Windows on Japanese Literature

A six-part monthly series introducing modern Japanese authors to English-speaking readers that I wrote for the Daily Mainichi newspaper (Tokyo), published February-July 2000.

Ibuse Masuji

    One of my favourite Ibuse stories is about a grave-robber.  Set in the 17th century, it describes how a peasant named Yosaku plundered one ancient burial mound and used another as the site of an illicit gambling ring.  Because the story ("Yosaku the Settler" [1955]) is supposedly based on fragmentary records made during Yosaku's questioning by the authorities, we never discover what happens to him.  Most of the text consists of interrogation scenes which reveal the difficulties of peasant life and entertainingly evoke the stiff pomposity of the investigators.  However, Ibuse is not entirely unsympathetic to them either; one of the most amusing moments of this subtly funny story comes when one of the interrogators admits that no one other than a criminal has ever been inside such a tomb, and asks Yosaku if he is willing to discuss what he saw with a scholar of antiquities.

    There are many ways in which this story is typical of the work of Ibuse Masuji (1898-1993), one of the finest authors of modern Japan.  It is set in western Japan, near Hiroshima (Ibuse's birthplace), and depicts the lives of poor villagers rather than city folk; the spare, economical style omits all unnecessary information but deftly focuses the reader's attention on significant details; moral judgments are implied rather than stated outright, and are tempered by compassion and gentle humor; furthermore, what seems at first to be incomplete and fragmentary turns out to have unexpected wholeness and depth.

    While a student at Waseda University, Ibuse majored in French literature--like many other prominent authors, including Oe Kenzaburo--but he also studied painting at the Japan School of Fine Arts; the unerring eye for telling visual detail displayed in his fiction is often attributed to his artistic training.  For nearly seventy years from his 1923 debut until shortly before his death, he produced a large body of critically acclaimed and popularly successful novels, short stories, essays, and other writings.

    Ibuse is probably best known for Black Rain (translated by John Bester, available in a Kodansha paperback, and not to be confused with Ridley Scott's silly 1989 Michael Douglas vehicle).  This beautifully written 1965 novel describes the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath with almost unbelievable restraint.  As he cuts from depictions of the postwar medical, emotional, and social problems of survivors to flashbacks to their experiences during and immediately after the destruction of the city, Ibuse vividly depicts horrific suffering and devastation with great compassion, and yet without sensationalism or sentimentality.

    The same delicacy and control are apparent in his short stories, a representative selection of which can be found in Salamander (Kodansha; trans. John Bester).  In addition to the quirky, abstract title story (his debut work) and "Yosaku the Settler," this collection contains stories of rural life (including "Old Ushitora," an amusing account of a old man's close relationship with his stud bull) and city narratives which gently mock young intellectuals who resemble Ibuse himself (including the marvelous "Carp," the brief tale of a student's attachment to a large white fish given to him by a dead friend).
 One of the best of these short works is "Lieutenant Lookeast" (1950), a bitter satire of wartime nationalism which tells the story of Yuichi, an insane young veteran who is unaware that the war has ended and believes that the citizens of his small town are troops in his unit.  Ibuse's hilarious mockery of the fascist "pep talks" and imperious orders given by Yuichi would be preachy if the story did not also make fun of the easy platitudes of postwar reformist rhetoric and the endless gossip of the villagers; one of the great strengths of this antiwar story is the uncompromising honesty of its postwar setting, an asset it shares with Black Rain.

    Ibuse is also well known for his many works of historical fiction, an immensely popular--and under-translated--category of Japanese literature.  Luckily, four excellent short novels with historical settings are available in two Kodansha editions: Castaways (1987) and Waves (1986), both translated by David Aylward and Anthony Liman.  Historical fiction can be hard to follow if one is not familiar with the locations and eras it depicts, but these two paperbacks have good introductions, maps, and notes, and the novels themselves richly reward the effort put into reading them.

