Tag Archives: Japan

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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Manazuru (2006) – KAWAKAMI Hiromi

原文名:真鶴
作家:川上 弘美
発行年:平成18(2006年)

The Japanese Literature Publishing Project is a Japanese Government program dedicated to promoting Japanese literature in translation. A noble goal, to be sure, but if this novel is anything to go by, they might want to rethink the texts they’re putting on their recommendation lists.

Unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband went missing thirteen years ago, Kei is drawn to the seaside town of Manazuru, where she hopes to find answers. In doing so, though, she comes dangerously close to losing those that are most important to her.

Kawakami taps into that very modern strain of Japanese literature made so popular world-wide thanks to He Who Shall Not Be Named, a genre in which bizarre things happen to people, leaving them isolated and alone in modern Japan. It is not a sub-genre that I can particularly get behind, so the quasi-fantasy setting, along with a very weak ending, did nothing for me.

The most intriguing parts come from the discussions between Kei and Seiji, in which he beates her for not being able to let go of her missing husband. Of course, this is probably wildly unfair, particularly when Seiji himself is still married with children—not exactly a model of commitment. Seiji is, annoyingly, correct though—Rei is living half a life, unable to come to terms with the fact that her husband has been missing for so long. In many ways, it would be better if he had been found dead—at least, then, she could find some kind of closure.

Kawakami, though, refuses to give her character (or her readers) any closure. About halfway through, there’s a slight hint that, actually Kei already knows what has happened to her husband, but is subconsciously choosing to repress the memory. Which is fine, but after about three pages, it’s never mentioned again.

Combined with this inability to move on is the very real fact that her daughter, Momo, is growing up and very much moving on with her life, as only teenagers can. Rei finds herself increasingly unable to understand her daughter’s actions. It is perhaps this isolation that drives her to the seaside town of Manazuru, sent by a gut feeling and, as it turns out, a mysterious spirit woman who seems to be able to communicate from beyond the grave.

I have no problem with fantasy, or even magical realism—and I get why Kawakami is using it here—but that doesn’t preclude it from being mind-numbingly dull here. There’s enough material here (from Kei’s meditations on family and motherhood, to the increasing isolation between mother and daughter—over two generations) to not have to rely on these cheap parlour tricks. Instead, though, we have another novel written in the wake of He Who Must Not Be Named that thinks his style is the only way to write a contemporary Japanese novel. Which is just plain wrong.

Just one final fun fact before I end this. I looked up Manazuru to see if it was a real place—it is. But in my research, I also discovered that another author, Shiga Naoya (志賀直哉) wrote a short story in 1920 also called Manazuru, about a young boy who falls in love with an older woman. I can’t find a lot of information on it, other than a few blog posts, but if anyone knows more about it—and the relationship to this novel—I’d be super interested to hear.

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The Goddess Chronicle (2008) – KIRINO Natsuo

原文名:女神記
作家:桐野 夏生
発行年:平成20(2008年)

Many creation myths rely on a man. Those that don’t—like the one laid down in the Kojiki—requires the woman to know her place: subservient to the man. Indeed, in the text of the Japanese creation myth itself, the woman is punished for speaking out of turn. She literally is not allowed to have thoughts or ideas before the man does. Needless to say, this has informed a great deal of contemporary Japanese society. In The Goddess Chronicle, Natsuo Kirino interrogates this tale: what’s in it for the woman?

On a tiny teardrop island in the middle of the ocean two sisters are born. The older, Kamikuu, is destined for great things, while the younger, Namima, must live her life according to a strict set of rules laid down for women. But when one terrible event splits the two sisters forever, Namima finds herself in a place quite unlike anything she has ever known.

