Six Japanese Novelists



Most of the novels, in all languages, dealing with the Second World War have followed in the footsteps of Ford Madox Ford and e.e. cummings rather than Barbusse, Rolland or Hemingway. They have dealt, not with the horror and pathos of war as catastrophe and death, but with its assault on the personality, and owe their drama to the varying degrees of resistance or collapse of their characters before this onslaught. In other words, war, army life has been seen as one aspect of le monde concentrationnaire, only an extreme development of the human self-alienation characteristic of modern society generally. Contemporary military novels could be arranged in a series shading imperceptibly into those dealing with prisons and concentration camps in one direction, and totalitarianized civilian life in the other.

Hiroshi Noma, one of Japan’s leading realist writers, in Zone of Emptiness focuses his attention almost exclusively on this problem. Like The Enormous Room it has no battle scenes. It is a story of life in an army prison and in barracks in Japan, of the immense zone of emptiness, the gulf of alienation which grows and envelops a young Japanese soldier. Although we think, and no doubt justly, of the Japanese war machine as a far more obliterative mechanism than the American, it is surprising that, at the end, one feels that more has survived of Private Kitani, than, for instance, survived of Norman Mailer’s characters. Perhaps it is because Private Kitani is a simpler person, and was already conditioned to expect even worse than he got. The book might be said to have a specific message: no matter how pervasive the pressures and terrors of a totalitarian army, no matter how hopeless the doom of the personality, no matter how vast the zone of emptiness in which they are lost, men do survive as men, as long as they are alive — at least some do. Hiroshi Noma writes a clear, rapid, narrative style, with considerable sense of the dramatic, objective delineation of evolving character. This is not one of the greatest war novels ever written, but it is a moving story, and a curious picture of the naiveté and random discipline of what we thought of as an irresistible military machine.

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Anyone who read Osamu Dazai’s “Villon’s Wife” in New Directions 15 is not likely to forget it soon. Few stories give a more poignant picture of the sordid demoralization of those intellectuals of the modern world who have taken the world ill into their hearts and bowels without being able to digest it. Like most of Dazai’s writing, it has an ominous, autobiographical ring. And well it might. After a life of maximum disorder, he committed suicide in 1948. The Setting Sun is again the story of the world ill, the collapse of values, loss of inner direction and outer valid interpersonal relations, the loss of the ability to love, which is as common in mid-twentieth-century Japan as it is in Paris or New York. This time the central figure is a woman of ruined aristocratic family of the type made familiar to Western readers in the novels of Kikuo Yamato. Her life is not just meaningless. She is immobilized in a stasis of moral decay. Nothing is possible. There is only slowly growing death, slowly mounting horror, the will-less entrapment and hysteria we first came to know in Chekhov’s plays. In desperation she “abandons herself,” as they say, to a depraved and wrecked writer, called Uehara here, but the same character that appeared in “Villon’s Wife,” Dazai himself. They spend only one pitiable, disheveled night together, the eve of the day her brother, himself destroyed with drugs and despair, commits suicide. Out of that night comes a child, and the hope that, in this “first engagement,” as she calls it, the smothering evil has been pushed back a little, and that later, with the help of the child “a second and a third engagement will be possible.” “Somewhere, somehow, some kind of revolution must be taking place.” In some way this act of sentimental, hysterical defiance, and its resulting creation, must be part of it. I don’t know if this is strictly true, but it is a conclusion which touches our mercy, in spite of its sentimentality. With the exasperating eclecticism so typical of the intellectuals of contemporary non-Western cultures, Dazai echoes not only Céline, but Artzybashev. Today we have outgrown Artzybashev; we know he is sentimental. Perhaps Céline is too. A brief walk around Belleville or the Faubourg Saint-Antoine after the Second War would have convinced anyone that, bad as may be the world that met his eyes, Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night are profoundly sentimental books. Perhaps what we are witnessing all over the world is simply the inability of a commercial, acquisitive culture to provide satisfactory goals, and not really a journey beyond the end of night at all — however awful may be the tortures of the sensibilities our civilization destroys.