    Castaways contains "A Geisha Remembers" (1950), an account of a brief affair between a spirited geisha named Oshima and Takashima Shuhan, a famous expert in Western-style artillery, and "John Manjiro: A Castaway's Chronicle" (1937), the amazing true story of a shipwrecked Japanese fisherman who is rescued by an American whaler, educated in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and eventually returns safely to his native village.

    The shorter of the two works in Waves, "Isle-on-the-Billows" (1946), tells of an exiled bird-catcher whose island penal colony is engulfed by a weird natural disaster.  The title story, "Waves: A War Diary" (1930-38), boldly rewrites events narrated in one of the greatest Japanese classics, The Tale of the Heike (trans. Helen McCullough; Stanford University Press, 1988).   The novel takes the form of a diary (copied from an old document, a fictional introduction claims) describing the dramatic exploits--and gradual loss of innocence--of a young lord caught up in the savage civil warfare of the late 12th century.  Although his clan is doomed to defeat and eventual extermination, the diary trails off at a lull in the fighting, leaving the reader with a curious mix of relief and apprehension.

    Copying or excerpting real and imagined documents is a favorite device of Ibuse's, one which is central to most of his historical fiction.  Even his works that have modern settings are usually concerned with the passage of time, with aging and its consequences, and with the workings of memory.  To read--and reread--Ibuse Masuji is to encounter a self-conscious and meticulous grave-robber, an author whose carefully constructed narratives reveal how delicately he has plundered the past.

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Enchi Fumiko

    Among those who have encountered her in English, Enchi Fumiko is best known for Masks (1958; translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter and available as a Vintage paperback), a novel marked by a coldness that is both elegant and repellent.  This shocking account of sexual deception and betrayal is made especially vivid by its clever exploitation of supernatural themes.

    Masks tells the story of a middle-aged poet named Mieko, her widowed daughter-in-law Yasuko, and two men whom Mieko manipulates into affairs with Yasuko.  In a lush atmosphere redolent with traces of the past--old treatises on spirit possession in classic literature, mysterious portraits, austere masks and ornate costume robes from the Noh drama--Mieko weaves a complicated plot to resurrect her lost son and revenge herself on her long-dead husband.  Though she is frequently described as a witch, she does nothing which can be taken as actually supernatural; the title of the novel, which seems at first to refer to the contrast between Mieko's expressionless face and her tumultuous inner life, also implies that stories of witches and possession are themselves masks for women's frustration and anger at their inability to control their own lives.

    Enchi Fumiko was born in the Asakusa section of Tokyo in 1905.  After dropping out of the Girls' High School of the Japan Women's University, she was tutored in French, English, and classical Chinese; she also read widely in European and Japanese literature.  At the age of twenty, influenced by early experiences attending the Kabuki theater with her parents and grandmother, she began her writing career as a playwright.  Following her debut publication, a 1935 collection of plays, she turned to fiction as well.

    In 1945 Enchi's home and all her possessions burned during an air raid, and for several years immediately after the war she struggled with uterine cancer and surgical complications.  Although she had trouble gaining recognition once she began writing again, after winning an award in 1954 her output dramatically increased, and she produced one acclaimed work after another.  She was awarded the Cultural Medal in 1985, a year before her death at the age of eighty-one.

    Enchi is well-known for her extensive knowledge of and use of material from the Japanese classics, especially works of the Heian (794-1185) and Edo (1600-1867) periods.  Her father, Ueda Kazutoshi (1867-1937), was a famous scholar of literature and linguistics; in addition to being influenced by his passion for the theater, she was exposed to his personal library of classical works from a very young age.  As well as providing material for her fiction and other original works, this experience led to one of her most demanding undertakings: a complete modern Japanese translation of the Tale of Genji, the most celebrated of the Heian classics.

