Rivalry

Title: Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale
Japanese: 腕くらべ (Ude kurabe)
Author: Nagai Kafū (永井 荷風)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2007 (America); 1917 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 165

Nagai Kafū is a fascinating person and an incredible writer, but, without access to the resources of a university library, it’s almost impossible to find his work in translation. Thankfully, Columbia University Press has recently released a paperback edition of Stephen Synder’s excellent translation of one of the writer’s most popular novels. Rivalry is full of rich detail and beautifully drawn characters, as well as compelling melodrama that draws the characters and setting together into a highly entertaining story.

The narrative perspective of Rivalry is split between multiple characters, but the protagonist of the story is Komayo, an aging geisha (she’s 25 years old) who married and left Tokyo to live with her husband’s family in the country. When her husband dies three years into the marriage, Komayo finds herself increasingly alienated by his family and thus returns to Tokyo, where she resumes her life as a geisha. Komayo is beautiful and highly talented in a number of traditional arts, and her goal is to secure a patron, or danna, who will buy out her contract with the house that currently employs her and help support her as she begins a career as an artist and proprietor of her own establishment in the “flower and willow world” of professional entertainers.

At the beginning of the novel, the top candidate for Komayo’s danna is a wealthy “man of affairs” named Yoshioka, who had known Komayo in his student days. Yoshioka wants to rise in the world, and he sees his patronage of the highly desirable Komayo as a means to do so. Komayo enters into a financial and sexual relationship with Yoshioka but also falls in love with Segawa, a Kabuki actor specializing in female roles. When Yoshioka learns of this relationship, his pride is so affronted that he begins to scheme at how to get back at Komayo. Meanwhile, how long can Komayo’s relationship with a fellow performer actually last?

Oh, the drama!

Rivalry is like Gossip Girl with geisha, and it is immensely entertaining to watch these beautiful people fall in and out of love and squabble with each other. The trappings of the world they occupy are just as glamorous as they are, and the reader is often given the opportunity to pass judgment on characters based on their outfits. For example, this is Komayo at the beginning of the novel:

Her hair was done in a low shimada style with an openwork, silver-covered comb and a jade hairpin. She had changed into a kimono of light crepe with a fine stripe. The effect was quite refined, but perhaps fearing that it would seem too old for her, she had added a half collar with elaborate embroidery. Her obi was made of crepe in the old-fashioned Kaga style, lined with black satin, and it was held together with a sash of light blue crepe dyed in a bold pattern. The cord word over the obi was a deep celadon green decorated in front with a large pearl. (10-11)

Obviously, such an elegant and tasteful woman should hold our sympathies. Here is Segawa at the end of the novel:

He sat casually with his legs folded to one side, as a woman would, showing a bit of the material of his underkimono, a yellow brown fabric dyed with a pattern of wheels rolling through waves that could only be a specific order from the Erien. His obi, narrow in the old style and tightly bound, was made of satin decorated with a single stripe and marked at one end with the name of the maker embroidered in red. It was most likely the work of the Hiranoya in Hama-chō. On most men, this costume would have been terribly gaudy, but for an onnagata it seemed positively inspired. (136)

What a rake! But what woman wouldn’t fall for such a handsome devil?

Komayo and her relationship with Segawa take center stage, but other characters flit in and out of the story. One of my favorite of these characters is Kikuchiyo, a geisha who is more Western than Japanese. Her sensuality isn’t expressed by her art but directly connected to her concupiscent physicality. Interestingly enough, Kikuchiyo’s ambition is to become a stage actress in the new Western-style theater productions. Also amusing are Kurayama Nansō and Yamai Kaname. Both are writers; but, while Nansō writes Edo-style novels and lives in a beautiful old Japanese house with a traditional garden, Yamai writes modern confessional novels and lives like a vagrant. The two men are friends, and their commentary and ramblings through the glitzy Asakusa neighborhood help to create critical distance from the main story while establishing the world of professional entertainers in a wider context.

It’s difficult to separate any story of geisha from discussions of sexual slavery and sexual politics. I won’t give my own opinions here, but Rivalry itself has more than enough to say concerning the paid relations between women and men, which it views from both a male and a female perspective.

