say I possess the prestige and authority so necessary to bring this about. None of this would ensure that history proceeded according to my wishes. Then, on the other hand, perhaps a hundred or two hundred, even three hundred years later, history might veer abruptly to take a course that was constant with my vision and ideals – and this without my having had anything whatever to do with it. Perhaps society would assume a form that was the exact replica of my dreams of a hundred or two hundred years before; history, enjoying the new glory that had been my vision, would smile at me with cool condescension and mock my ambition. And people would say : ‘Well, that’s history.’”

The whole chapter is a debate between the two characters about an era that has passed, about their potential roles in history and ability to influence change. The sceptre of the author’s demands for the restoration of the Emperor in 1970 leaving a shadow over the whole debate.

Another ongoing theme is the influence of the English on Japanese culture, there are many minor references to the Westernisation of ceremonies, or the furnishings, or even somebody preferring billiards to mahjong, there are references to “carefully nurtured “English” absentmindedness” or the keeping of rodents as pets. The triviality of the English influence can be seen in the following conversation that takes place during the blossom festival, between Baron Shinkawa and Count Ayakura, the Baron modelling himself on English culture;

“They tell me, Baron, that you spent a good deal of time in London.”
“Yes, and in London at tea time the hostess makes a great point of asking everyone: ‘Milk or tea first?’ Though it all comes to the same in the end, tea and milk mixed together in the cup, the English place enormous importance on one’s preference as to which should be poured first. With them it seems to be an affair of greater gravity than the latest government crisis.”

In later chapters two Siamese (Thai) Princes spend some time at a summer house with Kiyoaki and Honda and discuss the transmigration of souls, this opens up to Buddhist tales from the Jataka Sutra and then further debate and opinions by Honda on reincarnation;

“There is an abundance of death in our lives. We never lack reminders – funerals, cemeteries, withered commemorative bouquets, memories of the dead, deaths of friends, and then the anticipation of our own death. Who knows? Perhaps in their own way the dead make a great deal of life. Perhaps they’re always looking in our direction from their own land – at our towns, our schools, the smokestacks of our factories, at each of us who has passed one by one back from death into the land of the living.”
“What I want to say is that perhaps reincarnation is nothing more than a concept that reverses the way that we, the living, ordinarily view death, a concept that expresses life as seen from the viewpoint of the dead. Do you see?”

This is a complex work, whole chapters spent on the structure and beauty of blades of grass, large sections dedicated to the motion of waves, the natural world at times being more of an influence than the main human characters.

I can understand why a number of readers find his works “difficult” as the self-reflection, the contemplation is a major feature of the characters. It is a work that I am thoroughly enjoying, even if I cannot help having a pre-conceived set of thoughts about the author’s motivations.

Yukio Mishima’s “The Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, initial thoughts

SPringSnowWith a very specific purpose in mind, but more on that another time, I have commenced reading Yukio Mishima’s final four books, a tetralogy, “The Sea of Fertility”, and today would like to present some initial highlights.

Avid readers of world literature would know about Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide – seppuku, an event that seems to overshadow his significant contribution to Japanese literature. He was considered for the Nobel Prize in 1968, only to see his fellow countryman Yasunari Kawabata take home the gong. It was on 25 November 1970, just  after completing his tetralogy, “Hōjō no Umi” translated as “The Sea of Fertility”, that Yukio Mishima, along with four others, attempted a coup d’état, demanding a restoration of the power of the emperor. The failed attempt ending with the writer’s suicide.

His tetralogy commences with “Haru no Yuki” translated by Michael Gallagher as “Spring Snow”.

Yukio Mishima’s novel is set in 1912, soon after the Russo-Japanese War, and with the westernisation of Japan taking place, the book deals with this pervading sense of change. An important theme when reflecting upon Yukio Mishima’s attempted coup d’état, however I will save these reflections for a later post.

Very much like his earlier novel, “The Temple of The Golden Pavilion” we have a novel steeped in Buddhist reflections, central characters who are contemplative, and even though this work is set before the Second World War it also deals with Nationalist themes. Here we have Kiyoaki Matsugae, a sensitive melancholy boy of eighteen, one of the prominent characters, and another dominant theme in this book is the moon, here is a rather lengthy excerpt, with Kiyoaki front and centre;