    This long narrative, written by Murasaki Shikibu, an early 11th century court lady, is often called the world's first novel.  Stretching over a period of 75 years, it centers on the life of a prince who is made a commoner for lack of political support; through his mastery of courtly arts (and strategies) he achieves de facto control of the land amid many romantic entanglements.  The fairy-tale aspects of this plot are balanced by the narrative's intense psychological depth and concern for the consequences of Genji's amorous adventures.  At present, there are two full-length English versions: Arthur Waley's, a classic in its own right for its stately prose (Everyman's Library, Knopf, 1993) and Edward Seidensticker's, which attempts to preserve the atmosphere of the original (Random House, 1983).  Incidentally, a third English version, by Royall Tyler, is due from Penguin in the near future.

    This great work, which Enchi first began reading at the age of ten, is also an important source for much of her fiction; although "Masks" is immediately accessible without such prior knowledge, its richness and complexity are more easily grasped if the reader is familiar with the Tale of Genji.  Many events of the novel are eerie echoings or reversals of occurrences in its classic source; furthermore, Mieko's own interpretation of the Heian classic both reveals an affair she had with a younger man and explains Enchi's themes of resentment, manipulation, and revenge.

    An older woman's illicit relationships with younger men are also taken up in "Blind Man's Buff" (1962; trans. Beth Cary, in The Mother of Dreams and Other Short Stories: Portrayals of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction, ed. Makoto Ueda; Kodansha, 1986), a disturbing account of a middle-aged former geisha's delayed response to the mountain-top suicide of a young artist with whom she had been in love.

    Another example of past suffering taking on poignant new meaning is provided by the blistering conclusion of the other Enchi novel available in English, The Waiting Years (1957; trans. John Bester; Kodansha, 1971).  Tomo, the long-suffering heroine, puts up with years of callous mistreatment by her powerful politician husband.  The story opens with her on a mission to find a concubine for him; as time goes by, she is forced to care for a series of women whom he brings into the house for his own purposes, including even their own daughter-in-law.  Enchi's vivid scenes of domestic life in this disturbing setting subtly depict the inner lives of several of those involved, especially Tomo herself and Suga, the oldest concubine.  It is not until the very end of the novel that Tomo allows herself to protest her husband's behavior, and even then it is by a means so implicit that it is likely to leave the reader with a desolate sense of futility.

    "The Flower-Eating Crone" (translated by Lucy North and included in the excellent Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, ed. Theodore W. Goossen, 1997) is a less depressing look back at an aging woman's past.  This whimsical story tells how an encounter with a nearly blind, blossom-gobbling old woman leads the narrator to re-experience an affair-that-never-was.

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Inoue Yasushi

    Thousands of precious manuscripts found in desert caves 900 years after they were hidden; necklaces, cups and other burial goods unearthed and puzzled over by scholars and thieves; vanished cities in the dusty reaches of the Silk Road; Japanese monks wandering Tang China in search of a priest willing to make the perilous ocean crossing to bring Buddhism to their land.  These are some of the topics that preoccupied Inoue Yasushi, an acclaimed modern Japanese novelist whose varied and prolific output was dominated by elegant and haunting works of historical fiction.

    Inoue was born in 1907 in Hokkaido, but because his father was an army doctor who moved from post to post, he was raised from the age of six by his grandmother in a village on the Izu peninsula.  After failed attempts to follow his father's footsteps into medicine and to study law, he enrolled in Kyoto University, eventually earning a degree in aesthetics at the unusually advanced age of 29.  In addition to judo, he displayed a youthful interest in poetry; while still a student he published poems, fiction, and plays in literary magazines, and even worked as a movie screenwriter for a while.  Although he continued to write poetry, after graduating from college he found work as a newspaper correspondent for the Osaka edition of the Mainichi.

    In 1948 Inoue won the Akutagawa prize, a prestigious award for emerging novelists, and his career as an author took off.  Although many of his stories and novels had contemporary settings, his best known and most successful works were historical, and often set in China or along the Silk Road.  His interest in these and other foreign locations led him abroad repeatedly, while his penchant for detail spurred him to research his novels so thoroughly that many can be relied on as sources of historical information.  Inoue was awarded the Cultural Medal in 1971; he continued to write until shortly before his death twenty years later, at the age of 83.