Nanima’s discovery that her older sister is the embodiment of purity, coincides with her realising that she is destined to be the representation of impurity. Without any action from her, society has forced her into a role she has no desire to play. From a young age, she is reminded that she is impure and dirty—an ugly woman with no place in polite society. Though, at first, she accepts her lot, as she grows older, she begins to rebel. In a neat flip of the Christian creation myth, it is a man—actually, a boy—who encourages her to rebel, to eat the forbidden food, and to reject her societal rules. Quickly, the two fall in love.

When Namima is (inevitably, perhaps) killed by her husband for his own selfish purposes, she is transported to the underworld, where she finds herself in the company of Izanami, the original female god who, with her husband, Izanaki, created the world. Izanami is filled with bitterness and rage at the world of men. For Izanami, this rage comes from being treated so poorly by both her husband and the creation god itself. Killed for speaking out of turn, she must now tend to the underworld as the goddess of death. Meanwhile, her husband is allowed to continue to wander the earth, sleeping with women and populating the world. Understandably, pain and anger infuse every single one of her actions.

By placing these two women next to each other, Kirino invites us to consider the pain women face at the hands of men. For Nanima, the pain is physical—her man saw her only as a biological tool, a vessel for his child to continue the family line. For Izanami, her crime was thinking outside the box. Both of their lives have been ruined by gender constructs beyond their control, by a world that sees women having a specific purpose and place. Any deviation from that line will quite literally result in a hell beyond anything on this earth.

This is a novel about violence against women, both physical and psychological. Kirino reminds us that, though this may be a myth, it is a myth that has shaped so much of what we believe today. It is a message to anyone who is listening: women have, since the beginning of creation, had to carry a burden far beyond what should be allowed, and perhaps this should be examined more closely by those in power.

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Floating Clouds (1951) – HAYASHI Fumiko

原文名: 浮曇
筆者: 林 芙美子
発行年: 昭和26 (1951年)

It’s hard to overestimate just how much of an impact the war—and perhaps more importantly, the defeat—had on Japan, and its national psyche. Obviously Japan had a huge impact on, well, most of Asia, really, but the defeat really sent Japan questioning. And in the past 60 years, some of the best art to come out of Japan has dealt with the way in which the war has shaped and created modern Japan. Floating Clouds is one such piece.

No more obvious in Floating Clouds is this than in the character of Kano, all full of verve and boisterous self-righteousness in Dalat, reduced to a consumptive wreck on his return to Japan. The defeat has meant he has literally fallen ill.

In other places, too, though the effects are not quite so stark, they are there. For Fumiko and Tomioka, their attempts to reassimilate into the lives they led before the war are almost comically futile. For Tomioka, though, this manifests itself in an inability to be faithful to his wife, and then, an inability to be faithful to the women with whom he is conducting affairs. Seriously, he sleeps with at least four women in the course of the novel, all the while purporting to be married to a poor woman who lives hundreds of miles away. He’s a terrible person.

Fumiko, too, must learn to live in a world where her skills are no longer required. Haunted by the uncle who sexually abused her as a child, she longs for her time in Dalat, where she and Tomioka began their relationship. There, free of the burden of ‘proper’ society, they were able to be together with no particular issue. Now, though, with Tomioka trying to put up a front with his wife, she finds herself listless and directionless, resorting to selling stolen goods from her family home to get by.

It is apt, then, that, in the end, the two of them escape to Yakushima, an island so far removed from Tokyo (that is, the symbol of contemporary Japan) that it is almost not actually in Japan (indeed, in 1951, it was the end of the line). They must remove themselves from the trappings of Japanese society in order to try and rebuild a new life, but even then, it is too late. Fumiko has fallen ill, and the uneasy feeling of death that has been following her might finally catch up.

As the two main characters find themselves isolated and disoriented in this brave new world, so too does the reader. Hayashi’s chapters are short and sharp—most are only three or four pages. And yet, the chapters do not represent discrece scenes in the novel—some time jumps take place in the middle of chapters, and many are barely signposted at all. Though told in a linear fashion, these jumps make it hard to get a grip on the characters, leaving you, as they are, trying to find an identity to cling to.