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Americanism, Catholicism, Marxism, Existentialism — any general cultural manifestation, take what you will, usually presents a “hard” and a “soft” aspect. This is true, certainly, of Japanese civilization. Against The Tale of Genji there is the Forty-seven Ronin. Against the Saikaku of Tales of a Voluptuous Woman there is the Saikaku of Loves of the Samurai, possibly the most sadistic fiction in all literature. In fact, it might be said that Japanese culture exhibits this dichotomy to an unusual degree. It is usually the hard expression which lasts longest and is taken most seriously in the West — “hard” and “Classic,” e.g., long-lasting and exemplary, are practically synonymous. In Japan, no. As Osamu Dazai represented hard Japanese fiction, so Yasunari Kawabata is an outstanding representative of soft. I do not think there is much doubt as to the intrinsic merits of Dazai. His comparative merits over against Kawabata are another matter. Both are equally sentimental. Just because it is shocking is no sign that emotional overemphasis has ceased to be the definition of sentimentality. Poe’s childish horrors no longer scare us, and we giggle instead of shiver. So too, Dazai’s world is not “the real Japan” and Kawabata’s “an anachronistic fake.” Both treat of a world of dissolving and unsatisfying values, both reflect the reality of mid-twentieth-century Japan in transition to the unknowable future. Dazai evokes Céline; Kawabata evokes The Tale of Genji. We feel that Dazai is more up-to-date, but he isn’t really, by very many years, because Kawabata’s Genji is Genji seen through the eyes of Mallarmé and his disciples. The lzu Dancer, Snow Country, and Thousand Cranes are a sort of ultimate provincial expression of French Symbolism brought to late, forced flower in a country which is nothing if not overly generous with evocative and provocative symbols. Also, it is a specific aspect of Japanese classical culture that almost exclusively interests Kawabata. Most of the complex symbology and “hidden meanings” in Lady Murasaki’s great novel are over the heads of Western readers. The episode which everybody likes best, and can best understand, is the chapter “Yugao,” the story of the murder of a new, beautiful and mysterious mistress of Genji’s by the demon which “took foot” — “became incarnate” from a moment of jealous rage on the part of his royal mistress, Lady Rokujo. Not, bear in mind, her ghost, or even the ghost of her hate or jealousy — the moment of hate detached itself from time and from its originator and became a ghostly person who strikes down the beautiful and beloved for three generations. “Yugao” is merely the most obvious episode in a long, subtle war of good and evil. Western readers do not need to be ashamed of their ethnocentrism. Most of the subtleties of The Tale of Genji are over the heads of the modern, nonspecialist Japanese, too. It is precisely this episode which Kawabata, deliberately or not, “modernizes” in Thousand Cranes. Also, his modernization is no more and no less satisfactory than Sartre’s or Cocteau’s — or Ernest Haycox’s — updating of Aeschylus. Like them, Kawabata settles for a lesser thing in every way — smaller, less noble, less complex, less profound — in a word (borrowed from Aristotle on tragedy), meaner.

Thousand Cranes is the story of a young, modernized Japanese, presumably a business man, unable to cope with the karma, the unsolved dilemmas and unassimilated and undisposable residues of his father’s emotional relationships with two former mistresses. The older, blighted and de-sexed by a bygone moment of scorn — and marked with a hideous birthmark on her breast, like a demon beauty in a Kabuki play — destroys the other, gentle, loving, self-sacrificing mistress, the second woman’s daughter who loves the son with a kind of hypnotic, all-consuming guilt (the daughter is, as it were, the medium through whom this spirit of destructive hate operates), as well as destroying possibly the girl “Thousand Cranes,” whom she had tried to affiance to the protagonist, and finally the son himself. Just like in Osamu Dazai, everybody commits suicide, but here the action centers around the tea ceremony, and takes place amongst the palaces and temples of Kamakura, whereas in Dazai it centers around dirty little bar rooms and verminous one-night hotels in the slums of Tokyo. It is largely a question of decor. For the important thing about Thousand Cranes is its difference from its classical model. In Kawabata’s novel the bad woman is bad and the good woman is good and the girl is guilty and hot and the youth is weak — and Kamakura and the tea cottage and gardens and the castles and temples are souvenirs of a noble past — of classical Japan. But Murasaki wasn’t a classic. She was just a Japanese court lady writing a novel about her friends and enemies. And Lady Rokujo wasn’t bad; in fact, she has a kind of glory otherwise reserved for Genji himself; she hardly figures in the novel, but she seems to be anything but ill-tempered and unforgiving. Yugao is not “good” nor is Genji “unfaithful,” although the modern Japanese movie of the novel portrays him that way. All these people are just people, not mean, but rather noble as Aristotle liked them to be, caught in life with its endlessly unraveling consequences. So it would seem that Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes raises the old question, “What makes great art great?” For it is after all, only a very touching, very engagingly written modern sentimentality. On the other hand, now, after she has been dead so many years, Lady Murasaki is a classic and will go on, providing models for other popular novelists, in that otherwise unknowable future.