    Although he is best known for his fiction, he also published volumes of poetry, essays, travel writing (an account of a trip through Central Asia is available as Journey Beyond Samarkand, trans. Furuta Gyo and Gordon Sager, Kodansha 1971), and memoirs.  This last category is well represented by two English-language editions, both translated by Jean Oda Moy.  Shirobamba (Weatherhill, 1993) is a charming and vividly written description of Inoue's rural childhood, while Chronicle of My Mother (Kodansha, 1982) is a restrained but deeply moving account of the mental decline and death of his mother.  The autobiographical impulse that produced these works is also apparent in some of his fiction: all three of the stories included in The Izu Dancer and Other Stories (trans. Leon Picon; Tuttle, 1974) employ settings or experiences from the author's own life.  The most interesting of these, "The Counterfeiter," describes a reporter's attempt to reconstruct the past of a man who combined art-forgery with firework production.

    Perhaps the best place to start reading Inoue in English is Lou-Lan, a collection of beautifully translated short stories available from Kodansha (1979; trans. James T. Araki and Edward Seidensticker).  "The Rhododendrons" is a bleak tour-de-force of unreliable narration which turns on a central irony: the protagonist is an expert in the anatomy of the circulatory system whose selfish obsession with his work estranges him from his blood relations.  "The Opaline Cup" combines another retrospective narrator with a moving meditation on the powerful aura of ancient artifacts, and the marvelous "Passage to Fudaraku" is a chilling account of quasi-voluntary one-way trips to sea in medieval Japan.  Characteristically, three historical narratives of China and Central Asia end with brief descriptions of modern archaeology or geography; Inoue's fictions of the past are rooted in the present, in the modern experience of wonder at and curiosity about ancient times.

    He also wrote several full-length historical novels with Chinese settings.  Confucius (trans. Roger K. Thomas; Peter Owen Publishers, 1992) is a vividly imagined depiction of the legendary sage, narrated by one of his followers.  Similar scenes of a spiritual master and his disciples can be found in Roof Tile of Tempyo (trans. James T. Araki; University of Tokyo, 1982), an account of 8th century Japanese monks who succeed in escorting a famous Buddhist priest back to Japan after decades in China and several failed ocean-crossings.  A less peaceful encounter between Japan and its neighbors is described by Wind and Waves (trans. James T. Araki; University of Hawaii, 1989) a novel devoted to the frequently ignored experiences of Koreans during the attempted invasion of Japan by the Mongols in the 13th century.

    Currently, the most readily available English translation of a historical novel is Tun-Huang (trans. Jean Oda Moy; Kodansha, 1978), which stems from one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century: a massive cache of thousands of Buddhist sutras and other manuscripts found in caves in northwestern China.  Inoue's novel provides an imaginative answer to the central mystery of these precious artifacts: why, and by whom, they were hidden over 900 years ago.  It follows the exploits of Hsing-te, a former scholar who finds himself caught up in warfare raging on the frontier of the Chinese empire; the reader is exposed to a great deal of information about western peoples like the Hsi-hsia and the Uighurs.  This attention to detail can be off-putting, especially in a work with such an unfamiliar setting, but the narrative drive of this well-constructed fiction compensates for the occasional disorientation caused by unfamiliar proper names.  The motivations and emotions of the characters are briskly sketched when they are explained at all, but this is because the focus of the novel is the overall drama of the period rather than the lives of individuals; in its depiction of jewel-laden caravans, desert battles, and burning oasis cities, Tun-Huang is a novel of adventure on a massive scale -- surprisingly so, given that it sets out to explain how a bunch of documents found their way into a cave.

