Abe’s “Secret Rendezvous”


Abe Kôbô (1924-1993) was the major Japanese 20th-century writer whose work I long shied away from reading. I have found him an interesting figure in the memoirs of American Japanologists such as Donald Keene and John Nathan, and admire the three movies based on his novels made by Teshigahara Hiroshi (Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another; I have not seen “The Ruined Map”), as well as the earlier Kobayashi “Thick-Walled Room”. I did not want to read an Abe novel that I had already seen adapted to the screen and hopes that the relatively short one that I chose, Secret Rendezvous (first published in 1977 in Japanese as Mikkai) would not be too sci-fi for me.

It was more sci-fi than I hoped, but not too much for me. A blurb from the Chicago Sun-Times on the back cover proclaimed that the novel “reads much as if it were the collaborative effort of Hieronymus Bosch, Franz Kafka, and Mel Brooks.” The Kafka I can see, though I know (from Donald Richie’s Japan Journals) that Abe was irritated that critics kept claiming that Kafka was an influence on him, that the prime western influence on him was, rather, Lewis Carroll. The mood and dry recounting of absurdities prefigured Paul Auster and recalled Edgar Allan Poe more than either Bosch or Brooks. There is some surrealist humor, but more like that in Philip Roth (especially the Philip Roth of The Breast and Sabbath’s Theater) than that of Mel Brooks.

What is like Kafka is that at the start someone is whisked away for no apparent reason. A major difference is that the someone is a woman, not the narrator, but the wife of the narrator. And it is medical rather than legal authority that is menacing.

An ambulance came for the wife at four in the morning though it had not been called and she was in perfect health. The mystery deepens after the narrator finds the hospital to which she was taken, but cannot find her.

An official who is always referred to as “the horse,” who seems to be more a centaur with a human diet and the ability to speak, gives the narrator security tapes to listen to in exchange for promising to write about his (the narrator’s) investigations.

Though continuing to try to find out what happened to his wife, the narrator is distracted by other very strange things going on at the hospital in the way of experiments on sexual arousal. There is a lot of female masturbation in the novel, and substitution not of single organs, but of half-bodies (the bottom half). There is also a thirteen-year-old nymphomaniac woman whose bones are melting (rendering her increasingly blob like). Heterosexual male fantasies, for sure. And very clinical (both the horrors and the failure to feel anything are prototypically heterosexual male…)

The book seems of great current relevance in anticipating heightened surveillance. The narrator joins the security apparatus centered in the hospital—one financed by selling recordings to aural voyeurs. The meaningful signal to noise ratio is very low, reminding me of present-day US surveillance biting off (collecting) far more than it can chew (make sense of or from): “The electronic surveillance system has swollen to unmanageable, mammoth size, and continues to absorb new information all the tie; even though no one is actually in charge of it any more, the mere suggestion that such a person might exist seems to inspire awe and submissiveness” (p. 117).

I neither liked nor loathed the novel and concluded that my original intuition that Abe’s fiction is not for me was right. Reading about him interests me more than reading him, the fate of too many writers, I realize. In a 1953 Paris Review interview, Nobel Prize-winner François Mauriac contended that “almost all the works [of fiction] die while the author remains…. There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. The opposite almost always comes about. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories, as though in a museum. As living creatures, they get worn out and grow feeble… even Anna Karenina, even the Karamazovs. They need readers in order to live, and the new generations are less and less capable of providing them with the air they need to breathe.” This has become the case for Kafka, and at least for me, for Abe, too.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Face of Another


For most of the way (a long way! 124 minutes) through “Tanin no kao” (The Face of Another, 1966, directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi from a novel by Abe Kôbô), it seems less mysterious than the previous Abe/Teshigahara collaboration, “Woman in the Dunes,” but things become increasingly mystifying after a industrial manager whose face was scarred in an explosion gets a mask to wear. The accident and his self-consciousness (and an especially pronounced Japanese horror of visible disabilities) have made him no longer who he was. He feels that he has become a nonperson and jumps at the chance to become someone other than the man with the bandage-covered face.


From the very start (with a monologue of an x-rayed skull) I balk at the idea that there is a psychiatrist who specializes in fitting prosthetic devices on patients, and, later, that he has gone from fingers to a face with such technical success. Beyond that, Dr. Hori— played by Hira Mikijiro (who recently played the Goshirakawa emperor in “Yoshi-tsune”)—very much fits into the tradition of psychotic physicians (from Dr. Caligari to the one attempting to do something about his daughter’s scarred face in Franju’s “Eyes without a Face,” which has to have influenced this movie).

Mr. Okuyama, the man whose face is bandaged for the first hour of the movie, then masked for periods that cannot exceed twelve hours at a time (the phenomenal Nakadai Tatsuya) says that he “feels like a guinea pig.” He has very good reason to feel that way, because providing someone a new face that matches no past is an experiment for the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has interests that seem leeringly voyeuristic, particularly in whether his patient will try to seduce the wife who has tried (unsuccessfully) to overcome her revulsion at her scarred husband. Arguably, the psychiatrist plants the idea.