If Mallarmé had ever written a novel, it might well have resembled Kawabata’s Snow Country. It is all very fainéant and aimless and precious. Shimamura is a young business man. He had been an authority on Japanese drama, the Nô and Kabuki, but it came to bore him, so he took up Western ballet. He writes articles on the ballet. He is a leading authority. But he has never seen a ballet and has no desire to see one. On the way to a weekend at a mountain village, one of those Japanese resorts with a hot spring and ski slope, he sees a girl on the train. He does not look at her, but watches her face, brightly reflected over the moving, snow-bound night landscape outside the window. This is the central symbol of the book, changes are rung on its elements, night, snow, bright light, a fleeting face, and the plot such as it is revolves around them.

Shimamura has a desultory affair with a geisha, a companion of Yoko, the first girl. At long intervals he returns to the village, drawn, not by love, but by his inability to love. He never becomes intimate with Yoko and his intimacy with the geisha Komako, who loves him deeply, is empty of meaning. At last, several melancholy winters later, he decides to break off the affair and not return. On his last night Yoko is injured in a fire, from which she is rescued by Komako. Shimamura is overcome with vertigo, possibly he faints, in the night, in the dark crowd, before the blazing building, in the cold, under the Milky Way. All of the symbols converge to a climax that is melodramatic but — empty of meaning; at least Shimamura is incapable of using its meaning. In the morning he will go and not come back.

Since about 1920 it has been impossible to write a novel like this in a Western language and make it stick. If one were published it would seem as silly as those lamentable Midwestern free verse haiku once so popular with sensitive housewives. But Snow Country comes from a country where haiku were invented and are still written, though possibly not as well as once they were, and so it does really have the poignancy it strives for, and a terrible sense of the waste of love and of all bright, fleeting things that flicker out against the dark background of the winter world. It is sentimental even to say that — but the Japanese are possibly the only people who have made sentimentality bearable. In fact, they have made an art of it.

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Yukio Mishima’s The Sound of Waves has been compared to Daphnis and Chloe. It does resemble a Greek peasant or fisher’s idyll — but then, as has been pointed out so often, the typical Western thriller meets all of Aristotle’s tragic desiderata — as Euripides, for instance, does not. It is a question of what you want in an archetypical sort of story — the farewell of Launcelot and Guinevere can be made pretty trivial and still stick close to the plot. It is not just style — or at least it is style as the reverberation of hidden depth.

Yukio Mishima is an inordinately busy writer. Born in 1925, he has published eight novels, four Kabuki plays, a travel book, fifty short stories, ten one-act plays, and several volumes of essays. Well, there’s just one Daphnis and Chloe and not very many Idylls of Theocritus. I am afraid to disagree with the considered judgment of my peers. Yukio Mishima was “the guest of the State Department and the Partisan Review,” which should really pin down the opposition at both ends, but The Sound of Waves reads like a piece of routine commercial fiction to me. It does have the sound of waves of a small Japanese fishing village, a sense of the life of the men who fish and the women who (as in Utamaro’s famous prints) dive for abalones, and a sympathy for very young and simple love — all very admirable qualities which go to produce an entertaining story — on a level, I should say, slightly below much American magazine fiction.