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Endo Shusaku

    A once-ambitious missionary priest, broken by the threat of torture and the taunts of an apostate, agrees to tread on an image of Christ, thereby symbolizing his renunciation of the faith he came to Japan to proselytize.  This searing scene lies at the center of Endo Shusaku's 1966 novel "Silence" (trans. William Johnston; Parkwest, 1980), a work which unforgettably combines historical detail with a searching meditation on the nature of faith and the awesome and terrifying silence of God.

    The rich history of Japan's "Christian Century," which lasted from the 1549 arrival of the missionary Francis Xavier through the prohibition of the faith and persecution of its believers during the first half of the 17th century, is a topic to which Endo returned repeatedly, in many short stories and in novels like "The Samurai" (trans. Van C. Gessel; Kodansha, 1996).  This long work is based on the true story of a Japanese embassy that traveled to Europe via Mexico, meeting with Pope Paul V in 1615; a gripping account of travel and intrigue, it is also an investigation of despair, defeat, and redemption, themes which animate most of Endo's abundant and varied fiction.

    In addition to their vivid excellence in their own right, his short stories are fascinating for the ways they work through themes, scenes, and characters that appear in his longer fictions.  Two marvelous short story collections, both translated by the able and prolific Van C. Gessel and published by New Directions, provide the best entry into Endo's work.  "Stained Glass Elegies" (1990) contains eleven works written in the 60's and 70's.  Several of them treat the historical themes of Christian suffering and persecution seen in longer works like "Silence," but there are also stories with more contemporary settings.  "Despicable Bastard," the grim wartime tale of a self-hating student's trip to a leper hospital, ends with a surprising flash of compassion.  "A Forty-Year-Old Man" is the story of a man undergoing surgery and his affection for a doomed pet bird.  "Incredible Voyage" showcases Endo's sometimes coarse sense of humor: a parody of the film "Fantastic Voyage," it contains the immortal line, "What a strange sensation to find himself inside the intestines of a woman he thought incomparably beautiful."  The other collection, "The Final Martyrs" (1994) is a companion volume of material written between 1959 and 1985: it includes wonderful autobiographical accounts of Endo's childhood and time abroad as well as stories like "A Fifty-Year-Old Man," the affecting tale of an aging man and his ailing dog, and "The Box," which describes a writer's quest to unravel the meaning of some old postcards found in a Bible in an antique store.

    Endo Shusaku was born in Tokyo in 1923.  At eleven, shortly after his parents were divorced, a Catholic aunt convinced him to be baptized, an event which deeply affected his personal and artistic development.  He studied French literature at Keio University, and escaped military service due to the lung disease that plagued him for much of his life; bleak images of hospital wards and of home-front suffering are recurring elements in his work.  In 1950 he was part of the first group of Japanese students to study abroad after the war.  At the University of Lyon, he continued his studies of French Christian writers for several years, but he became increasingly oppressed by what he described as the question of what it meant to be a Christian when that religion was foreign to ones culture.  That sojourn and another European trip a decade later found fictional form in the novel "Foreign Studies" (trans. Mark Williams; Peter Owen, Ltd., 1989).

    After returning from France in 1953, Endo began publishing fiction, quickly winning critical and popular acclaim.  Among the earlier works available in English are "Volcano" (trans. Richard Schuchert; Peter Owen Ltd., 1959), the story of a retired volcanologist and apostate French priest who meet in the shadow of an ominously smoking volcano; the amusing "Wonderful Fool" (trans. Francis Mathy; Peter Owen Ltd., 1995), which tells of a hapless, saintly French tourist caught up in a Tokyo of rogues and gangsters; and one of Endo's best novels, the 1958 "The Sea and Poison" (trans. Michael Gallagher; New Directions, 1992).  This quietly terrifying work is based on actual incidents of human vivisection performed on American prisoners in Japan shortly before the end of the war; its compassionate portrayal of the squalid lives of doctors and nurses makes their participation in atrocities understandable without in any way excusing it.