At this point, both parents were at a loss for viable topics of conversation and began to flounder, their discomfiture evident even to Kiyoaki. Somehow, however, they finally happened upon the congenial subject of Kiyoaki’s Otachimachi, the divination ritual that had taken place three years before when he was fifteen.
This ancient ceremony fell on the seventeenth of August according to the lunar calendar. A large wooden basin filled with water was placed in the garden to catch the reflection of the moon, and appropriate offerings were made. If the sky was overcast on this August night of his fifteenth year, bad fortune was expected to dog the boy who stood before the basin, for the rest of his life.
As his parents talked, the scene came back to Kiyoaki vividly. Flanked by his parents and dressed in his
hakama, a divided skirt, and kimono blazoned with the family crest, he had stood in the middle of the dew-drenched lawn, the new basin filled with water before him, and a chorus of chirping insects ringing in his ears.
The trees that encircled the now-darkened garden, the tiled roofs of the mansion itself beyond, even the maple hill – the reflection of all this, and more, had been fixed in jagged outline, compressed into the circle of water that was defined by the rim of the basin. That rim of blond Cyprus wood had become a frontier where this world ended and another began. Since this ceremony during his fifteenth year was to determine his lifetime fortune, Kiyoaki felt as though his very soul, naked, had been set there on the wet grass. The wooden sides of the basin expressed his outer self; the disk of water, which they in turn defined, expressed his inner.
Everyone was silent, so the sounds of insects throughout the garden filled his ears as never before. He gazed earnestly into the basin. The water within was dark at first, shadowed by clouds as thick as clustered seaweed. A moment later the seaweed seemed to wave and he thought he had seen a faint glow suffuse the water, but then it faded. He could not remember how long he had waited after that. Then all of a sudden the black water in the basin, which had seemed impenetrably obscure, cleared, and there directly in its center shone a tiny image of the full moon.
Everyone broke into exclamations of pleasure, and his mother, rigid all this time, was greatly relieved and began to wave her fan to drive away the mosquitos swarming around her skirt.
“Oh, I’m so glad! Now the boy will have a fortunate life, won’t he?” she said.
Then Kiyoaki was congratulated by everyone present.
But he still felt a certain dread. He could not bring himself to look up into the sky at the moon itself, the origin of the image in the water. Rather he kept looking down into the basin and into the water contained by its curved sides, the reflection of his innermost self, into which the moon, like a golden shell, had sunk so deep. For at that moment he had captured the celestial. It sparkled like a golden butterfly trapped in the meshes of his soul.

After dinner that evening, where the ritual three years prior was discussed, Kioyaki’s father requests the boy to accompany him on his walk to his mistress’s house and proposes a night out for his son with geishas so he can ‘kick up his heels’, his reply is simply “No, thank you”

The moon was bright, and the wind moaned through the branches of the trees…The hooting of the owls and the wind in the trees reminded Kiyoaki, still wine-flushed, of the branches blowing in the photograph of the memorial service. As they walked through the bleak, wintry night, his father was anticipating the moist warmth and intimacy of the rosy flesh that awaited him, while his son’s thoughts turned toward death.

When he is eighteen years old Kioyaki is concerned about a letter he has sent, and needs to come up with a plan to retrieve the offending letter before the recipient gets to read it;

The night wind howled at the windows of the passageway with its line of dim lanterns stretching into the distance. Suddenly afraid that someone might see him and wonder at his running and being out of breath like this, he stopped, and as he rested his elbows on the ornamental window frame and pretended to stare out into the garden, he tried desperately to put his thoughts in order. Unlike dreams, reality was not so easy to manipulate. He had to conceive a plan. It could not be anything vague and uncertain; it had to be as firmly compact as a pill, and with as sure and immediate a result. He was oppressed by a sense of his own weakness, and after the warmth of the room he had just left, the cold corridor made him shiver.
He pressed his forehead to the wind-buffeted glass and peered out into the garden. There was no moon tonight. The island and the maple hill beyond formed one mass in the darkness. In the faint glow of the corridor lamps he could make out the surface of the pond ruffled by the wind. He suddenly imagined that the snapping turtles had reared their heads out of the water and were looking toward him. The thought made him shudder.

Kiyoaki’s fate appears inextricable linked to the phases of the moon, will this theme continue?

House of the Sleeping Beauties and other stories – Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker)

Sleep

Late last year Vintage International re-released Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties”, a novella, short story (?) that had been out-of-print in English for about thirteen years. It appears as though even Nobel Prize winners have books that simply disappear.  For many years I had wanted to read this story, but could not find a decently priced second hand copy, so once I learned of the re-release a pre-order was placed, and I eagerly awaited the book’s arrival. The edition contains three “stories”, “House of the Sleeping Beauties” (1961), ”One Arm” (1964) and the earlier “Of Birds and Beasts” (1933). Having recently read Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa”  as part of my “World Ulysses” tour, it was timely to read another early work and a couple of later stories from his oeuvre.

