Ichikawa Kon, maybe a great director; certainly a director of some great films


Kon ICHIKAWA 4.png

Ichikawa Kon (1915-2008) made some great films in multiple genres, and many others I have not had a chance to see (even with Hulu). Inspired by early Disney movies, he started out in an animation unit. At Toho Studio he met Wada Natto, whom he married in 1948. She made major contributions to screenplays Ichikawa shot. Although she formally retired after the 1965 “Tokyo Olympiad,” I suspect she continued to provide some inputs. She also bore two children by him


(Wada and Ichikawa)

Ichikawa was noticed outside Japan for two of the most searing WWII movies ever made, “The Burmese Harp” (his 30th feature film and the earliest one I have seen) and “Fires on the Plain,” both showing desperate Japanese troops cut off from supply lines at the end of the war and programmed never to surrender. Other great early Ichikawa films are also quite dark (An Actor’s Revenge, Conflagration) though one of masterpieces is the gentle comedy “Being Two Isn’t Easy.” He also made the greatest documentary in color of an Olympic game (the 1964 Tokyo one), Tokyo Olympiad.

In addition to Mishima (Enjo/Conflagration), Ichikawa directed adaptations by Natsume (I Am a Cat, Kokoro), Tanizaki (The Key, The Makioka Sisters), and the Japanese ur-novel, Tales of Genji.

There was a 2006 documentary directed by Iwai Shunji that I have not seen, and some bonus feature interviews on Criterion releases (some also streaming on Hulu) that I have seen.

This week, I am going to discuss some Ichikawa masterpieces. I am curious about others, especially Genji and the Natsume adaptations, but have never had a chance to see them. The 2000 “Dora-heita,” the screenplay of which he wrote with three other major Japanese directors of the humanist era‑Kinoshita, Kobayashi, and Kurosawa—is the most recent film directed by Ichikawa I’ve seen, and that was in a film festival; I don’t think it had a theatrical release in North America.

Music for the Movies: Takemitsu

The 1994 installment of “Music for the Movies” about Tôru Takemitsu’s film music was made by Charlotte Zwerin (who also made the excellent “Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser” and was a codirector of “Gimme Shelter”).


In addition to some insightful remarks by Donald Richie, directors Imamura Shohei, Kobayashi Masaki, Ôshima Nagisa, Shinoda Masahiro, and Teshigahara Hiroshi each marvels at how Takemitsu’s sound enhanced their films. The film clips made the Japanese (or at least Japanese cinema) look far more morbid (in general and death-obsessed in particular) than Paul Shrader’s selections from Mishima’s life and fiction (scored by Phillip Glass).

Takemitsu (1930[-96]) said onscreen that he would have liked to score comedies, but was recurrently recruited to score movies about murder, suicide, and other dark subjects (Harakiri, Kwaidan, Woman in the Dunes, Empire of Passion, etc.) I learned that the one film in which Takemitsu did not get his own way is in Kurosawa’s last (and, I think, greatest) masterpiece, “Ran” (1986). Takemitsu speaks with some distaste of the “Mahlerian” (more specifically “Titan” symphony) soundscape Kurosawa demanded. In general, Taksmitsu maintained: “I write music by placing objects in my musical garden” and he considered his work on movies as being as much sound design as “composed” music. The documentary shows some of the exotic instruments of his sound engineering.

Takemitsu’s music often enhances errieness. He says it is “all top” (i.e., not built on a bass line, especially not employing timpani, which he despises). Olivier Messiaen has been a longtime influence and personal friend and Takemitsu famously despises music that is “stifled by formulas and calculations” and wants his music to be able to breathe rather than being strictly planned (John Cage was another influence). But for most of the hundred films he scored, he sought to “express what the director feels himself. I try to extend his feelings with my music.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Dazai’s “Almanac of Pain,” et al.

A political memoir from Dazai Osamu! I find it hard to comprehend the kind of young communist he could have been, and “Almanac of Pain” could serve as the title for his collected work. It is hard to imagine how it can be a story either, lacking plot, and other characters. It is not lacking for aphorisms, however. Nor is it lacking humor (self-deprecating humor, of course).

