Tales from a Mountain Cave

Tales from a Mountain Cave

Title: Tales from a Mountain Cave
Japanese Title: 新作遠野物語 (Shinsaku Tōno monogatari)
Author: Inoue Hisashi (井上 ひさし)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Year Published: 2013 (England); 1976 (Japan)
Publisher: Thames River Press
Pages: 134

In 1910, the famous ethnologist Yanagita Kunio published the Tōno monogatari, a collection of folk legends from the Tōno region of central Iwate Prefecture in northeast Japan. Although the authenticity of these records is debatable, the collection is extremely important and has influenced subsequent generations of folklorists, including the inimitable manga artist Mizuki Shigeru. In 1975, Robert A. Morse translated the work as The Legends of Tono.

Inoue Hisashi was born in Yamagata Prefecture, which is southwest of Iwate but still in the Tōhoku region. Although famous primarily as a playwright, Inoue is also known for his novels, many of which are humorous and contain elements of fantasy and science fiction. Tales from a Mountain Cave, or “The New Legends of Tono” in its Japanese title, is Inoue’s take on the Tōno monogatari, which he sets in the coastal town of Kamaishi, just east of Tōno.

If you’re not a professional historian or ethnologist, the Tōno monogatari can require quite a bit of study to fully appreciate. Robert Morse’s translation is remarkably well done, and the book is nicely published, but the work is still difficult to read for pleasure. Tales from a Mountain Cave, on the other hand, is a lot of fun.

The nine stories in Tales from a Mountain Cave are relayed to the narrator, a young man taking time off from college, by an old man named Inubuse Takichi, who lives in a small cave in the mountains behind the sanatorium where the narrator works. Initially drawn to Inubuse by the sound of his trumpet, the narrator forms a habit of spending his lunch break with the old man, who rewards him with a series of stories about his life.

In these stories, which span from the 1920s through the early postwar period, Inubuse describes his hardships, his various forms of employment, his romantic relationships, and the odd characters he’s encountered. Not all of these characters are human, and each of the tales focuses on a supernatural occurrence, many of which are the doing of the yōkai that inhabit the region. Inubuse’s recollections of these creatures are vivid and refreshingly original. To give an example from the second story, “House up the River,” this is how the narrator summarizes Inubuse’s description of river imps called kappa:

According to him, there were several thousand kappa in the Hashino River, but when in the water they were translucent, like jellyfish. In fact they couldn’t be seen with human eyes at all. Once they were out of the river they took the form of children or travelers. In the mountains they appeared as monkeys or phesants. They could change size as well as appearance – a thousand kappa could hide in the puddle of a horse’s hoof print.

Far from being remixed or modernized versions of legend fragments, each story has a clear and compelling narrative arc; and, although they’re all connected, all but the last of the stories (which ties everything together) can be read by itself. The major theme of the collection seems to be the inability of human beings and yōkai to coexist, which can be understood as representing a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between human society and the dangerous wilderness of the Tōhoku region. If you’re looking for the sort of religious messages common in medieval Japanese folktales, they’re practically nonexistent, but Tales from a Mountain Cave does offer plenty of sexuality and earthy humor.

I really enjoyed this collection. It’s colorful, charming, and highly entertaining. Even if you’re not familiar with Japanese history or folklore, you’ll still enjoy Inoue Hisashi’s outrageous stories and charming prose.

Review copy provided by Thames River Press.

Neon Pilgrim

Neon Pilgrim

Title: Neon Pilgrim
Author: Lisa Dempster
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Aduki Independent Press
Pages: 237

According to her own description of herself, Lisa Dempster was an overweight and depressed woman approaching thirty when she decided to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage route between eighty-eighty temples. I am currently an overweight and depressed woman who just turned thirty, and I have dreamed of visiting Shikoku ever since I read Kafka on the Shore as a college senior. Since I moved to the Midwest this past fall, I’ve been mostly confined to my car as the snow piles grow ever higher in the frigid air outside my windows. How lovely it would be, I keep thinking, to be able to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage. Failing that, how lovely it would be to read someone else’s account of traveling, exploring, and walking across a region known for its beautiful mountains and lush tropical beaches.

Neon Pilgrim is just such an account, but what I love about Dempster’s narration of her pilgrimage is that she is completely upfront about how difficult it is to complete the pilgrimage on foot, especially while doing nojuku, or sleeping out in the open. At the beginning of her journey, she is in almost constant pain. It’s summer, and it’s unbearably hot and humid. Her thighs are chafing, there are blisters on her feet, and her skin is breaking out in all sorts of embarrassing places. During the first two weeks of the pilgrimage, the physical strain causes her to throw up at least once a day. People that she meets along the road jovially tease her about how slow she is, and she does indeed move too slowly to have regular walking companions. When all she wants is to sit down in the air conditioning and have something to eat, she has trouble explaining what she means by “vegetarian.”

As Dempster passes through the mountains, she worries about snakes and inoshishi. As she walks along the side of roads and highways, she worries about the lack of shade and places to stop and rest. At one point, she has to deal with a (possibly good intentioned?) stalker who doesn’t understand that she doesn’t want to get in his car or go out to dinner with him. Temple offices keep strict hours, and the rudimentary lodgings they sometimes provide for pilgrims can fill up, so she worries about making good time and not getting lost as well. Although nothing truly frightening or terrible happens to her, Dempster makes it clear that walking all day every day without a guidebook, a smartphone, or any clearly defined itinerary is not as fun and spiritually liberating as one might imagine it to be. After all, sleeping under the stars isn’t as romantic as it’s cracked up to be, as illustrated by Dempster’s attempt to spend the night in a building housing a public restroom:

I turned my attention to the toilet. As promised, it was clean and new, and with lovely stones and polished wood. Two wings of toilets led off from a small undercover vestibule – ladies to the right, men to the left. The vestibule would be the best place to sleep; at least I wouldn’t actually be in the toilet. It was weird but ok. I already felt more secure here than I had back at the road station.

Putting my bag down, I went to use the facilities. Pushing the door to the cubicle open, I screamed. There was an enormous black spider on the wall! If there’s one thing I’m scared of, more than bears and snakes, even more than inoshishi, it’s spiders. Even thinking about them makes me shake. I know it’s wussy but fear is irrational like that.

The door slammed as I jumped back in fright, and the bang of the door sent the spider scurrying over it. I backed up some more. Hang on, that wasn’t the same spider. It was big and black, sure, but it was a decidedly different size. Everything suddenly came into sharp focus – like those stupid Magic Eye pictures – and I realized that the place was riddled with spiders. I counted seven of them. All big. All black. All waiting to suck my brains out of my nose while I slept.

Although Dempster doesn’t marginalize the difficulties of the pilgrimage, she doesn’t whine about them either. For the most part, Neon Pilgrim is an account of interesting experiences and unique interactions with cool people met along the way. When these experiences, interactions, and people are painful, ridiculous, or creepy, Dempster handles them with a light touch so that they become amusing to the reader. What her narration of her difficulties does is to move the story forward and make it compelling to the reader. Will she make it through the whole pilgrimage? Will she give up and go home? Is she going to be okay? How is she going to get out of whatever bizarre situation she’s currently found herself in?

Despite the author’s concerns over her state of mind and the physical hardships she experiences, her account of the Shikoku pilgrimage glitters with tiny gems of natural splendor, as in this description of her ascent to the sixtieth temple in the pilgrimage, Yokomineji:

Everything was green and mossy, glistening with moisture. It was very calm and the dark, cloudy atmosphere made me think again of the pilgrims who had gone before. It had an amazing kind of energy. There were many sets of steps, hewn into the mountain, or constructed from stone now smooth from millions of feet. The path was slippery and precarious and I picked my way up slowly and gingerly, stopping to catch my breath and gaze with amazement at the view around me.

Every now and then a little wooden bridge, strung together with rope, would cross over a mountain stream. They were the slipperiest bits of all, and yet I didn’t care that the weather was bad or the climb was an arduous three kilometers. I had fallen under the spell of the ancient mountain.

Another thing I appreciate about Neon Pilgrim is that it contains a minimum of editorializing about Japanese society. Sometimes tourists from other parts of Japan gawk and make strange comments about the gaijin, but the people who actually live along the pilgrimage route are mostly friendly and treat the author like a normal human being. The students partying on the beach and other pilgrims also treat her normally and offer her whatever food and alcohol they have at their disposal. Since Dempster can speak Japanese, the interactions she describes have nothing to do with “the Japanese character,” or any sort of related silliness, but are instead exchanges between individuals, some of whom are quite eccentric (one of my favorites is the charmingly filthy and half-blind old man who drives the author to the foot of the mountain path described in the previously quoted passage). Occasionally, however, Dempster will wander into an interesting cultural experience, such as when she arrives in Kochi right in the middle of the city’s famous Yosakoi festival:

I had, completely unwittingly, wandered into the Yosakoi matsuri, an annual dance festival that takes place during the height of summer, and a crazy one at that.

Dancers in the festival use a traditional Japanese instrument, the naruko. Known as ‘clackers’ to the rest of the world, the one function of the instrument is to make noise. Wood slaps noisily on wood, and with several thousand dancers clutching a naruko in each hand, the noise is deafening.

The teams, which can be as big as several hundred people, each have their own costumes and moves. Some teams go for traditional kimono and hairdos, others modern and funky. The dance teams weave through the long streets and shopping malls in town, dancing the whole way, each booming their own music, each clacking their naruko. It’s a riot of noise and color.

Like most Japanese festivals, for spectators the usual schedule is about six minutes of watching dancers followed by six hours of drinking. Kochi is known for its love of alcohol, and at festival time it’s fairly safe to say the whole city gets incredibly drunk.

Even if you can’t visit Shikoku in person, it’s an incredible experience to follow Dempster on her pilgrimage while sharing her defeats and triumphs. The chapters of Neon Pilgrim are short, generally around ten pages or so, which makes it easy to put down the book and pick it back up again whenever the spirit moves you. Because there’s no sort of introduction or afterword that provides a broader perspective on the author’s pilgrimage, I have no idea how she took down or edited her notes, but her narrative flows smoothly without any backtracking or inconsistencies. Although the reader can turn the process of reading Neon Pilgrim into a sort of daily practice, I personally found it difficult to stop reading the book – I always wanted to find out what lay around the next corner on the path to the next temple. The author’s good humor is infectious, and she’s a perfect companion for the journey.

Neon Pilgrim is published by Aduki Independent Press in Australia, and it’s almost impossible to get a physical copy of the book (trust me, I tried). A digital copy can be had for five USD from Smashwords, however, so it’s worth checking out. I read the mobi version of the book on my Kindle app, and it was beautifully formatted and functioned flawlessly.

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons

The Night Parade

Title: The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons
Author: Matthew Meyer
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Amazon CreateSpace
Pages: 224

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, which began its life as a Kickstarter project, collects roughly four dozen entries on various yōkai, which are accompanied by lavish full-color illustrations. Both the pictures and the text are by Matthew Meyer, an artist heavily influenced by Japanese prints. Meyer has lived in a rural town in Fukui prefecture since 2007, and, as he explains on his Kickstarter page, he has been collecting and translating local folklore for years. There are a number of other books on yōkai available for digital download (such as Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda’s fantastic Yokai Attack!), but what The Night Parade does especially well is to add regional color and variety to Japanese legends of supernatural creatures that may already be familiar to many Japanophiles.

Compiled in such a way as to resemble an illustrated bestiary, The Night Parade is divided into several sections, which include “In the Wilds,” “Out on the Town,” and “In the House.” The book includes entries on yōkai that appear frequently in popular media, such as the kappa, the kirin, the kitsune, the tanuki, and the yuki onna, as well as many lesser-known creatures, such as the bake kujira (an enormous ghostly whale), the jorōgumo (a man-eating spider), and the nuppepō (a flabby, stinky lump of flesh that lives in temple graveyards), and the nopperabō (who looks and acts like an ordinary person but has no face). Each entry contains information on the diet and appearance of these yōkai, their behavior, their interactions with human beings, and the various forms they may take, as well variations on and translations of their names.