    Endo returned to Europe in 1959, but his trip was cut short by the onset of acute tuberculosis; he spent years battling this life-threatening illness, which culminated in the surgical removal of one of his lungs.  His works written after this experience of suffering and recovery are marked by a new depth of characterization and a restrained optimism.  The famous novels of 17th century martyrdom are among them, but these later works also include a series of popular, often funny novels.  These include "When I Whistle" (trans. Van C. Gessel; Taplinger, 1980), which combines reminiscences of life in the 30's and 40's with a satirical look at postwar Japan through its hospitals, and "The Girl I Left Behind" (trans. Mark Williams; New Directions, 1995), which contrasts the simple goodness of an unattractive young woman with the reprehensible behavior of a student who seduces and then abandons her.

    Endo's later novels are represented by "Scandal" (trans. Van C. Gessel; Vintage, 1989), a cleverly constructed account of a famous Christian writer on the trail of a mysterious double whose sleazy habits have begun to attract media attention, and "Deep River" (trans. Van C. Gessel; New Directions, 1995), the story of five Japanese travelers seeking spiritual redemption on the banks of the Ganges.  Well known for frequent media appearances and prolific journalism as well as popular works of fiction, and having received almost every major Japanese literary award, Endo Shusaku died in 1996 at the age of 73.

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Abe Kobo

    As meditations on the absurdity and alienation of modern life, the writings of Abe Kobo are frequently compared to the work of authors like Kafka and Beckett.  In novels like "The Face of Another" (trans. E. Dale Saunders; Kodansha, 1992), about a man whose attempt to mask his badly scarred face has unexpected consequences, and "The Ruined Map" (trans. E. Dale Saunders; Kodansha, 1993), the eerie story of a detective whose pursuit of a missing man leads to the dissolution of his self, Abe treats loneliness and the loss of identity with a dreamlike internal consistency that is both terrifying and strangely reassuring.

    Though they are often very funny, his novels and stories are also bleak and sparely written.  The detachment which is fundamental to this style is not a pose; unlike Murakami Haruki, a popular contemporary author deeply influenced by him, Abe's deadpan is never cute.  Philosophical depth underlies the coldness with which he treats his characters and the ease with which he transforms their bodies and identities: in his work, objects begin talking, move on their own, and even plot against humans; people, on the other hand, are liable to change into plants, articles of clothing, or even walls.

    The twelve elegantly translated short stories in "Beyond the Curve" (trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter; Kodansha, 1993) are an excellent introduction to the beauty, mystery, and humor of Abe's work.  An excerpt from an early, award-winning novella, "The Crime of S. Karma," features the unforgettable scene of a man discovering that his business card has taken human form and begun impersonating him.  "The Life of a Poet" is a starkly (perhaps ironically?) allegorical account of the value of art, memorable for images of a jacket made of human thread and snow of crystallized dreams so cold that it freezes time.  Other stories showcase typical Abe themes like puzzling crimes (the hero of the darkly funny "An Irrelevant Death" blunders into implicating himself in the murder of a corpse he finds on his carpet), metamorphosis (in "Dendrocacalia," a man turns into a tree) and loss of identity (the title story features an severe case of amnesia).

    Abe Kobo was born in Tokyo in 1924, but he lived with his family in Manchuria until his late teens.  Following in his father's footsteps, he entered medical school in 1943, but despite his intellectual ability he had little interest in becoming a doctor.  (It is said that the only reason he passed his examinations is that he revealed he had no intention of practicing medicine.)  The surrealist literature and Marxist thought he encountered in the late 1940s were lasting influences on his writing.  Even though he was expelled from the Communist party in 1962, he maintained a critical perspective on the alienation of labor and urban life until his death in 1993.