I thought he was challenging (in advance) Keene’s claim for him as a social historian of defeated Japan: “I am a writer of the marketplace. What I speak bout remains within the purview of the history of the one little individual called ‘me’” [and various other names!], but he turns to make a claim similar to what I think Keene meant (exemplification of the spirit of the time, not documentation of details of typical behavior or attitude): “but in later ages when the time comes to investigate our current of thought, it may be that these personal fragmentary descriptions of our [!] lives that we are always writing will be more reliable than the writings of so-called historians” (in “An almanac of pain,” [1946] Lyons tr., p. 263).

A statement of the leitmotif of strong women and a weak Dazai follows, as he notes the women in the family long outlive their husbands, and that sons-in-law had to keep marrying in (the previous three generations).


I read Blue Bamboo, with more Dazai stories, mostly reworkings from the war years. Along with translator Ralph McCarthy, I wish that he had written more Irie family serial stories. I prefer Dazai frivolity to self-laceration. I wish that love conquered all and that we all lived happily ever after.


Dazai says something that recalled Mislosz’s statement about the domesticity of European “scenery” in contrast to the inhuman scale of western North America:“Scenery is something that has been gazed at and described by people through a long passage of years, that has been, as it were, tasted by human eyes, softened and tamed by human beings.” (from Return to Tsugaru (1944), p. 331). In contrast “this seacoast at the northernmost end of Honshu was nothing at all like scenery. It totally rejected human existence” and is “simply frightening… This was the dead end of Honshu” (p. 332). This seems to be the Taiwanese conception, too. Sun-Moon Lake or the dawn above the clouds from Ali-Shan—or the Golden Gate Bridge… In “100 views of Mt. Fuji,” Dazai sought an unhackneyed experience of the most famous site in Japan, though he eventually came to appreciate what everyone else does. There seems to me some load of reverence in the way people from Taiwan and from Indonesia (and elsewhere, but these are the two I’ve experienced most recently) use “famous” for a professor or a school: as if the judgment was supernatural, not a product of the repetition of people’s words.

Dazai stories (Lyons)


I prefer Dazai’s stories to his novels. They are less bleak, a lot more playful, and wittier (I prefer frivolity: dancing on the edge of the volcano instead of fretting about it; or in his own words, “a grim determination in the artist hinders his performance”, 1945, p. 204). I still don’t see imagination in the grand creating ex nihilo sense, but plenty of it at the level of making old stories and his own experiences interesting to readers. I especially enjoyed “Taking the wen away,” one of the four stories from Otogi Zôshi and “The mound of the monkey’s grave” an elaboration of a Saikaku’s tale. There’s plenty of destructive pride even in characters that are not autobiographical (shishôsetsuka).



I agree with James O’Brien (or Phyllis Lyons, whom he may be paraphrasing in his introduction to the Cornell selected stories, The Saga of Dazai Osamu) that Dazai created a “permeable self” that “invites reader participation (especially with the writer obtrudes from folk tales he was recasting!)—in laughing at and grieving with the tears of the clown, who knows that people often come to undeserved grief “(p. 206). Dazai wanted to be the Japanese Raymond Radiguet (brash), but he more closely resembled the pathos of  Paul Verlaine—as Dazai himself recognized.



I also ran down Donald Keene’s 1956 anthology Modern Japanese Literature to read “Villon’s wife” (‘Villon no Tsuma,” 1947). Like The Setting Sun, it has a strong female survivor (and a weak, dissolute male, the standard “Osamu” character, here “Otani”) who drinks excessively, runs up debts, and has affairs with other women. Rape barely registers. She has other problems, including caring for their retarded son, but by the end is making money of (The fifteenth-century Parisian vagabond poet in the story title is only a analogy or a prototype, based on misinformation or misinterpretation of François Villon by Dazai.) Dazai has her saying that it is alright to be a monster, “along as we can stay alive.” (It’s all wrong, but it’s all right?)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray








Dazai’s No Longer Human


Unfortunately, I seem to like each Dazai Osamu (1909-1948) book that I read less than the previous one I’ve read (and the second of his novels less than the first). No Longer Human (Ningen Shikkaku, 1948) is more epigrammatic that The Setting Sun (Shayo, 1947), but perhaps I am too old for it (as I was once too young to read Proust)—too old to be much moved for the plaint of a creature too delicate for the world. I can’t muster sociological interest in it as social history of the 30s either, since dissipation is basically timeless (though the preferred means vary).

