The Bamboo Sword

Title: The Bamboo Sword and Other Samurai Tales
Japanese Title: 藤沢周平短編集 (Fujisawa Shūhei tampenshū)
Author: Fujisawa Shūhei (藤沢 周平)
Translator: Gavin Frew
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 1976-1988 (Japan)
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 253

The single sentence of text on the back side of this book’s dust jacket reads: “Evocative, exciting, and tender, these charming tales open a window onto life in Japan as it was four hundred years ago.” Although I am generally wary of the unironic use of the word “charming,” I have to agree that it’s the word that best describes The Bamboo Sword. These stories are charming. They’re light-hearted and don’t take themselves too seriously. Men are masculine, women are feminine, ideals like honor and virtue hold true, and the good guys always win in the end.

If I had to guess, I might say that the target audience for these stories are oyaji, older middle-aged men who are generally considered to just about the least cool people in Japan (unless they happen to be Kitano Takeshi). Oyaji are the workhorses of the Japanese economy but never get enough respect. They enjoy the simple pleasures of life, such as drinking and enka, and all they need is a little love to help them maintain their daily struggles for the sake of their families and their country. They can come off as grumpy sons of bitches, but really they’re all good people deep inside. I say that oyaji are the target audience for The Bamboo Sword because the protagonist of each of the book’s eight stories is an Edo-period oyaji. These (mostly) samurai protagonists are down on their luck, especially since there’s not much fighting to be done in the Edo period, but they shine when given a chance to prove themselves.

The stories in The Bamboo Sword tend to alternate between domestic pieces and action pieces. A good example of one of the domestic stories is “Out of Luck,” in which an out-of-work rake named Sanjiro seduces a girl and then dumps her. The girl’s dad tracks down Sanjiro, hauls him out of the bar he frequents with his friends, and forces him to come home and marry his daughter. The father is a rice merchant, and employs Sanjiro as his apprentice. Sanjiro hates the strict training, but his new father-in-law cheerfully chases him down every time he tries to escape. In the end, Sanjiro falls in love with his wife, takes over the family business, and wonders how he could have ever enjoyed the pathetic lifestyle he used to live before his father-in-law beat some sense into him.

My favorite action story is called “The Runaway Stallion,” which is about a samurai named Tsubuki Jubei who inadvertently becomes involved in a political plot. Jubei’s old rival, who has since become a Vice Councilor, volunteers Jubei as a bodyguard for a courier delivering extremely sensitive information. Jubei and the courier are ambushed, and Jubei, who had become more interested in drinking and grumping around than training as he got older, is almost killed. Jubei realizes that he really needs to get his act together and goes back to his old fencing teacher, begging him to whip him into shape. Thus begins a training montage, over the course of which Jubei stops a runaway horse with his bare hands and learns more about the political plot that almost got him killed. It turns out that the Vice Councilor is not such a good person and wants Jubei dead for his own petty reasons. By the end of the story, though, Jubei defeats his enemy and proves himself to be a badass. The woman who is living with him as a maid singlehandedly stops an assassin and is also a badass. If there were a dog in the story, you can bet that the dog would secretly be a badass too. It’s just that kind of story.

The Bamboo Sword is very light reading. Its stories are indeed “charming.” There is some tension between classes, some tension between political ideologies and social realities, and some classic samurai-style tension between giri and ninjō, but the main conflict in the book is between the protagonists’ alcoholic tendencies and their desire to be awesome. It’s not difficult to read these characters as the fictional embodiments of wish-fulfilling fantasies on the part of an older generation of salaryman corporate warriors. In short, The Bamboo Sword is like chick lit for old dudes. Even if its system of values is a bit stodgy, it’s still a lot of fun.

Ōoku

Title: Ōoku: The Inner Chambers
Japanese Title: 大奥 (Ōoku)
Artist: Yoshinaga Fumi (よしながふみ)
Translator: Akemi Wegmüller
Publication Year: 2005-2009 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 215 (per volume)

I have been a huge fan of Fumi Yoshinaga ever since her two-volume series Gerard & Jacques (ジェラールとジャック) was released in translation by the boy’s love manga publisher Blu in 2006. Gerard & Jacques distinguishes itself from the vast body of boys’ love stories by allowing the personalities of its characters to gradually develop and by acknowledging that openly homosexual relationships have not been tolerated in most societies. Mixing homosexuality with heterosexuality, masters with servants, and sex with philosophy, Yoshinaga delivers romance and intrigue on the eve of the French Revolution. Gerard & Jacques is undeniably porn, but it is porn for adults. Antique Bakery (西洋骨董洋菓子店), one of Yoshinaga’s more recent series released in America by Digital Manga Publishing in 2005, eschews both heteronormativity and pornography in favor of character development and an engrossing and surprisingly sophisticated narrative.