    Although his medical training is reflected in the detailed observation and pseudo-scientific language of much of his work, he also found clinics and doctors' offices to be particularly fertile ground for caricatures of modern anomie.  "The Secret Rendezvous" (trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter; Kodansha, 1993) is a sexually charged, dystopian romp through an immense underground hospital, in which a man searching for his missing wife discovers all manner of licentious and criminal behavior.  Also featuring bizarre medical highjinks, "Kangaroo Notebook" (trans. Maryellen Mori; Vintage, 1997), Abe's last novel, follows a man with a strange disorder (its onset is the growth of radish sprouts from his legs) as he rides an animate hospital bed through encounters with, among others, a bloodthirsty nurse, demonic children, and an American karate expert named Mr. Hammer Killer.

    Abe also had a long-running interest in drama: he ran his own theater group for years, and wrote a number of widely performed plays.  Among them is the chilling and unforgettable "Friends" (trans. Donald Keene; Tuttle, 1971), a vivid, cynical dramatization of the anonymity of urban life without a trace of nostalgia for a putatively healthier alternative.  It traces the decline of a young man whose apartment is invaded by a family of eight who inexorably deprive him of everything he has, all the while proclaiming their concern for his well-being.  Other plays are available in "The Man Who Turned into a Stick" (trans. Donald Keene; University of Tokyo Press, 1975) and "Three Plays" (trans. Donald Keene; Columbia University Press, 1997).

    Among the wide-ranging interests Abe took up in his fiction were computers, genetics, and photography.  In "Inter Ice Age 4" (trans. E. Dale Saunders; Knopf, 1970) an oddly prescient meditation on artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, a scientist develops a computer that can replicate human selves and predict the future, and then finds himself involved in a murder and drawn into a secret project to engineer gilled humans capable of surviving underwater.  Illustrated with photographs taken by the multi-talented Abe himself, "The Box Man" (trans. E. Dale Saunders; North Point Press, 1995) is another gripping treatment of alienated urban life; it tells of a man who drops out of society and wanders the streets covered by a large cardboard box (outfitted with eye holes and necessary equipment, it is itself a kind of camera).

    The ending of "The Ark Sakura" (trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter; Knopf, 1988) describes the defeat of its hero, a huge misfit seeking to avoid the apocalypse in an underground hideout, but its elegiac tone of numb resignation is as reassuring as it is depressing.  The same can be said of "The Woman in the Dunes" (trans. E. Dale Saunders; Vintage, 1991), Abe's best-known novel.  Avoiding overt surrealism, it is the story of a weekend entomologist whose chance request for lodging in a strange beach village leaves him trapped into a life of endless sand-shoveling with a young widow in a house buried in the dunes.  This profound allegory of modern work and society turns on the hero's gradual abandonment of struggle against the community which has captured him, but the intense detail of its prose keeps it from simple pessimism.

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Ariyoshi Sawako

    Returning from work one day exhausted and laden with groceries, Tachibana Akiko encounters her husband's father Shigezo wandering aimlessly on the street leading to their home.  From this ominous beginning, Ariyoshi Sawako unfolds the disturbing story of Shigezo's senile dementia and the almost unbearable burden that it places on his daughter-in-law.  Ariyoshi's celebrated novel, "The Twilight Years" (trans. Mildred Tahara; Peter Owen Publishers, 1984), describes in unflinching detail the problems faced by the aging and their families.  The novel follows Shigezo's decline relentlessly, depicting along the way the daily lives of Akiko, her husband, and their teenaged son.  Especially wrenching is its focus on the conflict between Akiko's commitment to her job at a law firm and the need to care for her increasingly dependent and unmanageable father-in-law.  Ironically, while he was healthy Shigezo was a tyrannical and cruel father-in-law; Akiko's conscientious, diligent care for him seems realistic only because of the attention paid to her pent-up anger at the situation in which she finds herself.  No less timely or disturbing than it was when it was first published, thirty years ago, this novel is both an investigation of aging in modern society and a meditation on the family itself, and on relations between genders and generations.