The book opens with the title story, where our ageing narrator, Eguchi, visits a country abode to sleep next to a naked sleeping teenage girl. His visits to sleep with different drugged virginal nude girls become more frequent, and each visit makes up one chapter, five visits, six girls. This is a work of unspoken secrets, “all was silence”, “nothing suggested that the room had unusual secrets”, the only disquiet in the opening scenes being a stylized bird on the Madame’s obi knot on her kimono. A work that balances age and youth, male and female, ugliness and beauty, eroticism and innocence;

Had he not come to this house seeking the ultimate in the ugliness of old age?”

Written in light, exquisite prose, a whisper, the meditative reflections of an old man, juxtaposed against the reflective beauty of the sleeping virgins, through this light touch the imagery is delicate, yet at the same time the subject matter is oppressive, a beautifully balanced exploration of death, memory, and desire;

For the old men who were customers the woman could “trust”, sleeping with a beauty who would not awaken was a temptation, an adventure, a joy they could trust. Old Kiga had said to Eguchi that only when he was beside a girl who had been put to sleep could be himself feel alive. (p22)

The fantasy world of a red velvet alcove, with sounds of waves crashing in the background, whilst an old man views sleeping beauties and recalls erotic interactions from his past, is a meditation on both possession, and obsession as well as a reflective musing on the beauty of innocence and youth.

Might it be called the surprise of suddenly being pulled away from the everyday world? (p35)

This is a haunting, sad, obsessive tale, balancing the macabre with the surreal, the potential repulsiveness with the prospective magnificence. The pussyfooting of “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa”, where the teenage prostitutes sit on the periphery is now suddenly an ageing writer’s obsession, the dark, secret preoccupations now the main theme for Kawabata’s work.

It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women; but Eguchi, on this third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to sleep forever beside a girl who had been put to sleep? There seemed to be a sadness in the young girl’s body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved; and perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken. (pp58-59)

This edition contains an introduction by Yukio Mishima, and it should come with a spoiler warning, unless you want the last of the five chapters in the story revealed I suggest you skip reading the three page introduction and head straight into the text itself.

There could be for an old man worn to the point of death no time of greater oblivion that when he lay enveloped in the skin of a young girl. (p47)

The next story in the collection is “One Arm”;

“I can let you have one of my arms for the night,” said the girl. She took off her right arm at the shoulder and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee. (p103)

This is a bizarre story where a young woman removes her arm and gives it to our narrator, an older man, for the night, he then recounts his journey home, his sleeping with the arm and his fixations. Another story of possession, obsession, beauty and youth, male and female. Here we have a blurring of fantasy and reality, fetishism and control. Similar in themes to “House of the Sleeping Beauties” using meditative, sparse and reflective prose, we also have the theme of “sleep” dominating the tale, a place where the fantasy can become reality, peace…an otherworldly state…

“Self? What is that? Where is it?”
“Far away,” said the arm, as if singing in consolation. “People walk around looking for selves, far away.”
“And do they come upon them?”
“Far away,” said the arm once more (p111)

The final story in the collection is “Of Birds and Beasts”, where our narrator is a hermit animal collector;

But for him life was filled with a young freshness for several days after a new bird came. He felt in it the blessings of the universe. Perhaps it was a failing on his part, but he was unable to feel anything of the sort in a human being. And it was easier to see the wonders of creation in a moving bird than in motionless shells and flowers. The little creatures, even when caged, gave forth the joy of life. (p131)

Here it is a human’s withdrawal from social relations and using pets as his interaction with the world. There are some striking examples of Kawabata’s style in this short story, where two extremes, opposites, can take shape within a single sentence;

Love of birds and animals comes to be a quest for superior ones, and so cruelty takes root.

Any kind of inhumanity, given practice, becomes human.

In these two examples, love becomes cruelty and inhumanity, human, it is through these exploration of extremes that I enjoy Kawabata’s work. In these three stories, that cover thirty years of his work, we can see numerous dichotomies in play.

Another common element used in each story is observations made whilst removed, in “House of the Sleeping Beauties” it is the voyeurism of the narrator observing the sleeping girls, their helplessness and his control, he could kill them if he chose to do so, in “One Arm” it is the meticulous detail of the inherited arm, in “Of Birds and Beasts” it is the narrator’s ability to observe pets being discarded as trash. Our narrators somehow on the outside of the action, drawing the reader into the observational, you are the voyeur.

Skilful, moving, meditative and thought provoking these are three stories that any fan of Japanese literature, or short stories should seek out.

 

The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Alisa Freedman)

ScarletGang

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 Azenb
ō: 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.