For a man, the patronage of a geisha is apparently about ownership and practicality. This is how Yoshioka sees Komayo in a particularly intimate moment:

He wanted to see every detail of her expression, every inch of her body as she writhed with pleasure. He wanted to see her beg him to stop. Among all his experiences, this was the richest; among all the postures and poses he had seen in erotic prints, these were the most exotic – and he wanted to study them with his eyes wide open. (22)

This is how Yoshioka justifies his dalliance with geisha in his student days:

Rather than suppress his sexual desire only to risk shaming himself by falling under the spell of a maid or some other amateur, it was far safer to spend the money to buy a woman properly when needed. To pay for a woman and have her without undue worry to relieve his sexual tension and then pass his examinations with high marks – this was combing duty with pleasure and, he though, killing two birds with one stone. For a young man of the modern age, in whom there was no trace of the Confucian values that had shaped earlier generations, the only thing that mattered was success, reaching his goal, and he’d had neither the inclination nor the leisure to question the means that got him there. (36)

For the geisha herself, relationships with men are mostly based on practicality and careful planning, and geisha understand what they must tolerate in order to become financially self-sufficient. Here, Komayo and Hanasuke (another geisha in Komayo’s house) discuss whether Komayo should take on another steady client:

Hanasuke’s attitude was that men were fine when things were going well, but once they had a change of heart, they could be terribly cruel. This sentiment fitted nicely with Komayo’s long-standing theory that men were fickle by nature, and from that time the two women began to compare notes more frequently. Ultimately, they decided that the best plan was to put away as much as they possibly could while they still had earning power and thereby accumulate the resources that would allow them to live comfortably, perhaps running a small business of some sort, and have nothing further to do with men. (52)

Having taken on this client, a physically imposing man from Yokohama who made his fortune in the import business, Komayo must then deal with him:

The sea monster was silent, his eyes, dim with saké, passing back and forth between the enticing scene of the bed and the melancholy figure of the woman seated with her back to the lamp. Like a gourmet before an array of delicacies, he seemed unsure where to begin; but he was in no hurry, choosing instead to study the prospects carefully, determined, when the time came, to lick the carcass down to the marrow, according to some private design of his own. For her part, Komayo recoiled from those piercing eyes, and yet she knew there was no use objecting at this point. As long as she was in no real danger, no matter what happened she would quickly close her eyes and try to bring things to a conclusion as quickly as possible. (60)

Although the novel gradually shifts to the perspective of its male characters as its female characters become more embittered against each other, the author never lets his readers forget that the women who operate within the confines of the glamorous world of geisha are real human beings who are just as rational and aware of their social and economic circumstances as the men who enter into relationships with them. There is also much more variety in the female characters of Rivalry than in the novel’s male characters, and Kafū uses the attitudes and behavior of these women to subtly illustrate generation gaps and shifts cultural ideology between various understandings of “traditional” and “modern.”

Rivalry is an accessible novel that rewards multiple readings. It’s exciting and scandalous and sexy enough to read for pleasure, but it’s also intricate and detailed enough to be used in a classroom. The themes of the novel are timeless and universal, but Kafū is also able to open a window onto a different time and place with his incredible prose.

Stephen Synder’s translation of Kafū’s novel is excellent. As the above passages detailing the clothing of Komayo and Segawa demonstrate, Synder is superbly skilled at rendering even the most Japanese of descriptions and settings into natural and readable English. The one word left in italics is danna, but the translator’s six-page introduction at the beginning of the novel explains the meaning and context of this term as it relates to the pleasure districts of Tokyo during the Taishō era. Synder’s translation is an enormous improvement over the translation by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich published by Tuttle, which is currently available on the Kindle store. Even though Columbia University Press’s physical publication of Snyder’s translation is gorgeous, I wish they would release a digital edition as well.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition

Title: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Editors: J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel
Poetry Editors: Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Leith Morton, and Hiroaki Sato
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 960

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese is the most comprehensive anthology of Japanese literature since the mid-nineteenth century; but, with two enormous (and expensive) volumes, it’s a bit daunting for all but the most stalwart of readers. I was therefore excited to learn that an abridged softcover version of the text has been released. At almost a thousand pages, the anthology still isn’t for the casually interested. As it provides a much wider selection of writers and genres than every other anthology of modern and contemporary Japanese literature on the market, however, The Columbia Anthology is an invaluable resource not only for students of Japanese literature but also for anyone interested in Japan in any capacity.

The anthology is divided into six sections spanning from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end of the twentieth century. The two sections devoted to the Meiji era include work by naturalists and playwrights such as Mori Ōgai, Shimazaki Tōson, Kunikada Doppo, and Nagai Kafū, as well as essays by Natsume Sōseki, including “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan.” The anthology then proceeds into the interwar period, which includes the work of authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Edogawa Rampo, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō. The section titled “The War Years” is mercifully short but includes stories by Dazai Osamu, Ishikawa Tatsuzō, and Ōoka Shōhei.

The “Early Postwar Years: 1945-1970″ section is the longest in the anthology and reads like a hit parade of famous postwar writers such as Abe Kōbō, Enchi Fumiko, and Mishima Yukio. Many well-known postwar joryū bungaku (“women’s literature”) writers, such as Hayashi Fumiko and Kōno Taeko, are represented as well. The last section collects contemporary literature from the seventies, eighties, and nineties by both internationally famous authors such as Murakami Haruki and Ogawa Yōko and writers who are prolific and well known in Japan, such as Hoshi Shinichi and Furui Yoshikichi.