    Ariyoshi Sawako was born in Wakayama Prefecture in 1931.  From her sixth to her tenth year, she lived with her bank executive father and the rest of her family in Java, settling in Tokyo after returning to Japan.  During the war she was evacuated to Wakayama, but in 1949 she entered Tokyo Women's College, majoring in English literature.  She was extremely interested in the theater; her earliest publications, in the early '50s, were performance reviews and other theatrical writings.  Her formal debut as a writer of fiction came several years later: from 1956 on, she published a series of highly acclaimed short stories, many of them dealing with traditional Japanese performing artists.

    This interest in theater is often said to have influenced her style, which shows a vivid sense of dramatic confrontation and an ear for memorable, suggestive dialogue.  It is not surprising that many of her works have appeared in theatrical and television adaptations.  An extremely popular writer, she took on a variety of social problems in her fiction and essays; although her concern for women's issues is readily apparent in the novels that are available in English, she also wrote works dealing with pollution and the environment, racial segregation in the United States, and even missile testing.  After a series of best-sellers which amply demonstrated her ability to write about such serious themes in an accessible and engaging manner, Ariyoshi's life ended suddenly: she died in her sleep in 1984, at the age of 53.

    Her keen interest in and deep knowledge of traditional performing arts are apparent in her novel "Kabuki Dancer" (trans. James R. Brandon; Kodansha, 1994) which tells the story of Okuni, the woman who is credited with founding the dramatic dance tradition that evolved into the Kabuki theater.  Set amid the political and cultural turmoil of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, at the end of the extravagant Momoyama period and the beginning of the Edo period, it follows its heroine's single-minded dedication to her art through two decades of performing for aristocrats and commoners.  Like many of Ariyoshi's novels, this work was originally serialized in a magazine over a three year period; perhaps for that reason, it can sometimes seem repetitive and uneventful, but readers with an interest in Kabuki traditions or the tumultuous, event-filled period in which the novel is set are likely to enjoy it nonetheless.

    Among the Ariyoshi short stories that are available in English, "The Tomoshibi" (trans. Keiko Nakamura) is the easiest to find: it is included in "The Mother of Dreams and Other Short Stories: Portraits of Women in Modern Japanese Fiction," edited by Makoto Ueda (Kodansha, 1986).  This brief, quiet work focuses on the lives of several women who work in a bar in the Ginza district of Tokyo, but it has none of the lurid detail which one might expect of such a setting; rather, it focuses with fairy-tale sweetness on the concern shown by the bar's owner for her employees.

    Relations among women are also a central theme in "The River Ki" (trans. Mildred Tahara; Kodansha, 1980), a novel that follows four generations in an illustrious provincial clan.  The story begins with its heroine Hana, the daughter of a wealthy Wakayama family, saying farewell to the grandmother who raised her before traveling, in an elaborate boat-borne bridal procession, to her down-river wedding.  Against the dramatic backdrop of modern Japan from the end of the 19th century to the 1950s, the story depicts Hana's relations with her new husband's family, the birth and growth to adulthood of her five children, and her rise to prominence as the power behind her politician husband.  Although it portrays the post-war dissolution of her family's traditional prestige, the novel's primary focus is on Hana's relationships with her grandmother, her rebellious and difficult daughter Fumio, and her beloved granddaughter Hanako.

    A Wakayama setting and relations between generations are also features of the marvelous "The Doctor's Wife" (trans. Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant; Kodansha, 1978), a historical novel that vividly depicts the bitter conflict between the wife and mother of Hanaoka Seishu (1760-1835), a surgeon who performed the world's first surgery under general anesthesia in 1805.  In a house filled with cats and dogs awaiting or recovering from vivisection, the heroine and her mother-in-law struggle for dominance; the climax of the story comes as they compete to be the first human subject of the pioneering doctor's experiments.  The ample, historically accurate details of traditional medicine are fascinating, but the novel's greatest strength is its keen awareness of how it is after all the great doctor who benefits from this rivalry between the women in his life.

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Page created 24 November 2001; revised 5 February 2009