Masks (1958) – ENCHI Fumiko

原文名: 女面
作家: 円地 文子
発行年: 昭和33(1958年)

Recommended to me by a colleague, this is the last of my January in Japan reviews. Any keen readers will have noted that I have managed to get through the month reviewing only female authors—this was deliberate, and I hope to do it again in the future.

Ibuki and Mikame are two men fascinated by the same women, Yasuko. Recently widowed, she is still working for her deceased husband’s mother, Mieko, in completing his academic work. But as Ibuki and Mikame are drawn to this beautiful young woman, they find themselves caught up in something much larger than themselves. And though they realise they are being manipulated, they cannot work out by whom, and if it really is all for the best.

Perhaps the best place to begin the discussion is the title. Though translated as Masks in English, the Japanese title, 女面 (on’na-men), refers to a kind of mask used in noh theatre, worn by men playing female roles (noh is so traditional, it doesn’t let women on stage, leaving men to play these roles). As with other noh masks, there are several stock on’na-men that represent certain stock characters—including those from which the three sections—ryo no onna, masugami (増髪) and fukai (深井)—come. The implication, of course, that the three female characters of the novel each align with one of these masks.

Enchi takes this idea of female masks quite literally. The two main female characters are almost impossible to read in their motivations, and as such, the title becomes a little obvious. This is a novel that suggests that women are inherently unknowable—that men are unable to understand what it is that drives women, because everything a woman does is an act, a mask they wear to hide their true motivations.

So we arrive at the end, and are still not quite sure which plan was in action the whole time, and whether or not it actually worked. Did Mieko set out to ensure her daughter died in childbirth, removing the stain from the family line? Or was Yasuko so determined to have a child, she was happy to sacrifice her late husband’s twin to get a child that shared his DNA? Perhaps we will never know.

Perhaps it’s a simply cultural misunderstanding. I have read my fair share of Japanese literature, but Genji is not one I’ve ever been brave enough to tackle. And since Masks is so heavily reliant on a fairly deep understanding of that novel, perhaps it is just beyond me. Because when I finished, there was a definite sense of deflation, of waiting for the next part of the story to begin. The women have tricked the men, hiding behind their womanly masks, but that’s about it. I’m not sure the concept of people hiding behind facades is exactly new—even Mishima was doing it in 1949.

Masks is fascinating, but ultimately frustrating. The lack of exploration of the character motivation is, of course, the point of the novel, but without an understanding of the masks that are being used to define the women, it leaves one a little cold. Maybe a reread after tackling Genji is the way to go.

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