I read the epilogue differently from translator and longtime Columbia professor Donald Keene: as showing the notebook’s writer was successful at mimicking good nature, not that his widow is right and the writer wrong. (“In the way that most men fail to see their own cruelty, Yozo had not noticed his gentleness and capacity for love”—p. 9; really? a capacity for love? and gentleness? or solipsism mixed with diffidence?)

An earlier reader of the copy of the book that I read challenges his translation (67ff) of “irrationality” instead of “illegality.”

I am not so sure that Keene was right that the Japanese “are certainly much more like Americans than they are like their ancestors of one hundred years ago. As far as literature is concerned, the break with the Japanese past is almost complete” (p. 7), though this is more credible now than it was six decades ago.

Dazai seems very traditionally Japanese to me in many ways, a descendant of Sei Shônagon both in wit and to some degree in aesthetics (Dazai is still plenty delicate and fairly indirect, even about what she would have considered vulgar and even sordid matters, very regretful and very perishable). Would Keene have been moved to translate Dazai, if there was nothing of the Japanese tradition that Keene venerates in Dazai? Let alone, recall translating Dazai “as if I were writing a book of my own,” an experience he only otherwise had with Kenkô’s Essays in Idleness (On Familiar Terms, p. 189).

I like Keene’s characterization of Yozo as a man “who is orphaned from his fellows by their refusal to take him seriously” (p. 8, see p. 139), which in turn is a result of his desperate clowning. Of course, this resonates with my experience of people not believing I could possibly be serious when I am, and feeling I’m not like other people, incapable of “getting by.” And “unusual or extravagant things tempt me” (p. 23).

It is interesting that someone who felt himself different from an early age and for whom “it would be no exaggeration to say that my only playmates while I was growing up were girls” (48) became a diffident lady-killer rather than a homosexual.

Ōba cannot forget his abuse by a female servant when he was young. In high school, he played the buffoon. At university, he finds bad influence from Horiki and leads a life of debauchery (nonstop smoking, alcohol abuse, promiscuity), culminating in a double suicide (it cannot seriously be billed a “love suicide”) in which the married woman drowns and he survives.

After being expelled from the university, Ōba is “clan and sober” for a time in a relationship with an innocent young woman, but Horki shows up and leads Ōba back into temptation, now adding morphine to alcohol abuse and being incarcerated in a mental asylum, where he is numb rather than violent.

As for being zombified by Japan’s defeat, Dazai seems to me to have been as self-destructive and intellectually nihilistic while the Japanese Empire was rising as in the general anomie after Emperor Hirohito renounced divinity and the US occupied the archipelago. (Imamura’s “Pigs and Battleships” show some of this social breakdown and women who were better at surviving it than the men.)

The original publication sold more than six million copies in Japan, more than any Japanese novel other than Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Sōseki.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

(also see my review of Dazai’s Self Portraits here)





Dazai’s “The Setting Sun”


I breezed through Dazai Osamu’s once immensely popular novel, The Setting Sun (published in 1947 as Shayo). For an insider account of the decline of the aristocracy, I prefer Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I can’t quite understand Donald Keene’s introduction of the novel as “an exact picture of what life is like in Japan today” (p. xviii)[1] before stressing that it is a powerful and beautiful novel, not a sociological document. As a chronicle, it is much thinner than the stories in Self Portraits. Clearly Naoji is a self-portrait: Dazai was well aware of the pain his dissolute lifestyle, particularly his drug addiction and alcoholism caused his own family.

setting sun cover.jpeg

More astonishing is his impression of who the three main characters of the novel are: “We may even obtain the impression that all three main characters—the girl Kazuko [who narrates], her dissolute brother Naoji, and the [debauched] novelist Uehara—represent no more than different aspects of the author” (1971[1964:187). About the first two I agree. I think Uehara had other models, and that the mother is a far more important character than he is. She is the last aristocrat, dying with dignity in reduced circumstances and a kind of internal exile. I wish, as probably Dazai himself did, that Dazai was more like Kazuko, who adapts to her changing world.