Mishima’s Five Modern Nô Plays is more corn, but not of the same kind. It is 1921 Little Theatre corn of the “Hist! Dimitri! The saws are in the kasha!” “Ah! Feodora Feodorovna, what of your tuberculosis?” variety. It carries me back to my childhood on the stage of the Dill Pickle Club, but it may not have that effect on other people with a different past. I sometimes wonder if rewriting the great classic tragedies is ever a good idea in any language. Perhaps it really is irreverent. It is hard to get the modern adulteration out of your mind the next time you see the classic, and this is certainly a disservice. Rarely does the rewriting open up new perspectives. The French do it best of all. Yukio Mishima does it badly. He is far indeed from Cocteau or Sartre. “They face each other in silence. Weird music.” Un hunh. My understanding of the terrible, embodied hate that has taken foot and walked away from Genji’s mistress and is destroying his wife and will destroy everything he loves for generations is not in the least deepened and enriched by this sort of thing.

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Shohei Ooka’s Fires on the Plain is a shocker about a soldier lost on Leyte after the Japanese collapse. He shoots a defenseless woman. He becomes deranged with starvation. His companions trick him into cannibalism. He is captured and sent back to Japan where he ends his days in an insane asylum. Shohei Ooka (pronounced oh, oh, not as in “snooks”) is a competent writer. He knows how to get the effects he wants, convincingly and with economy. He is never cheap the way Yukio Mishima is always cheap. Still, the book, for me at least, seems to miss its final intention completely. There is a social meaning in the portrayal of a man at the ultimate extremity of inhumanity. Is there a tragic meaning? Like Aristotle long ago, I think not. Furthermore, as many have pointed out before me, horror stories about war defeat their purpose if that purpose is to make war undesirable. The great evil of modern life is tedium vitae, accidie, the awful boredom that comes with self-alienation and lack of life aim. It is precisely the horror of war that makes it attractive — at least to the imagination of the passive reader. Ford Madox Ford’s Tietjens series [Parade’s End], e.e. cummings’s The Enormous Room are the great books they are precisely because they show that underneath the blood, sweat and tears, war is simply the humdrum evil of precisely the same old civilian peacetime world enormously hypertrophied. The real cannibals are in swivel chairs, boudoirs and cocktail bars, just like always. So the war horror novel is dishonest almost in strict proportion to its horror. Fires on the Plain is one of thousands, written all over the world, a slightly better example of a bad type.

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Junichero Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters is one of the most ambitious of Japanese twentieth-century novels. Whether it is better than Kawabata’s Snow Country is a matter of taste. It is not an exercise of the sensibility, but a family epic of a type going back to Chinese novels like the Chin P’ing Mei (Golden Lotus), or Hsi Men and His Six Wives. Originally I suppose there was a moral to this type of tale — “When the future is in the hands of women, the house will fall.” The plot is still the same, but the Makioka sisters are viewed with considerably more sympathy. The blurb speaks of “a great family,” “upper class life.” But that is just the point — these are daughters, not of the upper class, but of the ambitious and pretentious higher ranks of the employee class.

Father Makioka was on his way up; the daughters were raised to be fine ladies, but he is dead and the whole novel is concerned with the struggle to hold the pathetic position already gained, of course by distinguished marriages. But the social pressure is always downwards. The girls have nothing to back them up as brides, and have to make do with what they can get. In each case the defeat is sordid, disastrous, or just dull. None moves on to become the gracious wife of a mercantile aristocrat.

The Makioka Sisters is certainly an eminently Far Eastern story, but it could also be by Balzac or Thackeray. It resembles Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. In addition, although Tanizaki may not be a better writer than Balzac, he has things the French writer lacks — the close narrative plotting, almost as dense as Dick Tracy or a soap opera, derived from the great Chinese novels, and of course the poignant imagism of a writer saturated in Japanese poetry. Perhaps the best characterization would be to call The Makioka Sisters the seamy side of Jane Austen. The story opens with the Makioka family administering vitamin B injections to each other. The last sentence of the novel drives this characterization home with a vengeance. Yukiko is the central figure, the problem sister of four problem sisters. “Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo!”



This series of reviews originally appeared in slightly different form in The Nation (29 September 1956 and 23 November 1957). It was reprinted in the present form in The Elastic Retort: Essays in Literature and Ideas (Continuum, 1973). Copyright 1973. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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