From all of this, it might sound like Floating Clouds is a bleak novel. That would be an apt description. It is almost suffocatingly so. At no stage does the overwhelming sense of defeat and resignation let up. From the rundown shacks and inns in which Tomioka and Fumiko rendezvous, to the depressingly clockwork-like nature of their relationship—she comes to him, he tries to reject her, they sleep together, then don’t see each other for some time—Hayashi does not portray post-war Japan as a place of hope and glory. Tomioka and Fumiko’s struggle to reassert themselves in this world is symptomatic of a country on its knees, a society that no longer knows where it is going. Floating Clouds is a novel that gets inside you.

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Silence Once Begun (2014) – Jesse BALL

I think we all know that I’m a sucker for any book about Japan/set in Japan/written by Japan. And since early reviews for Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun were positive, I thought I’d check it out for myself.

Jesse Ball, an investigative journalist, has come to Japan to solve a mystery. He has heard a story, and he wants to solve it. In the 70s, a man named Oda Sotatsu turned himself into the police, confessing to a crime. What is interesting, though, is that he only did this because he lost a card game. And once he confessed, he remained silent until he was executed. As Ball trawls through the evidence presented to him 40 years later, he finds himself trapped in a web of deceit and lies.

Silence Once Begun is dedicated to K. Abe and S. Endo, and it’s easy to see why. Both Abe and Endo are major Japanese writers, dealing with themes of existential isolation in a post-war Japan, and though that’s not quite what’s going on here, you can delineate the through-line that led Ball to this place. Particularly in the first half, there is a vague sense of unease and oppression—even though the events of the crime took place almost thirty years earlier, none of the affected parties are willing to talk to Ball about it, and when they do, they all seem to contradict each other. Nowhere more has the spawn of the marriage of crime fiction and postmodernism—the unreliable narrator—been more present. And yet, when the key player in the events surrounding the Narito Disappearances himself is dead, perhaps that is all that can be done.

When I read The Cuckoo’s Calling earlier this year, I was struck by how formulaic the formal structure—Strike goes to each person, interviews them, takes notes, and thinks. Perhaps this is simply a result of the genre, but while Rowling seems constrained by this, Ball gets around it by actively drawing our attention to the (un)natural structure of his piece—though this is a novel, it is masquerading as a piece of true crime, so it would make sense for it to look like this.

There’s a weird tension in this novel that I am still trying to wrap my head around. So often in Silence Once Begun, the setting seems irrelevant to the story—despite the general Abe-esque tone of the novel, the fact that this is the story of an American journalist coming to find a story in Japan is rarely touched. Which is a shame, because the novel is set in Sakai, a dirty part of Osaka that is beautiful in its ugliness (I’m allowed to say that—I used to live there). This is particularly apt, since much of the action takes place in the 70s, a time when Japan was still moving fast towards becoming the modern behemoth it is today; and like all developing countries, it was leaving lots of people behind, a fact that opens up narrative possibilities like no other.

And yet, so much of the final act twist revolves around some very particular specificities of the Japanese legal system, including the fact that confessions carry an almost disproportionate weight in trials. It’s like Ball wants us, for long tracts, to ignore the fact that this is a white man telling a story of Asian people—until the very end. I’m struggling to think of another novel that ignores its unusual setting with such abandon for so long, only to make it important for the dénouement.

Silence Once Begun is a short, arresting read. Reading certain passages, you could easily believe this is a lost Abe novel, trying to come to terms with an increasingly isolated world in which we live, where each person’s lived experiences are seen to be as valid as every other’s.

(Unrelated to anything—the cover for this novel only reminds me that any novel about Japan is allowed to have no colours on its cover other than white, red and black.)

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After Darkness (2014) – Christine PIPER

We have a winner! After last year’s non-starter, the judges of The Australian/Vogel Literary Award deigned to award this year’s prize to Christine Piper’s first novel, After Darkness. And with the recent changes to the way the award is administered, the day after it was announced, the book was available for purchase. And as someone who has a keen interest in the history between Japan and Australia, how could I say no?