I don’t see any suggestion from Dazai that the child Kazuko is carrying at the end of the novel “is likely to live in a better world than the one against which she struggles” (p. 201). Kazuko is a survivor, but I do not see any indication she or the author believe in progress or redemption or even resolution of any of Kazuko’s inner turmoil. She sees her whole family as “victims of a transitional period of morality,” though she is prepared to fight the persisting old morality (“like the sun”, p. 188, i.e., setting sun? an antithesis of the official emblem of Japan as a rising sun). (There are recurrent references to Nietzche in the book, though no confidence of a Super Woman going beyond Good and Evil.)

As for the war, there is another attestation for what many others have ober ed: “I hate talking about the war or listening to other people’s memories” (p. 39).

[1] In his 1964 essay on Dazai that is reprinted in Landscapes and Portraits, he wrote, “The atmosphere of Tokyo at the time is best suggested by ‘Villon’s Wife,’ though The Setting Sun seemed to its first readers the literary embodiment of the changing society” (pp. 200-1).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray



Dazai Osamu Self Portraits


Stimulated by Donald Keene’s memoir to read his translation of The Setting Sun by Dazai Osamu (1909-48), I also checked out Self Portraits, a collection of the autobiographical stories that made Dazai‘s reputation in Japan during the 1930s and 40s. Dazai is another instance that a good analysis is only a good analysis, not necessarily a prelude to or means to change. He did not lack for insight into his pathologies, and wrote with considerable wit about his self-defeating and self-destructive patterns (especially parasitism, lack of any ability to associate with others casually, alcoholism, and, for a time, addiction to pain-killer medication). Keene’s colleague Ivan Morris wrote a book about the Japanese veneration of failures. Dazai sounds like a wittier version of the European Romantic artist suffering on the road to suicide, not made for the crass world, but feeling less superior to it than European romantics.

I was pleased to see a statement of one of my theses in Dazai’s (1940) “Eight scenes from Tokyo”: “However closely the explanation seems to fit the facts, there’s always the hint of a gap, a fabrication somewhere. People do not necessarily think and consider in a prescribed way before choosing the path they’ll walk. For the most part they simply wander, at some point, into a different meadow” (p. 167) without ever choosing to leave where they were, let along picking their destination (jobs, locales, and, often, even partners).

Like many, he went to Tokyo. “To this charmless, featureless plain, people from all over Japan roll up in droves to push and shove and sweat, to fight for an inch of ground, to live lives of alternating joy and sorrow, to regard one another with jealous, hostile eyes, females crying out to males, males merely strutting about in a frenzy” (p. 150—though “perennial youth is the realm of the actor; it doesn’t exist in the world of letters,” p. 148).

As boorish as was the figure of himself that he wrote Dazai, and as debunking of many verities, there is still something delicate in his perceptions as in both his resistance to the cult of Mount Fuji and how he is affected by it and by other natural phenomena. “One hundred views of Mount Fuji” and “Eight scenes of Tokyo” are self-lacerating, but not wholly self-absorbed. That is, there are other characters. There is even, in “Early light,” reportage of being on the ground during the incendiary bombings at the end of World War II (lacking in rancor, preoccupied with surviving and taking care of the children). There’s nothing about the Occupation (the US occupation of Japan, or, for that matter, any of Japan’s earlier occupations of other countries).

“The frivolous hypothesis that to be loved is never unpleasant, however unpleasant the one who loves you, simply does not hold up in real life,” he wrote (“Canis familiaris, p. 112). Having been driven to getting a restraining order against someone convinced we were not just an item but a great love, I have strong grounds to concur.

I am puzzled that the same man who could not drown in the ocean because he could swim drowned himself in a narrow ditch (with another partner). This also seems a particularly unpleasant modus operandi (aside from the incomprehensibility to me of the goal).

Translator Ralph M. McCarthy selected the autobiographical stories and placed them in chronological order, making the book into a sort of I-novel, though they were not written or assembled in this way by Dazai. The introduction includes 22 photograph of Dazai and company (wife, suicide partner, et al.).