Unarguably, he leers at the possibilities of a Nietzchean (nihilistic) freedom for the heretofore conventional salaryman to commit crimes, seemingly from the assumption that committing violent crimes is what anyone not held back by family, work associates, etc. is eager to do.

The mask is molded in part by the wearer’s facial expression—so that it looks more like Nakadai Tatsuya than the man from whom it was impressed, but the psychiatrist keeps saying that the mask will make the man fit it rather than the other way around. Mr. Okuyama’s life and expectations of relationships with others (including conjugal relations) have been unsettled by the accident and hideous scarring, but, unlike Rock Hudson in “Seconds,” John Frankenheimer’s movie from about the same time, Mr. Okuyama was not seeking a new existence.

It is possible that Mr. Okuyama believed that his wife (played by Kyô Machiko, star of “Rashomon,” “Ugestsu,” and “Gate of Hell”) would not recognize him. To me this was highly improbable. For one thing I recognize Nakadai’s voice (from other movies). How could his wife not? For another, his body, including its size and shape and smell were unchanged. Moreover, there were practically no Japanese at the time as tall as Nakadai. Also, Nakadai’s huge saucer-like eyes are very distinctive. Although highly improbable to me, this assumption by Mr. Okuyama does lead to a great speech by Mrs. Okuyama. Isn’t that enough justification? I think so. Similarly, a more average-looking Japanese lead might have increased the plausibility of not being recognized by his wife, but only a little, and would have sacrificed the smolder and biting sarcasm that Nakadai brought to this and other parts in the golden age of Japanese cinema (and beyond then, as the lead in Kagemusha and “Ran”).

Before the ending there is another aspect that I completely reject as being possible but don’t want to specify so as to avoid “plot spoiling.”

The viewer sees nothing and knows very little of what Mr. Okuyama was like before the accident, which makes estimating how changed he is difficult. There is also another story intercut to that of Mr. Okuyama and his remaker that involves a very pretty girl (Irie Miki) whose face is badly scarred on one side and an incestuous relationship with her brother. I think that the scarring is a residue form the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, though I don’t understand why it would have affected only one side and only her face…

There are some striking visuals in both stories, psychological complication, and some creepiness. I think it all goes on too long, even though I admire many of the images of cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi , who also shot “Woman in the Dunes” and “Pitfall”, the acting, and the ghostly Takemitsu score. (Takemitsu Tôru also scored “Woman in the Dunes” with music lacking harmonies and sounds not made by musical instruments.) The pacing is slow, even for a Japanese movie, and very, very talky, with diatribes from both the psychiatrist and from Mr. Okuyama (and quite an aria from Mrs. Okuyama). Still it is less static than “Woman in the Dunes,” which was a huge international success.

Teshigahara (1927-2001) made three more movies in the following six years (including “The Man Without a Map” based on another Abe (1924-93) adaptation of another of his novels and also scored by Takemitsu and also concerned with identity slippage and intimacy “issues,” then made no films for the next dozen (he was also a painter and sculptor), returning to shoot a nearly wordless 1984 documentary showing the extravagant works of Antonio Gaudí (who has a major Japanese following judging by the groups of Japanese who have been at La Sagrada Familia when I have), and then two historical dramas (all three with scores by Takemitsu).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Woman in the Dunes (1964)


Of the three collaborations between director Teshigahara Hiroshi, novelist/screenwriter Abe Kôbô, cinematographer Segawa Hiroshi (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun), and composer Takemitsu Toru, I least like the most famous, “Woman in the Dunes” (1964; the Japanese title, “Suna no Onna’” means “Sand Woman”). (It was preceded by “Pitfall“,  followed by “The  Face of Another.”)  Not only was it nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar, but Teshigahara was nominated for the best director Oscar, very, very unusual for a film not in English, especially so experimental a film. And the film won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The meaning of the film was much debated at the time (the time of “L’Aventurra,” “L’eclisse,” “L’Année dernière à Marienbad,” and “Persona,” each of which occasioned a dissensus of interpretations). It was attacked for being fascistic and for being communistic, for showing a desire to escape from society and for showing the necessity to submit to a place, however arbitrarily assigned, in society. Though I think it is open to varying interpretation, showing “a desire to escape from society” is one with no basis.

The high school teacher and amateur entomologist Niki Junpei (Okada Eiji) — who, despite the title, seems to me the protagonist of the film. Misses the last bus and is housed below the level of the dunes near the ocean. He has less than no desire to stay on there, but is trapped. The rope ladder on which he descended is pulled up and it slowly becomes clear to him that the locals expect him to be the helpmate (and sexual partner) of the relatively young widow (Kishida Kyôko) who lives there and, each night, fills buckets of sand that are hoisted out. The sand still threatens to bury the house and gets onto or into everything.


It makes no sense to me that sand needs to be quarried from around a sunken house: there is plenty on the surface that could be collected more easily… and is no more infiltrated with sea salt that makes it a hazardous building material (as an ingredient of concrete).

The rural folk who supply the couple in exchange for the sand from the pit don masks, forming a grotesque voyeur audience for a sexual performance (in exchange for which they allow him up to look at the sea for about an hour at a time).

Eventually, the man is distracted from trying to get a message out via a crow with the technology of drawing water up through capillary motion. Unsurprisingly, the woman gets pregnant, and the man becomes accustomed to his life of absurdity and Sisyphean effort to keep digging out sand threatening to bury the house. He seems to have forgotten his life in the city (with a wife and a teaching job) and to have ceased to find his life under the eyes of rural folk demeaning. I couldn’t say whether he feels more sense of belonging in his new life than he did in his old (the old is not showed), though mindful of the high valuation of belonging for Japanese in general.


Because Teshigahara’s aesthetic interests were well-known (he was also a potter and took over the ikebana school of his father when his father died), the ravishing images have been credited to his eye rather than to that of the cinematographer of this and his other two Abe adaptations (plus “Tokyo 1958”), Segawa Hiroshi. There are memorable compositions throughout the movie of sand in closeups and in longshots.

The Criterion edition includes the 147-minute long cut (Teshigahara supervised a shorter cut to 123 minutes for international release), four earlier Teshigahara shorts — Hokusai (1953), Ikebana (1956), Tokyo 1958 (1958), and Ako (1965) — and a documentary that includes American explicators of Japan Donald Richie and John Nathan (the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1972 Teshigahara drams “Summer Soldiers”).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Teshigahara’s “Pitfall” (1962)


The mid-to-late 1960s were a time when regard for cinema as Art was at its height, and there was endless discussion of what “Persona,” “L’aventurra,” “Last Year at Marienbad,” “Woman in the Dunes,” etc. meant. Not just what they meant but what happened was, I’m told, discussed at cocktail parties (I was too young to drink and did not live anywhere near where foreign-language films played).

“Woman in the Dunes” (1964)was the second film that Teshigahara Hiroshi (1927-2001) directed based on experimental writings of Abe Kôbô (1924=1993). Its international success brought attention to their first collaboration, “Otoshi Ana” (Pitfall, 1962), a mystifying, surrealist mix of ghost story, murder mystery, paranoid thriller, leadership rivalry, documentary about coal mining in Kyushu, and more. In one scene there is a corpse, two ghosts, and two murder suspects who will kill each other and soon become ghosts. Plus there is an Imamura-like rape by a policeman of the woman who witnessed the first murder.

Teshigahara had made some documentary shorts (four of which are included in the four-disk Criterion edition of the first three Teshigahara/Abe feature films), but in “Pitfall” seemed to have some of the enthusiasm for a new toy (cinema) that Orson Welles displayed in making “Citizen Kane.” As in “Citizen Kane,” there is some notable deep focus, albeit outdoors rather than indoors.

“Pitfall” was based on a stage play rather than on a novel, though it is intensely cinematic, mostly taking place out of doors. And the indoor shots are anything but straight ahead, with shots down through the rafters (also reminiscent of Imamura’s 1950s movies about women who persevere through rapes). There are very unusual pans and lots of tracking shots and jump cuts (in vogue from the French nouvelle vogue). Etc.


Though much remains mysterious, there is a plot. A poor man (Igawa Hisashi) with a young son (Bicycle Thief, anyone?) who has been working in a coal mine demanding the end of unsafe and illegal practices flees, takes another job hauling coal or something onto a ship, and, with his pay, is given directions to a jobsite—a ghost town left from a closed mine surrounded by slag heaps.

Before he gets there, he is knifed by the Man in White (Tanaka Kunie), who drives a white motorbike, as the son (Miyahara Kazuo) watches from the bushes. Also watching from a wooden house from which she sells candy (don’t ask to whom!), is a woman (Sasaki Sumie). The killer gives her money and instructions on what she is supposed to tell the police she saw happen.

The ghost wants to find out why he has been murdered and the second half of the movie suggests that the murder was part of a union-breaking (or at least disuniting) plot. The Man in White returns and kills again and the boy watches two more deaths. The boy, btw, was the first person to notice the Man in White, though the killer never seems to notice the boy, even when nearly running him down in the ghost town.


And only the viewer and other ghosts can see or hear the ghosts, so the question “Why?” is unheard and left to the ghost to interpret.

I’m not sure “Pitfall” would appeal to most fans of ghost stories. It is rather cerebral for a murder mystery (with the whodunit question never in doubt: what is in doubt is the why and who may have planned the first murder). Takemitsu Tori’s percussive music adds to the eeriness. As do shots of various creatures, including a frog that is skinned alive, feral dogs on a slagheap, a scorpion caught on a hook, a snake, and dead and dying ants.

Abe’s fascination with doubles, mistaken identity, and lost identity are central to the movie. One leading character even has two doubles (both played by the same actor as the original, who has all the volition of a pinball).

The disc (in addition to the disc in the four-disc Criterion set of Teshigahara shorts and a two-hour documentary about Abe and Teshigahara, together and separately in various artistic endeavors) has an excellent analysis by James Quandt of the visual techniques along with an interpretation of the ending that convinced me. There is also a trailer. Neither should be viewed before grappling with the wonders of the movie, which runs 97 minutes (that includes fairly lengthy closing credits).

Despite my general aversion to sci-fi aspects, my favorite of the Teshigahara films I’ve seen (four feature-length ones and four short ones) remains “Face of Another” with the great Nakadai Tatsuya. (I was bored insensate by his 1990 “Rikuyu” and underwhelmed by his 1984 documentary on Antonio Gaudi.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Mishima’s “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea”


The major 20th-century Japanese writers were notably kinky and obsessive: Tanizaki’s foot fetishism and coprophilia, Kawabata’s yens for young girls (pederasty), Mishima’s sadomasochism, the obsessive imaginings of suicide by Dazai and Mishima, the guilt carried by Oe. We’re talking about fiction? OK, but even if and writing may be “sublimation,” of desires not acted on, returning over and over to a theme and with such palpable excitement is revealing. And we know that the “suicidal ideation” was eventually acted upon by Dazai, Kawabata, and, most publicly, Mishima Yukio.

Mishima’s 1963 Gogo No Eikô, translated by future Mishima biographer John Nathan two years later as The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. (The Japanese title means afternoon towing,” as in tugboats towing ocean-going vessels.) The merchant marine officer, Ryuji, is not the protagonist of the novel. Ryuji liked the sea, while most of the crew was sleeping, helped with that.


While the ship on which he serves is docking in Yokohama, Fusako, a widow who runs a prosperous couture shop and her 13-year-old son Noboru come aboard and Ryuji gives them a tour of the boat. Fusako invites Ryuji to dinner in gratitude, and the process of being grounded, giving up on his vision of a heroic destiny, and settling for domesticity and heterosexual sex begins.

Noburo, who has been spying through a peephole he found in the wall between his room and his mother’s and continues when she entertains company, is revolted by the failure of Ryuji to live up to Noburo’s fantasy of the freedom of a seaman.

Mishima writes about the tedium of life on a merchant ship that was starting to wear on Ryuji, and about the hopes and curbing of their expression of Fusako. What is most vivid in the novel, however, is the feverish, puritanical views of Noburo within a very rigid hierarchy of a clique of 13-year-olds who abhor adulthood and its compromises, and experiment in purging any feelings of sympathy by such rites as slaughtering and dissecting a stray cat.

Noburo’s disappointment in the sailor turning into a father attempting to make him a pal is amplified by the group’s sinister, absolutist leader (a nihilist similar to princes of darkness in other Mishima fiction), and the path to “punishment” is inexorable (as is the path to destroying the beauty of the temple of the golden pavilion in Mishima’s other most famed novel, which also has a sinister amoral influence on the stutterer who will torch the titular national treasure).


Mishima’s disgust for aging was central to his suicide in 1970 at the age of 45. In 1966 he wrote that “among my incurable convictions is the belief that the old are eternally ugly, the young eternally beautiful. The wisdom of the old is eternally murky, the actions of the young eternally transparent. The longer people live, the worse they become.” I don’t think the actions of the 13-year-old boys in “Sailor” are “transparent,” though their aesthetic/ethical code is a transparent cover for sadism and the nihilism the intensely arrogant chief is trying to inculcate in his followers.

The combination of quasi-incest, peeping, homoeroticism, narcissism, cruelty to animals, and murder was surely designed to shock and am I not at all convinced that Mishima was satirizing the juvenile delinquents or observing them as a zoologist (as Robert Musil seems to me to have been doing in The Young Törless, another unsettling novel of adolescent male cruelty, or William Golding with the younger savages he imagined loose of adult supervision in Lord of the Flies).

The voyeurism and drugged sex partners also are prominent in work by Tanizaki (The Key, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi) and Kawabata (The House of the Sleeping Beauties) and the necessity of evanescence of beauty is a leitmotif of Japanese culture (exemplified by the cult of the cherry blossom) that seems to be directly connected to the cult of suicide. Mishima was a part of both those belief systems, and in “playing soldiers” in his last years with a private army and advocating the most reactionary extremism, it is difficult not to read Sailor as a celebration of proto-fascism (for my generation, not his own or the older-than-him one he celebrated in Patriotism and The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, especially Runaway Horses). Absurd as the code of the puritanical young is, it is not all that different from the one the adult Mishima proclaimed before (very literally) cutting his life short.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Joy Hendry’s memoir of Japanese fieldwork


Oxford Polytechnic University anthropologist Joy Hendry wrote about a (nine-month) school-year she spent with her two grade-school-age sons in Japan at some unspecified time that must have been during the late 1980s. Her book An Anthropologist in Japan: Glimpses of Life in the Field. endeavors to “cross over” from an audience of fellow anthropologists to a wider audience of those interested in accounts of living in alien cultures, Japan in particular. Hendry wanted to show how the ideas in her 1993 book Wrapping Culture emerged from her experiences in the field, in a seaside town two hours by train from Tokyo.

An Anthropologist in Japan: Glimpses of Life in the Field is an engagingly written account of her life and research (the two are inseparable) that elaborates and contextualizes examples that were more briefly mentioned in Wrapping Culture. I read Wrapping Culture after reading An Anthropologist in Japan: Glimpses of Life in the Field, so that I saw familiar events and interpretations of them as “wrapping” in the theory-elaborating book. I also saw that the instances from Hendry’s fieldwork play a fairly minor role in an argument that draws heavily on the extensive literature about Japanese culture. If I had read Wrapping Culture first, I would not have thought of it as a book primarily based on fieldwork in a Japanese town.


The fieldwork memoir does not provide any insight into how Hendry deployed the existing literature on Japan. Hendry had done earlier (dissertation) fieldwork in Japan, focused on a kindergarten. The anthropologist in An Anthropologist in Japan tries out emerging ideas on professional colleagues in Tokyo, but does not reveal any knowledge of the sources about Japanese culture or explanations of politeness that she used in Wrapping Culture. That is, the self-portrait in An Anthropologist in Japan is of induction uninfluenced by what Hendry had read. It is very much in the tradition of self-mythification by anthropologists of setting out into the unknown and extracting models (“theories”) from the ore of observation of “natives.” Hendry and her sons had lived in Japan before, so did not experience as much “culture shock” as anthropologists going to nonindustrialized societies for the first time do. Indeed, Hendry writes about prosaic activities, including tennis and flower-arranging classes she took with local housewives and the PTA of her sons’ school.

Hendry went back to Japan to study levels of politeness in speech, in particular, the very polite speech register called keigo. Once there, she saw keigo as a way of wrapping (wrapping demands as indirect requests) and started looking very closely at the wrapping of gifts (and of foodstuffs at school bazaars and local celebrations). Both books are filled with examples, as she stretched the metaphor of “wrapping” to include “wrapping” time as well as space, things, and desires.

Her banking experiences led Hendry to note that “the Western visitor is apt to mistake skills at service for subservience.” Being fluent in Japanese, she also realized that “a proper foreigner can be treated like a child, or an idiot, but a person who speaks Japanese should also respect Japanese rules of hierarchy.” Her rambunctious (by Japanese standards) sons recurrently provoked veiled criticism and were useful research tools (one of them became a friend of the son of the local chief gangster). Hendry records the usefulness of having children for establishing contact with the parents of other children, but does not reflect on ethical questions of using children this way. Other anthropologists have similarly avoided the question of “informed consent” from their children and their children’s playmates, and the costs the children bear in being taken to the field. ((I’m sure that there are gains for the children in experience and bilingualism and that leaving them in their home countries would also have costs, but I’d like to read explicit discussion — including their own views from what here is the distance of roughly ten years — of costs and benefits to being taken along to “the field” along with notice of how useful are the contacts made through anthropologists’ children.)[1]

I was somewhat amused that in a book focusing on politeness that Hendry did not seem to wonder if the positive response to her presentation of preliminary ideas to a Japanese audience evidenced genuine acceptance of her ideas. More than most, she knows that requesting candor does not eliminate politeness.

All in all, An Anthropologist in Japan is satisfying as an account of trying to integrate into a Japanese locale, that is, “the alien in Japan” part. The ideas about wrapping are also interesting, though the extent to which they are based on experiences in the field is not altogether clear. The book is least satisfying in showing how anthropological fieldwork transforms everyday experiences into hypotheses and culture-level interpretations and generalizations. Especially after reading Wrapping Culture, I am skeptical about the dependence on the model (if “wrapping” is more than a metaphor) on the experiences in the field.

There are more entertaining fieldwork memoirs (Nigel Barley’s, in particular), but An Anthropologist in Japan is one of the best books about a Caucasian living in Japan (far superior to James Kirkup’s These Horned Islands, for instance, and more reliable than the writings of Lafcadio Hearn). It should interest those who want to know about Japan and/or about doing fieldwork in a populous, literate, industrialized society, even if the question of how fieldwork shapes and tests theories remains open. Hendry’s book does not claim to provide more than “glimpses.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

[1] A particularly blunt counsel for taking wives and children into the field was supplied by John W. Bennett ( “The study of cultures: a survey of technique and methodology in field work.” American Sociological Review 13(1948) :672-89): “The investigator’s wife can secure much valuable information about child rearing and familial relations merely through gossiping with the local women” (p. 674); he also stresses that this makes “the scientist fit in” since adults are normally married.

Bruce Feiler’s Delight-filled “Learning to Bow”


I was delighted with the engaging, very readable, incisive but affectionate Learning to Bow, a comic but affectionate memoir of a very tall (6’4″) American teacher’s sojourn in rural Japan. Especially hilarious is Bruce Feiler‘s account of the preparations for a junior high school fieldtrip to the Japanese Disneyland that included setting up chairs to simulate bus seating and practicing getting on and off the bus efficiently. (Japanese tour groups seem to me to spend a lot of time hovering around outside their busses and it never occurred to me that they practiced boarding and exiting.)

Assembling for group photos at every stop is another activity I have noticed preoccupying Japanese tour groups in Hawai’i and California.. Japanese ritualism and indirect speech make more sense here than in, say, in James Kirkup’s condscending memoirs. Feiler does not overlook Japanese ethnocentrism (not just we’re best but we are so totally unique from any other people). Cho, a friend, laconically tells Feiler: “Everybody says our students have to learn to live in a world that is larger than Japan. But, first, our teachers have to learn that such a world exists.” While Feiler obviously knows that much, he does not come across free of ethnocentrisms of his own (and verges on outright racism in regard to genital endowments).

The rural Japanese are continually astounded that an alien can speak Japanese, use chopsticks, and in some ways seems more traditionally Japanese than they are — though such statements are probably more formulaic than Feiler notices (I have received similar compliments in Taiwan). Nevertheless, he mostly deserves the tributes he receives for trying to understand and respect Japanese lifeways — and for writing so well about his experiences and feelings there.


(I was surprised that someone who lived and worked in Japan thought Barthes’s Empire of Signs “provides interesting insights into Japanese behavior” (312; along with Varley and Passin, but not Singer or Benedict).

This is my favorite book of Americans recounting extended visits to Japan, edging out Lydia Minatoya’s Talking to High Monks in the Snow (only partly about Japan, and, and no, I didn’t miss any words in her title), and John Treat Whittier’s Great Mirror Shattered (though Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk about teaching in China just after it opened to some aliens remains my favorite memoir of Americans in the “Far East”). Although often very humorous, Feiler presents his exploration of the serious topic of how Japanese schools build a sense of group solidarity and subordination to the group. He also provides interesting material on learning gender roles.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Mishima’s gruesome “Patriotism”

mishima patriotism poster.jpg

Mishima Yukio (1925-70) was an internationally Japanese renowned writer of epic narcissism with ultra-nationalist ideas and a very extreme case of the Japanese romance with death in general, and the hideous self-disembowelment of seppuku in particular. Distinguishing the artist from the art, the life from the work, is especially difficult in the case of Mishima, because he worked harder on constructing his body than he seemed to work on writing — writing seemed to come very easily to him and he wrote many books (40 novels, 20 collections of stories, some volumes of nonfiction) and (18) plays before he decided he had completed his life work, the “Sea of Tranquillity” tetraology.

As a would be historicist and historian of ideas I learned and believe that my/our task is to try to understand how someone could take seriously what seems nonsense here and now (for instance, believing that the sun and other planets circled the earth). I have to confess that I cannot fulfill the historicist aspiration to imagine how someone with Mishima’s exposure to other ideas could have maintained a fervent belief in the divinity of the emperor. I may be wrong, but I have to think that he was in the idea of believing in the divinity of the emperor somewhat as Henry James was enamored with the faith that the builders of Chartres had in Marian Christianity. And the whole “Credo quia absurdum est” (I believe it because it is absurd) tradition (a misquotation of Tertullian’s formula in De carne Christi 5.4 that “credibile est, quia ineptum est” (what seems improbable is credible).

I also find the cult of seppuku difficult to imagine myself into. I can understand suicide as a response to failure, but the grisliness of the method of cutting open one’s belly is repellent to me, as is the romanticization of it in Mishima’s 1961 story and 1966 film “Yûkoku” (Patriotism) in which he plays a fascist officer who kills himself rather than carry out orders to arrest fellow officers in a 1936 right-wing coup ostensibly in support of the emperor (and the abolition of the Japanese parliament). Lieutenant Takeyama Shinji (played by Mishima) cannot bring himself to obey or to disobey the order.

The only part of the story that was filmed — on a highly stylized Nô theater set — was returning home in uniform, telling his wife Reiko (Tsuruoka Yoshiko) of his intent to commit harakari (the act is “harakari,” the elevated state of mind of the one undertaking it “seppuku”). This is followed by a scene of husband and wife lying naked together, then the preparations for harakari, a very realistic, blood-spattered harakari, followed by the wife slitting her throat.

Then the two are lying dead in the middle of a traditional Kyoto rock garden (with the severe raking to make the pattern).


The tableaux were very carefully composed, with the blood being stylized as black in black-and-white photography. The room is very white, dominated by large framed calligraphy (done by Mishima) of the Chinese characters for “wholehearted sincerity.”

The movie only lasts 27 minutes, but seems interminable. The lieutenant dies slowly and very messily in my view.

With no sympathy for what he is doing, why he is doing, and even greater horror that the wife remains the dutiful follower in suicide, I loathe the movie—even with a longstanding and considerable interest in Mishima.

The Criterion edition includes an hour-long discussion after watching the movie again after the discovery of a negative in 2005 by producer Fujii Hiroaki (The Burmese Harp) and four members of the crew. Much of this is boring both visually and in content, though the last part in which the old men speak with pride at having been involved in the two-day secret shooting of the film is interesting. They emphasize that Mishima was kind and considerate and utterly lacking in arrogance. He was an internationally famous writer, but a neophyte director. They also stress that he worked very hard, writing out the scrolled text by which the story is told, as well as the calligraphy at the center of the set, playing the lead role, getting his uniform made, etc.

Also included is a(n audio-only) 1966 talk in English about his career that Mishima made to a group of foreign journalists and some ambassadors to Japan, followed by some Q&A. (His English was relatively fluent and more British than American.)

I liked the bonus features more than the feature itself. In particular, I was interested to hear Mishima speaking. The movie is not silent — with heavy Wagner death-romanticizing music — but has no spoken lines. In “Kurotokage” (Black Lizard, 1968) he played a statue. I know that I’ve seen “Karakkaze yarô” (Afraid to Die, 1960) in which Mishima played a particularly vile gangster, but don’t remember what he sounded like in it.

The disc contains what Mishima thought was his essence and should be of interest to anyone interested in Mishima. I much prefer Paul Shrader’s 1985 stylized “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (in Japanese, though prevented from being shown there by Mishima’s widow, who also had all prints of “Patriotism” destroyed, but allowed producer Hiroaki Fujii to keep the negative; the DVD was made after her death) or Ichikawa Kon’s 1958 “Enjo” (based on The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) or Shinoda Masahiro ‘s “Double Suicide.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Mishima’s Drama of Six Women, “Madame De Sade”


Mishima Yukio (the pen name Hiraoka Kimitake, 1925-1970) probably remains the most famous of modern Japanese writers in the west, though more for his grotesque suicide than for his writings. Given his very public interest in making his own life a series of performances with more than a little sadomasochism in evidence, most notably in the identification of the protagonist in the autobiographical novel  Confessions of the Mask  being entranced by Reni’s painting of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the pose from which he had himself photographed, and the movie Yukoku/”Patriotism” that he adapted from his own novella and in which he played the solider who commits seppuku.

1965 audiences of Mishima’s play Sado Kōshaku Fujin, translated by Donald Keene as “Madame de Sade,” either in Tokyo or New York likely had more than an inkling of a personal interest by Mishima in sadomasochism. Perversely (though less so than it might at first seem), Mishima’s play is to a considerable extent “about” Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740 -1814) without his ever appearing on stage. His in-laws, at least two of whom are onstage at any time, call him “Alphonse,” which is also the name by which the pious Baronesse de Simiane remembers him (as a sweet, golden-haired lad).

Mishima was generally one for telling rather than showing (well, with the exception of “Patriotism”!). The outrages against morality Alphonse committed with rented bodies (servants and prostitutes) and on the page (writing the novel Justine) are related, mostly by his wife, whose most memorable line is that if her husband “is “a monster of immorality, I must be a monster of devotion.”

Experiencing the play now, I can’t put Mishima’s widow Sugiyama Yoko, whom he married to please his mother, was also a monster of devotion. She kept “Patriotism” for being showed for decades after Mishima’s seppuku, and managed to keep Paul Schrader’s movie “Mishima” banned in Japan, and did everything she could to prevent any mention of her husband’s homosexuality (perhaps the least of his kinkiness).

His character Renée, Marquise de Sade, is not the one bent on sanitizing her husband’s notoriety. Rather it is her mother, Madame de Montréal, who attempts that. Renée protects the manuscript of Justine, written in prison. She stands by her husband while he is jailed, which was most of the time between 1773 and 1790, with the last year in the insane asylum of Charenton after the Bastille was stormed. He twice escaped, one time with his sister-in-law, Anne. Anne is an advocate of living in the moment and says that if she ever needs memories, she will make some up.

Renée is loyal to memories of her husband as tender (as Mishima seems to have been to his wife, living his S&M fantasies away from home) and is even more at odds with her mother than with her sister. So long as Alphonse is in prison, Renée does everything she can to visit him, take him food, and safeguard his writings.


Madame de Montreuil wants to keep her son-in-law locked up, where he can instigate no further scandals… and her daughter can monopolize his affections. Freedom is a major issue in the very talky play. Renée wants him physically free, her mother wants him protected from the consequences of his fantasies—along with not having the family name/honor further besmirched.

The managing others aspect reminds me of Les liaisons dangereuses, though, as translator Donald Keene recalled, “Mishima was fascinated by the theatre of Racine and wanted to explore the idea of the long speech, where the off-stage action is hinted at or described by another person. To make this sound lively in English and not just a series of recitations, I had to work hard to get the words sounding just right.”

The text runs more than a hundred pages with many very long speeches (arias) and not much white space. Speaking the lines takes nearly three hours, though apparently the staging in London this past winter with Dame Judi Dench as Madame de Montreuil and Rosamunde Pike in the title role was exhilarating and the whole five-week run sold out. Earlier, a staging by Ingmar Bergman was a success d’estime (in Swedish in New York, with Keene’s English translation in headphones!).

The play lacks action and lacks male parts (though the Marquis is talked about a great deal). In writing about Sade, Simone de Beauvoir asked, “Must we burn Sade?” Her answer was fairly similar to Renée’s. The imperious (mother knows best) Madame de Montreuil holds her own as an advocate of preventive detention of a man determined to break all bonds of convention, and there are juicy parts for (invented) representatives of flouting conventional (the Comtesse de and Catholic orthodoxy (the Baronesse de Simine).

Mishima was intrigued that the marquise was devoted while the marquis was jailed and refused to meet him once he was released (and her mother considered him “in with” the new regime that had released him, so potentially useful to her survival…)

I wish I could have seen Dench and Pike duel about their concerns. One may hear them and other cast members talk about the parts and story on youtube at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3ekHzZgfqY&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_VZV9FDouc

(Since first I read the play, I have been to LaCoste, so can better picture where the marquis and marquise were at home.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Also see my discussion of the all-male cast of “My Friend Hitler,” which seems to me about delusions rather than about freedom. Mishima thought both showed “the impossibility of eroticism.”

More Tanizaki short fictions


(1913 portrait)

There must be Japanese who consider that Tanizaki Jun’ichirô shows too much light on obsessive and/or fetishistic Japanese love relationships. One of his equations of unfortunate modernization and overillumination spins out of a paean to nô stylization: “The Kabuki is ultimately a world of sham, having little to do with beauty in the natural state. It is inconceivable that the beautiful women of old—to say nothing of the men—bore any resemblance to those we see on the Kabuki stage. The women of the Nô, portrayed by masked actors, are far from realistic; but the Kabuki actor in the part of a woman inspires not the slightest sense of reality. The failure is the fault of excessive lighting. When there were not modern floodlamps, when the Kabuki stage was lit by the meager light of candles and lanterns, actors must have been somewhat more convincing in women’s roles.” (In Praise of Shadows, p. 27).

That gold was a reflector in dim rooms (p. 22) seems likely. I can’t recall ever seeing a solid gold object from Japan, whereas gold leaf is common on screens and gold thread is relatively common in fancy kimonos. Tanizaki is wrong that only “Orientals” loved jade (p. 10; what of Mesoamericans?). I am not convinced that Japanese in general prefer shadows to substance (inverting the values in Plato’s parable of the cave: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows”—p. 30).

“The older we get, the more we think that everything was better in the past. Never has there been an age that people have been satisfied with” (p. 39; I feel that fog was thicker in my early years in San Francisco and am reminded of Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City” bemoaning the diminution of waves since the breakers of old). And he makes me wonder what persimmon-leaf sushi tastes like.

Of the tales in Seven Japanese Tales, “The Thief” is the most straightforward representation of helpless repetition. I find “A Blind Man’s Tale” numbing (though the historical characters are among those most often encountered in the final paroxysms of civil war at the end of the 16th century). “A man has the strangest thoughts at the strangest time” (p. 187). Indeed, but Tanizaki’s characters rarely think of anything as prosaic as making a living: they live for art, they live for love (often very fetishized, with foot fetishes especially recurrent), they suffer for love and for art, they live and die for honor. The women are as preoccupied with their honor as are the men, partially or fatally withdrawing from the world. . .

I most admire “The Bridge of Dreams” with the doubling of a loving mother, and the scholarly trying to sort out what happened from the decorous records of the blind musician in “A Portrait of Shunkin.” (The contrasting definite and indefinite articles must be the translator’s.)


Tanizaki’s Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is quiete perverse. Tanizaki was so enraptured with women, he was even reverent of their feces. The “hero” finds his way up the toilet of the lady of the castle in which he is a hostage and delights in looking at her with the husband whose nose he has removed (with her connivance; earlier efforts by others split his upper lip and shot off his right ear). A Freudian could make much of a fascination with women preparing severed heads for display. It is this which thrills the twelve-year-old future Lord of Musashi, especially heads that have been left behind by warriors who take only the nose and will pick up the head later: sort of double castration.

Tanizaki wanted to (was!) with women, but I don’t get any sense that he wanted to be one. His fascination with everything about them was erotic.

I know that I read Arrowroot with which it is paired, but remember nothing about it except boredom at its dry chronicling. John Updike, another obsessively heterosexual writer, liked it, according to a cover blurb.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Earlier postings on Tanizaki fiction:


Some Prefer Nettles

The Reed Cutter

(Lord Musashi is here in the chronological order of Tanizaki’s writings)

A Cat, a Man, and Two Women

The Mother of Captain Shigemoto

The Makioka Sisters

The Key

Diary of a Mad Old Man

(Seven Tales collected works from a span of years)