What is wonderful about this anthology is that, unlike other anthologies of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, it includes lengthy selections of Japanese poetry, both in “traditional” forms (such tanka and haiku) and in more modern forms (such as free verse). Although I am not a connoisseur of poetry in translation and thus can’t vouch for the quality of The Columbia Anthology‘s selections, I am thankful that so many works of modern and contemporary Japanese poetry have been brought together in a single volume. The majority of the original publications in which these translations appeared have long since gone out of print, so The Columbia Anthology is perhaps the best way to familiarize oneself with a rich yet underappreciated body of literature. The anthology also includes dramatic scripts by playwrights and screenwriters such as Inoue Hasashi and Kara Jūrō, texts which are also difficult to find elsewhere.

My enthusiasm for The Columbia Anthology is genuine, but some of the editors’ comments in the Preface shed light on some of the more conservative politics of literary anthologization. For example, to justify the entry of their project into a field in which many anthologies already exist, Rimer and Gessel state:

One difference between this volume and some of the earlier collections is related to the evolving view of both Japanese and foreign scholars as to what constitutes “literature.” Many of the earlier collections sought, consciously or unconsciously, to privilege the long and elegant aesthetic traditions of Japan as they were transformed and manifested anew in modern works. [...] But many other kinds of writing, ranging from detective stories to personal accounts – always valued by Japanese readers but neglected by translators in the early postwar decades – can now be sampled here.

Expanding the scope of what is considered literature through diversity in anthologization is always good, of course, but two paragraphs earlier, the editors also made this strange comment:

Whatever the level of young people’s interest in manga (comics) and video games may be, literature, as opposed to simple entertainment, often remains the best way to grapple with the problems, and ironies, of the present generation of Japan.

On reading this sentence, I somehow managed to raise an eyebrow and roll my eyes at the same time. The context of this statement was a defense of the strength of contemporary literature in the face of a weighty literary tradition, but I wonder why the editors needed to make the distinction between “literature” and “entertainment” at all. Some types of print culture (such as dramatic scripts) are literature, but others (such as the text portions of visual novels) are not? Edogawa Rampo’s grotesque short stories are literature, but Otsuichi’s horror fiction is not? Haiku are literature, but tweets are not? And – most importantly – manga is not literature? Seriously?

Despite the editors’ stated desire to expand the scope of what is considered literature, their literary politics are, as I stated earlier, quite conservative. Popular fiction by writers like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana is included in the anthology, but the work of such writers has been so resolutely canonized by scholarly articles and inclusion in course syllabi that its anthologization comes as no surprise. It’s good to have “outsider” writers like Tawada Yōko and Shima Tsuyoshi included in the anthology, but all of the volume’s stories more or less fit neatly into the category of “literary fiction.” You will not find the cerebral science fiction of Kurahashi Yumiko, or the historical revisionings of Miyabe Miyuki, or the fantastical explorations of Asian-esque mythology of Uehashi Nahoko, or the socially conscious mystery stories of Kirino Natsuo in The Columbia Anthology. You also won’t find any prewar popular fiction, such as the short stories of Yoshiya Nobuko.

This leads me to another criticism I have concerning the anthology, which is that it is remarkably dude-centric. Until the last two sections of the text (“Early Postwar Literature” and “Toward a Contemporary Literature”), there are no female writers represented (save for Yosano Akiko, who has a few poems about flowers and vaginas); not even one of Higuchi Ichiyō’s short stories is included. In the anthology’s defense, many of the women writing before and during the Pacific War, such as Enchi Fumiko and Hirabayashi Taiko, are included in the “Early Postwar” section. Unfortunately, this means that their more overtly political work has been passed over for stories that focus more on “traditional” women’s issues like female sexuality and the family. Furthermore, even though I applaud the editors for including literary essays in their anthology, it frustrates me that not a single one these essays was written by a woman, despite the fact that many female authors – including those represented in this anthology – are extraordinarily well known for their essays. What the editors has done is the equivalent of collecting the most influential essays on literature in North America and leaving out something as important and groundbreaking as Margaret Atwood’s On Being A Woman Writer.

In the end, though, I stand by my assessment of the abridged edition of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature as an essential resource to students of Japan. The volume contains many excellent stories, poems, essays, and dramatic scripts that are difficult to find elsewhere, and the editors keep their introductions of writers and literary epochs brief and to the point. As long as this text is supplemented to bridge over its gaps and omissions, I can imagine it becoming the backbone of a respectable introductory course on modern and contemporary Japanese literature, as well as a source of out-of-print translations of the work of less widely taught authors.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.