©2016, Stephen ). Murray

(1928 portrait)

Also see my discussion of Dazai’s two novels: The Setting Sun and No Longer Human

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

Although I am definitely not one of them, there are those who feel that in “Bowling for Columbine” Michael Moore ambushed NRA spokesman Charlton Heston (not yet diagnosed with Alzheimer’s). Like many “60 Minutes” segments, Moore’s documentaries have involved filming some unwilling participants refusing to answer questions. They do not, however, prepare a viewer for the outright assaults on unwilling interviews portrayed in the 1987 documentary directed by Hara Kazuo “Yuki Yukite shingun” (The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On). The self-anointed instrument of divine justice and truth excavation, Okuazaki Kenzo attacks other survivors of the Japanese Imperial Army’s disastrous foray into Papua New Guinea.


The extent of cannibalism by the starving Japanese 32nd Corps there in 1945 remains murky, and it is not definitively established that they ate “white pork” (that is, eating dead Japanese soldiers) or only in “black pork” (eating Papuan native peoples—one survivor comments on how difficult to catch they were). The distress of Japanese soldiers without any supplies at the end of the war has been powerfully portrayed in Ichikawa’s “Fires on the Plain,” and an attempt to relieve the sufferings of the souls of unburied Japanese Army corpses is central to Ichikawa’s great Burmese Harp.

After having served prison terms for using a slingshot to hurl lead at Emperor Hirohito and for distributing obscene materials picturing him, Okuzaki went after surviving comrades in arms with a documentary film crew in tow. The camera (and, so far as one can tell, crew) impassively recorded Okuzaki assaulting two of them, one just out of the hospital.

Without question, the country/society/government of Japan and former officers in the Imperial Army have not forthrightly addressed atrocities ordered down the chain of command (let alone countenancing many others). The frustrations of a veteran like Okuzaki who wanted the truth to be told are understandable, but assaulting frail old men and shooting the son of an officer he thinks has obfuscated his role do not seem to me to be defensible tactics (I can accept obscene representations of the Emperor, though the particular ones Okuzaki made are not shown in the documentary.)

The Emperor and many other Japanese were at least complicit with atrocities, but in my view Hara is complicit with attempted murder and aggravated assault as an accomplice of what he filmed. His presence and recording surely encouraged (/legitimated) Okuzaki (who hired the film-makers to film him. Their presence certainly increased the pressure to try to accommodate Okuzaki’s invasions.) And aside from the violence of one old man against others, the documentary shows Okuzaki instructing his wife and another man to impersonate siblings of two Japanese soldiers who were shot after Japan surrendered (for desertion or cannibalism or both). The film-makers are, thus, complicit with deception in the quest for Truth, too.

The documentary has no commentary, giving Okuzaki and his inquest complete control of the floor. What Okuzaki saw and did in Papua New Guinea in 1945 can reasonably be said to have driven him mad, but just as with the Mayles brothers “Grey Gardens” documentaries, I find “Naked Army” guilty of exploiting mental illness and encouraging crazy people in their delusions (in this case, that Okuzaki has a divine mission to force survivors to confess to murder). Okuzaki’s cheerfulness and extreme politeness when not involved in hectoring interrogations further unnerved me.

In terms of narrative exposition, what is going on is often difficult to follow. My initial sympathy for the righteous critic of the Emperor’s war crimes to horror at his self-righteousness may be what Hara wanted, and no commentary is necessary on an anti-war crusader who says “”As long as I live, I’ll use violence — if it brings good to mankind” and “I beat him because he didn’t treat me politely”—, but even if his engagement in Okuzaki’s crusade was entirely passive, I consider Hara (and Imamura Shohei who provided assistance to the film’s making and is listed as its producer) an accomplice in crimes—and one who does not have the excuse of having been driven mad by surviving in Papua New Guinea in 1945 (Hara was born that year).

The movie is disturbing and in my view unethical and perhaps criminal (an accomplice to felonies) in addition to dealing with the horrors experienced and the horrors perpetrated by Japanese soldiers not only during but after the official end of the Pacific War (in addition to the searing Ichikawa movies of the 1950s, the last of the Human Condition (Ningen no joken) trilogy directed by Kobayahsi Masaki recalls the long-term enslavement by Soviets of Japanese troops who surrendered to the Soviets, who had declared war against Japan all of a week before Japan surrendered; and Kobayashi’s penultimate film was a 5-hour documentary on the Tokyo War Crimes Trial).