Dr Ibaraki has come to Broome to escape his life in Japan, and for the first time in a long time, he feels like he truly belongs. But the Pacific War has arrived on his doorstep, and along with other Japanese residents of the city, he is forced into an internment camp thousands of kilometres away. Meeting up with other displaced Japanese, Ibaraki is forced to finally confront his past.

The narrative itself is split into three timeframes; the first is Ibaraki’s time in Japan, explaining why he moved to Australia; the second is his time in Broome as the doctor at the Japanese hospital; while the final is shows his time in the Loveday camp. The first two strands are fairly solid, though if you are in any way familiar with the history of the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during the war, the ‘twist’ of what Ibaraki is really working on in his lab in Tokyo will come as no surprise at all. Both are there, though, to serve a greater purpose: to show us that, time and time again, Ibaraki is wilfully blind to the situation around him.

A quick glance at Piper’s website shows that her PhD project involved researching first-hand stories of Japanese interns in Australian intern camps during the Pacific War. In particular, she looked at one camp in South Australia called Loveday. It is no surprise, then, that the bulk of this novel’s heft comes from that place and time. This section perfectly encapsulates a great many things about history and identity, and it is here that Piper’s skills as a writer come to the fore.

Ibaraki, of course, has no desire to go home. His wife has left him, and he has begun to build a life in Australia that is more than anything he could have imagined. And yet his first instinct is to side with his ‘own’ people—other Japanese nationals living itinerantly in Australia. It’s an interesting decision, particularly since establishment Japanese men have burned him once before, but it is also entirely understandable. His entire life up until this point has been an Ishiguro-esque attempt to ignore everything that goes on around him. Taught to have unblinking belief in his superiors and in the Japanese way, he cannot imagine a life outside the hierarchy. And yet his time in Broome, and in the camp, has forced him to reconsider: as he says, “What else, through my misguided loyalty, had I failed to see?”

Stories like After Darkness remind us that the multicultural history of Australia did not simply begin in the 1970s with the final abolition of the White Australia policy. This country has been engaging with Asia in deep and complex ways for decades, and this novel is a small, but important, reminder of one such episode.

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Kokoro (1914) – NATSUME Sōseki

題名: こゝろ
著者: 夏目 漱石
出版年: 1914年

It’s been one hundred years since the publication of Kokoro, so it seems like as good a time as any to finally read it, and write down some thoughts about the most popular Japanese novel of all time.

It’s the summer holidays, and our narrator has gone to the seaside to escape the stifling heat of Tokyo (we’ve all been there). While there, he meets a middle-aged man he calls Sensei. The two of them form an odd friendship over their time in Kamakura, and it is continued when they both return to Tokyo. But friendship is a fragile thing, and as the two learn more about each other, past events threaten their relationship.

When our narrator meets Sensei for the first time, he is enamoured. Not in the modern sense, perhaps, but her certainly wants to get to know this older gentleman. He is about to finish university, and with his whole life in front of him, he sees Sensei as a potential mentor, as someone who can guide him to the right decisions. Reluctantly, Sensei begins to let the young man in. It quickly becomes clear, though, that there is a barrier to the their friendship, one our narrator is determined to break down, despite his ailing father moving ever closer to death.

And when our narrator is forced to choose between Sensei and his father, he makes a choice that will change Sensei’s life forever.

The second half—Sensei’s story—is the stronger of the two, and once you realise this was the first part Natsume wrote, it’s easy to see why. This is not an earth-shatteringly epic story, nor is it trying to place Japan in a modern context, as so many contemporary Japanese novelists try to do. This is a deeply human story, a story about the heart, and the completely illogical things it makes us do.

Desperate to make sure that this young man he has come to see as a friend does not make the same mistakes he did, Sensei writes him a letter. The letter is the key to understanding everything about him, and why he has wasted his life hidden away as a recluse, with only his wife to keep him company.

The story Sensei tells is a classic tale—boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, second boy arrives, second boy falls in love with girl. The two boys in question, Sensei and K, are friends, though not perhaps as close as we might imagine. Sensei feels a sense of obligation to K, who has been depressed and isolated as of late. Thinking he is doing the right thing by inviting him to live together, Sensei sets in motion a series of events that will shape the rest of his life.

This is a novel about the choices we make as young men, and the way these choices shape and influence our lives forever. We may have regrets, and we may try all we can to escape them, but as Natsume so elegantly draws, it simply cannot be done. Rather than try and escape the past, one must face it head-on.

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Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962) – TANIZAKI Jun’ichiro

題名: 瘋癲老人日記
著者: 谷崎 潤一郎
出版年: 1962年

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s place in the pantheon of modern Japanese writers. His Wikipedia (that ever reliable source) page in Japanese calls him “one of the most important writers representing modern Japanese literature”, while the list of writers he has influenced begins by listing Ranpo Edogawa, Mishima Yukio, Kono Taeko, then gives up and says “and many others”. And while Diary of a Mad Old Man is not his most famous work, as one of his last full-length works, it remains important.

Written when Tanizaki himself was 74, it’s hard not to read this as a diary for the author’s own feelings about the divide between his head’s desire to still be attractive and useful to young women, and his body’s inability to do anything other than be maintained by a mountain of drugs and experimental medical treatments. There is no question that this is an horrific situation, and is ripe for dissection by literature.

The problem, though, is that Utsugi is a pitiful character. The very fact that he is lusting after his own son’s wife is bad enough (though out of his control, so completely forgivable), but for him to then actively chase her for intimacy and sexual contact is despicable. More than anything else, his attempts to be intimate with Satsuko are unsubtle. He showers her with extravagantly expensive gifts, including a gaudy ring that she can only wear when she leaves town, that he hides from his ever-suffering wife, who seems to be all too aware of her husband’s faults.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of the entire novel is the foot fetish. Tanizaki is renowned for having a weird sex thing for feet (see also Naomi), and the intimate scenes here that contain this seem more like an intrusion on Tanizaki’s own sexual desires more than any kind of character development for Utsugi. It leaves the reader wondering if the titular mad old man is not, in fact, Tanizaki himself.

It is not until the final pages of the novel that one begins to feel any kind of sympathy for Utsugi. As his health deteriorates to the point where he can no longer keep writing in his diary, we move to notes made by his doctor about an unnamed patient. This sudden shift from the deeply personal insight of a diary to the cold medical terms contained in a doctor’s case file is jarring, and serves to highlight the gulf between a patient’s and a doctor’s perception of events.

This final point—that growing old is undignified and unedifying—is perhaps the point Tanizaki was trying to make. Yet it is hard to feel any sympathy for a creepy old dude who makes his daughter-in-law shower him naked, while also forcing her to kiss him and touch his feet. What makes it even worse is the fact that the novel feels less like a novel and more like a confession from Tanizaki himself, leading one to think as one reads whether Tanizaki himself was this creepy, or even more. It’s a big barrier to enjoying (or even appreciating) a piece of literature, and sadly, I wasn’t able to get past it.

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A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

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Confessions of a Mask (1949) – MISHIMA Yukio

I’ve been scouring my uni’s library for hard-to-find books in the last few weeks, since tomorrow, I will no longer live in the same city. I’ve been particularly interested in finding old Japanese stuff that is no longer easily available in English translation. One work in particular that has fascinated me is Mishima Yukio’s Confessions of a Mask, one of his earliest novels, and still the earliest to be found in English translation.

This is the story of Kochan, a young man growing up in war-time Japan, a background that affects everything he does. As he grows up, though, he begins to realise that he is not like the other boys at his school. He is attracted to them. As he tries to hide his secret, he is also drawn to the masculinity and power of the boys he is surrounded by, particularly as they all move toward a war-footing.

Separating the life and the work of authors is not always easy. The work of Mishima Yukio falls into the “impossible” category. So much commentary about him is not about his life and work as an author, but about his politics, his friendship with Ishihara Shintarō, and of course, his rather public suicide in 1970. An entire industry of criticism and journalism has sprung out of these, admittedly rather fertile, distractions—something that makes me wonder if people know him more for this as opposed to his literary work.

Some might find this distracting. Certainly, for many of his works, attempts to link his work with his life is a futile attempt to spice things up. But there are some works, including this one, that do provide an insight into the mind of one of the most enduring literary talents Japan has ever produced. What interests me most about Mishima’s oeuvre are the works that deal with gender and sexuality.

To say that sexuality doesn’t define someone seems faintly ridiculous. Though it may not be the defining factor of someone’s personality, the reaction to one’s sexuality from those surrounding will affect how you behave. That is, of course, the point of the title—the eponymous mask is the personality Kochan constructs to deal with mainstream society, so he can pass as a ‘normal’ person. It’s probably not a stretch to suggest, then, that Kochan is an author surrogate, a character designed to act as the author for the purposes of the work.

Confessions of a Mask reads like an autobiography. The story of a young man growing up in wartime Japan, trying to come to terms with the fact that he is sexually attracted to the same sex—it’s easy to see where Mishima got his ideas from. This is the perfect example of the shishōsetsu (私小説), or autobiographical novel, a genre that, in many ways, defines 20th century Japanese literature. Using his own experiences and feelings about his young life, the 24-year-old hijacks a form that, for so long, had been used by the Japanese equivalent of straight white men to break into the literary world. I can only imagine the reaction to a book like this in conservative post-war Japan.

While it is not explicit, it is certainly erotic. Mishima describes with such love, such lust, the form of the young boys he finds himself attracted to. He seems particularly attracted to armpits (no, I don’t get it either, but hey—that’s what fetishes are all about), going out of his way to describe this particular boy part both often and in detail.

At first, he is not attracted per se to the physicality of men, but to the idea of the noble prince, of the man who rides in at the last minute and save the damsel in distress. He finds even more fascinating the noble knight who dies in battle for the person he loves. I don’t want to call this an obsession with chivalry, because I think it mistakes what attracts Kochan to these men. It is not the fact that they are saving a woman, but the fact that they are dying in a glorious manner, that attracts Kochan to these knights. Of course, a violent and bloody sacrifice is what Mishima will eventually be known for, but even if you read his other works (including a blisteringly excellent novella called Patriotism)

Kochan, then, hates himself not just because of these confused feelings he has for his male classmates, but also because he, physically, does not look anything like them, and thinks he never will. He was a sickly child, leading to something of a stunted physical development, and he is often sick from school, his grandmother not letting him out of the house. There is a surprising amount of self-hate though this novel, not perhaps in an overtly stated manner, but in the way he constantly compares himself to the men he finds attractive, and always coming up short.

The misogyny that would come to define Mishima’s later work, including his other major gay novel, Forbidden Colours, is not as present in this early work, but his relationship with women remains problematic. Much of the latter third of the novel is taken up with his relationship with a girl—Sonoko—who he thinks he loves, only to find his sexuality getting in the way of a true relationship. Perhaps, then, he is not so different from every other gay teen in the world, trying to force something that just isn’t there in the hope of overcoming something that can often be seen as deviant or strange.

A 1000-word blog review cannot get into the depths of complexity that present themselves in Mishima’s second novel. Confessions of a Mask really is a key text – if not in understanding Japanese literature, then at the very least, understanding Mishima and the way he approaches so many things. There are three important things I would suggest need to be taken out of this novel: Mishima’s self-hatred at his own sexuality; his obsession with the male body; and his dismissal of women. Understand these, and you might close to understanding a sizeable and complex body of work.

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