Many of the entries are also peppered with interesting information about the historical and cultural contexts of these creatures. For example, the entry on the takanyūnō, or “tall priest,” contains a special section on why suffixes relating to Buddhism and Buddhist priests are so common in the names of yōkai. (Apparently, it’s not so much a connection to religion as it is a certain wariness regarding traveling priests, or at least strangers dressed as traveling priests.) The entry on the kerakera onna, a gigantic “cackling woman” who haunts the alleyways of red light districts and hounds men into their graves with her incessant laughter, alludes to the tendency in Japanese folklore to grant great power to long-lived things, whether they be cats (which become neko mata) or eating utensils (which become tsukumogami), and surmises that prostitutes who managed to live into middle age may well have become yōkai, an interesting conjecture that leaves the mind to wonder about what such a bit of folklore might correspond to in a less numinous context.

Meyer has published his work through Amazon’s CreateSpace program, which offers both print and digital versions of the collection. I can’t offer an opinion of the physical copy of The Night Parade, but the digital edition is beautifully formatted, and its images are of extremely high quality. Although the book is relatively kid-friendly, it includes frank (although far from explicit) references to prostitution and human sexuality. Most of the images are stylized as colorful and cute or understated and eerie, but a few (such as the illustration of the ubume, a spirit of a woman who has died during childbirth) may be too intense for younger readers. My honorary nieces and nephews have been delighted by pictures like the illustration of the onryō, a vengeful ghost who is depicted as a pale shrieking woman bleeding from her eyes, but discretion might be advised for more sensitive children.

Meyer has recently launched a successful Kickstarter project for a second collection, titled The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, so expect another excellent illustrated bestiary from him soon!

Matthew Meyer - Tanuki

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle

Title: The Goddess Chronicle
Japanese Title: 女神記 (Joshinki)
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野 夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 309

The protagonist of The Goddess Chronicle, Namima (“Woman-Amid-the-Waves”) lives on a small and richly vegetated island called Umihebi (“the island of sea snakes”). Umihebi is located somewhere in the island chain south of the kingdom of Yamato (i.e., Japan), and it is known throughout the Ryūkyū seas as a place where the gods come and go. The cape at the north end of the island is sacred and marked by a huge black boulder called “The Warning,” beyond which no one but the high priestess of the island may walk. On the eastern side of the island is the Kyoido (“Pure Well”), and on the western side is the Amiido (“Well of Darkness”), and only adult women are allowed to approach them. Between these landmarks grow plantain trees, banyan trees, pandan trees, and all manner of flowers. The water surrounding the island is filled with fish and sea snakes, which the island men take on their boats to trade with the people of other islands.

Namima’s grandmother, Mikura-sama, is Umihebi’s high priestess. She embodies the energies of light and life and protects the island from harm as she prays for prosperity. Because light and dark alternate, Mikura-sama’s daughter is dark, while Mikura-sama’s oldest granddaughter Kamikuu is light, thus entitling her to become the island’s next high priestess. If Kamikuu is light, then her sister Namima is dark; and so, if Kamikuu is to become then next high priestess of light and life, then Namima must become her dark counterpart, an outcast warden of darkness and death. While Kamikuu is fated to live at the top of a hill and be provided with generous quantities of nutrient-rich food as she prays to the gods and generates offspring from the seed of the young men on the island, Namima is fated to live in the shadow of a cliff, eating dregs and shunning the company of all save the corpses of the island’s dead, which she must watch decay in order to ensure that their souls pass on safely. Although Mikura-sama explains this to Kamikuu, the kind-hearted Kamikuu does not have the heart to tell her sister, so the teenaged Namima is outraged when she is hauled kicking and screaning down to a cave by the shore to take the place of Mikura-sama’s dark counterpart, who has vanished. Namima is immediately visited by her lover Mahito, the son of a family ostracized because of its matriarch’s inability to produce a female child, and the two escape the island on a small boat. Namima dies at sea, and that’s when the book really begins.

Namima, who dies with deep regret in her heart, is not allowed to move on to the world beyond death but instead finds herself in the underworld, a dark and formless landscape of unhappy souls presided over by Izanami, who is both a creator goddess and a goddess of death. Having died while giving birth to a fire god, Izanami found herself in the underworld. Her consort, Izanaki, came to retrieve her, but he was so appalled by the pollution and impurity of the underworld that he fled from his former lover and symbolically sealed the entrance to the underworld with a giant boulder. In her rage, Izanami vowed to end the lives of a thousand humans every day. In response, Izanaki vowed to erect a thousand birthing huts so that the human population would never decline.

Izanami, who has spent aeons under the earth, sees a kindred spirit in Namima and therefore draws Namima’s soul to her to act as an attendant and companion. The Goddess Chronicle is an account of how Namima rails against and finally settles into this role as she comes to understand and sympathize with Izanami’s suffering and the burden that the goddess has assumed. Over the course of her story, Namima returns to Umihebi as a tiger wasp and sees the religious and human drama of the island through the eyes of an outsider. Izanaki himself eventually enters the story and makes his own trip to Umihebi, so the reader sees the island from yet another perspective that further emphasizes how terrifying yet compelling its religious landscape and rituals are. The experiences both Namima and Izanaki have on Umihebi cause them to return to Izanami for closure and salvation.

In the end, however, there is no redemption for Izanami herself; there is only eternal hatred. I don’t want to give away certain plot developments; but, in light of these developments, it seems as if there would be so many other paths open to the goddess at the end of the novel. Moreover, although Namima can leave at any time, she decides to stay with Izanami, not as her friend or equal, but rather as the priestess of her pain. The novel ends with these lines, spoken by Namima:

I, who was once a priestess of the darkness, feel that serving here at Izanami’s side I am able to accomplish what I was unable to finish on earth. For, as I said earlier, Izanami is without a doubt a woman among women. The trials that she has borne are the trails all women must face. Revere the goddess! In the darkness of the underground palace, I secretly sing her praises.

I’m not sure if that’s a happy ending or not. So all women are united in a shared oppositional relationship to men? All women are united in their hatred, and in the fact that their destinies are shaped by the carelessness of men? Why do women have to harbor so much hatred? Why can’t men just be normal people instead of the shapers of the destinies of women? Why does there need to be an dualistic and antagonistic relationship between Woman and Man on such a deep mythical level?

In other mythological revisionist novels written from a feminist perspective, such as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Ursula Leguin’s Lavinia, there are layers of depth and meaning and subtle characterization added to mythological personages who were relatively flat in the original sources. In The Goddess Chronicle, the gods remain flat, and the human characters aren’t granted much depth either. The story told by the novel is fascinating, and the writing and translation are beautiful, but in the end there is almost no resolution or character development. Perhaps the point of the story isn’t to give human characteristics to nonhuman entities, however, but rather to provide the reader with an entryway into the conceptual geography of the existential questions religion and myth seek to address. In this latter purpose, The Goddess Chronicle succeeds spectacularly.

Kirino Natsuo is an extremely dark writer; and, while she never offers any feminist solutions to the problems she raises, she excels in bringing the reader’s attention to the sexism and hypocrisy that exist in mainstream narratives about women. By showing the reader the other side of the story, Kirino deftly illustrates the anger of the otherwise voiceless women who have been left out of most stories, but it is ultimately up to the reader to find hope in the situation and to figure out how to use her or his newfound anger to change the world for the better. In The Goddess Chronicle, Kirino encourages the reader to see one of the keystone tales of Japanese mythology from the perspective of darkness, and the perspective of those not showered with glory, and the perspective of those left behind. Such a perspective can be upsetting and frustrating, but it’s also an invitation to the reader to formulate her or his own interpretations, as well as her or his own ideas concerning the further adventures of these characters and their relevance to the modern world.

Yurei Attack!

Yurei Attack!

Title: Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrations: Shinkichi (Satoko Tanaka)
Page Design: Andrew Lee
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Tuttle

This is the best book ever, and I love it.

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the authors of Yokai Attack!, have come out with another fantastic field guide to the supernatural phenomena of Japan. Everything about this book, from the selection of topics to the authors’ sense of humor to the colorful and creepy style of the illustrations, is wonderful, and the physical book itself is a work of art.

Like Yokai Attack!, Yurei Attack! is divided into four-page entries on famous ghosts, ghost stories, and haunted places. Each of these entries contains not just the legends associated with the ghost in question but also its real-world historical background, its method of attack, and a short section on “how to survive” (which is always appreciated). The second page of each entry is a full-page illustration, and photographs and woodblock prints are scattered across the rest of the pages. The entire book is printed in high-contrast full color, so the images and page layout are just as entertaining as the text.

The ghosts indexed include fictional characters from literature and kabuki plays, real historical figures, and legends that have arisen from historical events. Lady Rokujō from The Tale of Genji is catalogued (that’s her on the cover), as is Oiwa from the Yotsuya Kaidan. The outcast Heian noble Sugawara no Michizane, the crucified peasant Sakura Sōgorō, and the fallen soldiers of Saigō Takamori’s counter-revolutionary group make an appearance. You’ll visit haunted hotel rooms, weeping rocks, castle ruins, tunnels and waterfalls with terrible histories, and the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara. The range of material on offer in Yurei Attack!, which includes famous ghosts and hauntings as well as lesser known spirits and folklore, is incredible, and the authors treat all of their subjects with equal thoroughness and attention. It was immensely gratifying to me personally to learn the full stories behind the vague urban legends I had heard regarding places such as the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro and the tiny shrine dedicated to Taira no Masakado in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward.

I especially enjoyed “Chapter Five: Dangerous Games,” which deals with matters such as how to curse someone and how to summon ghosts. In this chapter, the reader can learn about Kokkuri-san (which sort of like an Ouija board), all the ways in which ghosts can manifest themselves in photographs, and how real estate agents deal with “houses with histories” (wake ari bukken or jiko bukken). Speaking of haunted houses, apparently agents are legally required to inform prospective buyers if something terrible has happened on the property. If, however, the house has been occupied – for however short a time – since the incident, they don’t have to say anything. Luckily there’s a website that can be consulted to make sure that the reduced price you’re being quoted for a property isn’t due to a ghost: Oshimaland. Good to know!

The opening of the book is really cool, as is its back matter. The five-page introduction is a well-organized discussion on yūrei that highlights trends without forcing any interpretation on the reader, and it’s followed by a seven-step guide to ascertaining if the strange ghostly presence in your life is indeed a yūrei. In the back of the book is a glossary of Japanese terms, a cool (and I mean really cool) photo collage of Japanese toys based on yūrei, a short section on the ofuda charms believed to be able to drive ghosts away, and a bibliography that is actually worth reading in its entirety. There’s also a short guide to the Japanese Buddhist hells, which are all lovingly illustrated.

I can’t exaggerate the awesomeness of the illustrations in Yurei Attack!. According to her short profile, the illustrator is an “active creator” of dōjinshi, or self-published comics. Shinkichi’s pictures do indeed have a sketchy, digitally colored feel, but this is not a bad thing by any means, and her slender-framed, angular chinned human (and not so human) figures are wonderfully expressive. What Shinkichi especially excels at is portraying all of the myriad calamities that can befall the human body. Blood, rotting flesh, missing teeth, emaciation, severed limbs, bloated skin, burn wounds, disfigurations, dangling umbilical cords, scalping, biting, rage, and extreme fear – Shinkichi does it all. The illustrations are generally more fun and dynamic than they are Stephen Gammell-style nightmare fuel, but they can occasionally be genuinely creepy. Shinkichi’s depiction of the frostbitten soldiers who died in a training exercise on Mount Hakkoda in Aomori prefecture in 1902 is particularly disturbing.

I can imagine small children being really upset by Shinkichi’s illustrations, but older children (such as myself) should find them morbidly delightful. I think kids would probably go nuts this book in general. The combination of colorful and imaginative imagery is perfect for a young reader, and the book eschews any serious discussion of adult topics such as sexuality and religion. The bound volume is fairly sturdy and can withstand hard usage (it is a field guide after all), so no worries on that end.

What I especially appreciated about Yurei Attack! is that asinine overgeneralizations about Japan and Japanese people are completely absent. Nowhere in the book will the reader have to suffer through idiotic statements about how “the Japanese have always revered nature” or how “funeral practices are very important in Japan” or how “there is no differentiation between good and evil in Japan.” It’s kind of nice. If nothing else, Yurei Attack! proves that it is entirely possible to write a fun cultural study of Japan for a broad audience without relying on meaningless stereotypes.

Isora from Ugetsu Monogatari

Isora from Tales of Moonlight and Rain

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

Lost Japan

Title: Lost Japan
Japanese Title: 美しき日本の残像 (Utsukushiki Nippon no zanzō)
Author: Alex Kerr
Translator: Bodhi Fishman
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Pages: 269

If you’re thinking about reading this book because you’re interested in Japan, I am sorry to inform you that Alex Kerr doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t think you’re very smart:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, “All is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land,’ where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] Since World War II, Japan has had fifty years of uninterrupted peace, during which time the concrete of its social systems has set hard and fast. It has become a land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this. (106, 107)

A Rhodes scholar friend of Kerr’s from Australia studying China, for instance, had the opportunity to become involved in the 1989 Tienanmen [sic] Square incident. What a hero! There is nothing more exciting than politically motivated massacres. If only they had more of those in Japan, amirite? Japan is such a boring place. All they have there are earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and nonviolent political upheaval, not to mention a dynamic feminist movement that really began to gather momentum in the years following an unprecedented economic downturn. Japan is home to a conformist society, where everyone is unbearably polite, and there aren’t any youth movements to capture to attention of intellectuals who have picked on the connections between Japanese society and their own.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. Lost Japan doesn’t have end notes or a bibliography, and the book works much better as a travelogue than as a serious study of Japan. Unlike many other “foreigner in Japan” books that came out of the nineties, however, Lost Japan is still in print and still referenced and recommended within communities of English-speaking people visiting and living in Japan.

As should be apparent from the passage I quoted above, Kerr is a person with strong opinions. As Kerr himself readily admits, his opinions tend to be polarizing, but it is their controversial nature that make them so interesting and compelling. Unfortunately, these opinions also tend toward sensationalism. Kerr seems to firmly believe that Japan is hurdling along a downslope slope towards cultural disaster. In order to demonstrate what Japan is losing, Kerr offers examples of the beauty he himself has experienced. These descriptions are vivid and immersive. Kerr details natural beauty…

As anyone who has hiked through the mountain ranges of Shikoku and Kyushu will know, Japan’s mountains are a jungle of sorts. Wherever one looks, the humid, dense slopes are covered with ferns, moss and fallen leaves. Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist. (17-18)

…architectural and artistic beauty…

Even within tourist-clogged Nara Park there are places which possess […] religious appeal. Entering the Sangatsu-do Hall, next door to the Hall of the Great Buddha, you find a quiet room far removed from the flurry of people in the park. In this dim space, there towers a magnificent gilt statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon Buddha, surrounded by a mandala arrangement of statues of guardians, the Sun and the Moon, and other bodhisattvas. From the halo behind the Buddha’s head project gilded rays, gleaming in the darkness. Tourists come to Sangatsu-do talking and laughing, but they soon fall silent in the presence of Fukukensaku Kannon’s fearsome light. None of them, including myself, has the slightest idea what the significance of Fukukensaku Kannon is. It doesn’t matter – those beams of light are enough. (207)

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

Other villagers from Tsurui came one by one to look at the foreigner, and then pitched in to help with the renovation. A foreigner was rare enough, but a foreigner who was trying to repair an old thatch-roofed house was doubly bizarre. Old folk took an interest, and would come over with straw to teach me how to weave straw sandals. […] At night, Shokichu and his friends told ghost stories in the spooky light of the floor hearth. (35)

What Kerr seems to love more than describing beauty, however, is describing ugliness. There is the ugliness of Japanese cities in general…

There are innumerable detailed building codes, but the overall design of a building and its aesthetic relation to street and skyline are ignored; the result is careless, disjointed, ugly. (66)

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitudes of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere – a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one’s head. This is a site which is considered a model of urban development. (50)

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

There is hardly a single object on the Kabuki stage recognizable to young people today. When stage chanters sing of fireflies or autumn maples, such things are now almost mythical objects in this land of vast cedar plantations. (67)

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

Japan’s national problem is homogeneity. The school system teaches everyone to say and think the same thing, and the bureaucracies restrict the development of new media, such as cable TV, the information highway and even movie theaters. As a result, no matter where you go, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all the houses look the same, the clothes look the same and people’s loves center around the same humdrum activities […] The passivity, the way in which [a department store counter saleswoman]’s shut out the outside world – it was a distinctive posture which I have seen in Japan so many times. Sensory deprivation? Passive silence? Fear of the world? I wish I could find the right words for it, but Japan is becoming a nation of people like this. (223)

…even though they know better:

I do not believe that the Japanese have completely lost the delicate sensibility of the Heian era. Somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know that Japan is becoming an ugly country. (51)

Sometimes I wondered whether Kerr really believed what he was saying, which seemed to be that Japan is an ugly country full of people who are either stupid or lazy. I wondered if it was really okay to say make generalizations like that about a country with a land area of more than 350,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 127,000,000 people. I also couldn’t help wondering what sort of person sees beauty only in very a small number of specific instances while seeing ugliness everywhere else.

It wasn’t just Kerr’s diatribes against ugliness that made me raise an eyebrow. For example:

Today, many Japanese would hardly know what the word yobai means, and it was a little short of miraculous that the custom still existed when I arrived in Iya. It was the subject of many a laughing conversation, and villagers slyly asked me now and then when I was going to start on my nocturnal adventures. At the time, yobai seemed to me just another local oddity, but later I discovered that there was more to it than I had thought. In the Heian period, the loves of the aristocrats immortalized in novels such as the Tale of Genji were modeled on the yobai pattern. (37)

Yobai, or “night crawling,” is when a young man breaks into a young woman’s bedroom late at night, often after a village festival (which usually involves alcohol), and ostensibly with the consent of the young woman’s parents. What an elegant, noble custom! It’s a shame that people don’t do this anymore. Let’s laugh about it, because there is nothing funnier than surprise sex! (Also, I think Kerr might be suggesting that marriage practices among the elite in an earlier historical period were modeled on a subset of rural customs from later historical periods, but this is excusable as everyone knows that history is like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.)

Also, sometimes Kerr says things that made me wonder if the Japan he’s talking about is some kind of bizarro-Japan from an alternate dimension. For example:

Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of [my younger cousins], has an almost complete lack of dirty words. (224)

The Japanese language has an almost complete lack of dirty words only if the words used to describe feces, effluvia, human genitalia, sexual acts, gay men, gay women, women in general, and displeasure at the behavior of others aren’t considered “dirty.” Seriously, there’s a whole book about this, and this book was written before cell phones and the internet became mainstream.

The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty – often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. (231)

I guess the huge historic Chinatowns in cities like Yokohama and Kobe don’t exist?

One can scour the history of Japan, however, without finding much in the way of articulated philosophy; to put it strongly, Japan is not a country of thinkers. (113)

Not only is this not true, it’s also not a very nice thing to say.

If nothing else, Alex Kerr is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and his strong opinions certainly contribute to the entertainment value of his writing. If one can simply take what he says with a grain of salt and understand Lost Japan as a story the author is telling about Japan, then it’s easy to enjoy being swept up in his tales of adventure. Kerr has had no small number of unique experiences, and he can take his readers into worlds that they would not be able to enter without him. Bodhi Fishman’s translation is both eloquent and frank, and each of Kerr’s chapters is written so that disappointment with one aspect of Japan will be balanced out by wonder and amazement at another.

Kerr’s follow-up book to Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons, reprises many of the same themes but contains a great deal more factual information. The author’s bitter and rancorous tone is somewhat gentler in Lost Japan than it is in of Dogs and Demons, however, and the earlier book contains much less ranting on the topic of how all popular culture is worthless and offensive. In comparison, Lost Japan has aged much better than Dogs and Demons, and its balance of adulation, criticism, colorful descriptions, and strong opinions make it an enjoyable light read more than ten years after its first publication in English.

Still, the book is far from unproblematic, and the reader is encouraged to maintain an attitude as critical of Kerr as Kerr’s own attitude is critical of Japan.

I’d like to end this review with a picture that I took while waiting for the bus one morning this past April just outside of the center of town in Kyoto, which Kerr describes as one of the ugliest cities in Japan. Is it really ugly? It’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up the reader to decide for him or herself.