The hand-held 16mm camera is very unsteady, so the visuals are sub-home-movie quality. There are no extras (and if ever there was a movie that cries out for some supplements, this is it!) This is also a film in which it would be very useful to have subtitles in more than one color, since there are a number of junctures in which I was not sure whose lines were being translated.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Donald Keene’s Memoir: Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan



I have an enormous debt of gratitude to two Americans with the given name of “Donald” for introducing me to much of the best of 20th-century Japanese literature and Japanese cinema: Donald Keene (born in New York in 1922) and Donald Richie (born in Lima, Ohio in 1924, died in Tokyo in 2013). In Japan, where their service in explicating Japanese culture is also appreciated, some think they must be brothers or spouses (family name coming first in Japanese and other West Pacific languages), I read in Donald Richie’s very entertaining Japan Journals.

Both of them knew Mishima Yukiô — Keene translated After the Banquet , Madame de Sade, and Mishima’s modern Nô plays — and failed to anticipate Mishima’s very public suicide, though recognizing later that they had been forewarned in more specific senses than a reading or viewing of “Patriotism.”

Keene also translated Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and Abe Kôbô and was close to both of them, and for a time to the second Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Ôe Kenzaburo He also knew Tanizaki Jun’ichiro (who IMO should have been the first Japanese writer to win the prize, though he had died a few years before Kawabata received it), Arthur Waley (the great English translator from both Chinese and Japanese), Bertrand Russell (who went out for beer after classes at Cambridge while Keene was there), and (of course) the other prominent American translators of contemporary Japanese literature, Ivan Morris, and Edward Seidensticker (both of whom joined him at Columbia University; Seidensticker makes frequent appearances in Richie’s Japan Journals; Morris only lived to the age of 51).

Kodansha published an insightful and entertaining memoir, titled On Familiar Terms: To Japan and Back, a Lifetime Across Cultures in 1996. The 2008 Columbia University Press Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan is not more revealing, though it is somewhat more conversational in tone. It covers research on the Emperor Meiji that went into Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912 (Columbia UP, 2002) and his continuing productivity.

The second memoir is not notably more revealing than the first and repeats a number of anecdotes. This is not to challenge the need for a second memoir. The first is out of print and the newer one has very entertaining drawings by Yamaguchi Akira that are somewhere between 19th-cemtury woodblocks and manga illustrations. Keene has written about Japanese prints as well as about Japanese plays, poetry, fiction, and (especially) diaries.

Keene recalls that “Japanese, which at first had no connection with my ancestors, my literary tastes, or my awareness of myself as a person, has become the central element of my life.” What became his vocation as well as career began as a Columbia undergraduate, when he started to learn Chinese from a classmate, and then was enraptured by reading Arthur Waley’s translation of The Tale of Genji. His learning of Japanese accelerated into a full-time occupation during WWII, first a year of immersion language learning at Berkeley, then in active duty in the US Navy in the Aleutians and then Okinawa. His interest in Japanese diaries began with ones recovered from the corpses of Japanese soldiers (the official rationale was to glean information from them, the reason US troops were not allowed to keep diaries).

Spite got him assigned to a posting in China rather than Japan after Japan surrendered, so Keene was not part of the Occupation authority. He had a dismal teacher at Harvard: Serge Elisséeff is the only Japanologist about whom Keene records anything negative in either memoir. But he was able to go to Cambridge and work with Waley (and Russell). And to return to his alma mater in his hometown to earn his PhD (1951) and to stay on as a faculty member, and to travel to Japan and meet writers already mentioned. (Keene translated both the novels written by Dazai Osamu, but Dazai had taken his own life in mid-1948, five years before Keene got to Japan).

There is some wry humor about those who have condescended to Keene as a big frog in a little pond (when he reviewed a book by (Argentine writer) Julio Cortazar in the New York Times, some readers thought that it was written by someone else with the same name). Keene came along in what seems to have been a golden age of Japanese fiction writing, and has been lucky in other ways, but mastering Japanese (first the language, then the literature and its history) are major accomplishments, and ones from which I have profited. I find this book charming as well as insightful. His enthusiasms are infectious, and he has provided access to Japanese literature in his own translations and in analyses such as Dawn to the West.