Ōoku is an ongoing series that Yoshinaga first stared publishing in 2005. So far, two of the series’ five volumes have been released in America, and Viz Media has put an extraordinary deal of effort into their publication of the title, making sure that the books themselves are as elegant as their subject matter. In Yoshinaga’s historical revision, a plague has struck early seventeenth century Japan, decimating the male population but leaving women untouched. The only members of the Tokugawa ruling family to survive are female, so the position of shōgun is filled by a woman. Her ōoku, or “inner chambers,” are therefore not staffed by women but instead entirely by men. The ostensible purpose of these men is to do household chores like cooking and sewing, but a select few form the shōgun’s harem, as the production of an heir is essential for the continuation of stable rule.

The first volume follows a young man named Yunoshin, who sells himself into the ōoku so that his financially ailing family can survive. His entrance into Edo Castle coincides with the commencement of the reign of the eighth Tokugawa shōgun, Yoshimune. The relationship between Yunoshin, who continues to nurse his love for a childhood friend, and Yoshimune, a mature woman who is more concerned with government than sexual diversion, is complicated, and their story (which is one of friendship rather than of love) comes to a conclusion at the end of the volume. The affair inspires curiosity in the shōgun, however, and she begins to search through historical records to uncover the truth of the strange gender roles at work in the palace. The second volume opens at the time when the plague first struck Edo and details the ascension of the first female shōgun as orchestrated by the shrewd former head of the female ōoku, Lady Kasuga.

A gender-swapping manga like this may seem to invite a fantastic and comical tone. A veteran reader of manga, upon reading such a plot synopsis, may feel like he or she has read numerous titles like this before. I have never read anything like Ōoku, though. Were it not for Fuminaga’s signature style (which, in this particular work, seems to be greatly enhanced by her assistants), I would consider Ōoku more of a graphic novel than a manga. Although well-placed humor occasionally lightens the story, its tone is serious, and its themes are fairly dark. Although there is a bit of sex (as appropriate to the subject matter and not explicitly portrayed), the focus of Ōoku is political and interpersonal intrigue. Human drama also features prominently, and I feel that the characters’ responses to their unfortunate situations are believable and never one-sided or overly dramatic.

The artwork of the manga is lovely, with everything from robes to hairstyles to furniture detailed to an extraordinary degree. One gets the feeling that Yoshinaga (or at least her assistants) put a lot of effort into researching the time period. The translation of the dialog is initially somewhat off-putting, however. It’s a pseudo-Shakespearean mismash of thee’s and thou’s that takes some getting used to, but I was able to settle into it after a few dozen pages. Overall, this is one of the most original and thought-provoking manga that I have read recently. All My Darling Daughters (愛すべき娘たち), a single-volume series of inter-related stories just published this January, is more mainstream in its gender politics but just as engrossing to an adult reader, and I highly recommend it as well.

The Budding Tree

Title: The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo
Japanese Title: 恋忘れ草 (Koiwasuregusa)
Author: Kitahara Aiko (北原亞以子)
Translator: Ian MacDonald
Publication Year: 1993 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 170

This past fall, I took a seminar on ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints depicting the “floating world” of the Edo period (1600-1868) urban pleasure districts. As we studied the courtesan prints of artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, we kept running up against the same issue: prostitution. Namely, what were the lives of the women painted by Utamaro really like? Were these women as glamorous as they seem in ukiyo-e, or were they sex slaves who lived miserable lives and died at an early age of starvation and disease? Or did they perhaps fall somewhere in between the two extremes, victims of their fates but still holding on to a measure of personal agency and control over their lives? As our class debated this issue, I couldn’t help but think about The Budding Tree.

Kitahara’s short story collection The Budding Tree is not about courtesans, but it is about Edo-period women who have close connections to the floating world. Each of the six stories in this collection has a different female protagonist: a Confucian tutor, a calligrapher who pens text that will be printed as gesaku popular novels, a singer of jōruri popular stage ballads, a hairpin designer who manages her own store, a rising print artist who works with Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s publisher, and the manager of an exclusive restaurant. Although the women don’t know each other directly, their stories are connected in small ways, and a unity of theme ties these stories together into a cohesive whole. Each of these women is struggling to make it in a man’s world, and each therefore leads a somewhat complicated love life.

I’m not an expert on the Edo period, so I’m not sure how realistic Kitahara’s depiction of her setting (Edo at the turn of the nineteenth century) actually is. From what I know of the lives of Hokusai’s daughters (especially Katsushika Ōi), however, her depiction of urban working women at the time isn’t too far off. As historical fiction, the stories in The Budding Tree are interesting and satisfying, especially since the swashbuckling samurai that one usually encounters in Japanese historical fiction are kept offstage. It is my (perhaps futile) hope that Ian MacDonald’s excellent translation will find a wide audience, so that other Japanese female-centric historical fiction, such as the Edo-period female detective stories of Miyabe Miyuki, will find their way into American bookstores.

I therefore recommend The Budding Tree to anyone with an interest in the Edo period, historical fiction, women’s literature, or just plain good romantic stories. The one caveat I might offer concerns the translation’s complete absence of footnotes. There are more than a few non-translated and non-glossed terms (such as jōruri, i.e., the songs of the puppet theater) that appear with frequency throughout the text, as well the names of actual historical figures and geographical landmarks with which a casual reader might not be familiar. Hopefully, however, the stories themselves will whet the reader’s appetite to learn more about the world of early nineteenth century Edo.