(The photo is the cover one, showing Keene in 1953 in front of Bashô’s grave)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Mori Ôgai’s “Vita Sexualis”


The writings of Mori Ôgai (1862-1922) “exercised profound influence on later Japanese authors, who sought to emulate the severely masculine style and understated manner of narration,” according to Donald Keene, the most important explicator of Japanese writers to American readers. What is most peculiar about his autobiographical 1909 novel Vita Sexualis is that it is a “case study” of the development of sexual desire but unlike the male characters in the novels of Tanizaki, Mishima, or Oe (not to mention the western psychiatric tradition of “case histories”), the “case”—the protagonist Kanai Shizuka—has very little (if any) sexual desire. Mr Kanai “suspected that perhaps unlike the rest of the human race he might be indifferent to such desires, that he might have an extraordinary natural disposition which might be called frigiditas” (25). He graduates from college, at age 20, still a virgin, perhaps the only student to complete his studies without having sex with anyone, male or female.

Besides being a literary figure in early 20th-century Japan, Mori was Japan’s surgeon general when Vita Sexualis was published in the seventh issue of a literary magazine, Subaru, which he had founded. (The whole issue was censored a month following publication, and Mori was officially reprimanded by the Minister of War.)

Professionally interested in the emerging German science of sex, Mori thought that European “naturalist” fiction (such as Zola) was too preoccupied with sex. There is something so typically Japanese about boldly writing naturalistically about sex and at the same time not including any explicit sex! Not that purity or puritanism are anywhere in the neighborhood: there are allusions to masturbation, homosexuality, incest, prostitution, erotica, etc., and there is not the slightest pretense that Japanese in general are lacking in sexual desire. Quite the contrary! Most everyone else except Kanai Shizuka have abundant libido.

The earliest sexual memory is of a book of woodblock prints with couples in positions that mystified the boy, and what he took to be a leg (if you’ve seen the erotic Japanese wood block prints with extremely exaggerated male and female genitalia, this confusion is more comprehensible).. Moreover, he “didn’t realize in the least that this kind of human behavior had any connection to human desire.” (39)

Being the second youngest boy in his dormitory, and not at all inclined to submit sexually, the eleven-year-old was unpleasantly surprised to learn “that the word ‘boy’ [shônen] had the meaning of being an object for sodomy” (58). He manages to elude would-be seducers, but describes the sexual culture of Tokyo students as being divided into two types.

Older boys who pursued female sexual partners and engaged in some degree of heterosociality were nanpa, variously translated into English as “smoothies,” “softies,” or (in this translation) “mashers.” Mori’s label for those spurning sexual and social involvement with females was kôha (literally, “hard” or “obdurate”). “Roughnecks” contrasted to “smoothies” is preferable to the use of “queer” for those who were “manly and casual in their dress” (62), though “toughs” in contrast to “dandies” seems to me better still. Like the original sense of “effeminate” in English, the carefully dressing nanpa, interested in and spending time with women, were looked upon with scorn by a masculinist homosocial kôha, whether the latter loved boys or rejected sexual entanglements and desires of any sort. And Mori records that the nanpa also viewed the kôha as superior, more masculine, etc.

Mori represented his youthful self/protagonist as lacking sexual desire and determinedly warding off insistent kôha until he had a good kôha friend who made Mori exempt from importuning. Koga is devoted to the way of boys, but considers his own shared room off-limits. Hemni, another prominent tough (whose courting Shizuka avoided but was prepared to ward off with his dagger) turns “masher” (85), and later on Koga accepts an arranged marriage.

After reacting coolly both to the seduction by a friend’s mother and by one of the most famous courtesans in the country, “it so happened that I left Japan without marrying anyone.” He has some encounters with German women hurling themselves at him, not always getting out of their way. Upon his return (at age 25) he married a woman who died after giving birth to a son. Then at age 32 he marries a seventeen-year-old second wife. There is not a word about desire—in this book about the development of desire—for either wife.

I would conclude that the book is about avoiding sex, except that I am puzzled by its being censored. I guess that showing students acting on their sexual desires was forbidden. Other than writing a book about the development of sexual desire in which no sexual desire develops, what I found most interesting was the portrait of the toughs and the dandies. And that the objects of desire, the beautiful boys (bishônen), don’t count. There are two types, those interested in girls and those interested in boys, and neither of the desired boys or girls seem to be accorded subjectivity, agency, or any desire, though adult female seductresses may have some desire (within the view contained in this book).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray