Ibuse short stories


Ibuse Masuji (1898-1993) was a native of Hiroshima and is best known for his novelization of survivor documents (he was not in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped on it), Kuroi Ame/Black Rain, compellingly filmed by Imamura in 1989. The novel won the Noma Prize, the most prestigious Japanese literary award.


(portrait from the 1920s)

A collection of his short stories translated and introduced by John Bester was published by Kondasha in 1981. It had first been published in 1971  using the title of the longest story in it, “Lt. Lookeast,” then republished   (shorn of the novella “Tajinko Village”) using the title of his first published story, “The Salamander” (1919, retitlted “Confinement” a few years later). The cast of the story is the salamander that has grown too big to fit out the entrance to a small, a frog who blunders in and is prevented from leaving by the salamander, and a shrimp laden with eggs that disappears from the narrative. The frog does not hate the salamander for trapping it, and the salamander feels neither guilt nor shame for its slow murder of the frog.

The 1926 story “The Carp” is not about the titular fish. It was a gift from a friend (based on Ibuse’s mentor Aoki Nampachi) who died. The narrator feels obligated to find new homes (ponds) for the gift entrusted to him by the now dead friend. “Savan on the Roof” centers on a wounded goose the narrator expects gratitude from.

Animals (prize bulls) are central to “Old Ushitora” (1950), one of the more frustrating stories that fail to deliver any ending, though something happens that cries out for a resolution. I’d make the same complaint about the historical tale of an official inquest, “Yosaku the Settler” (1953) and “Lt. Lookeast” (1950), though the backstory is complete. The story conveys the disenchantment of rural youth who had been drafted for the militarism that has been preserved in the brain-damaged title character, who does not know that the war is over (though he is back in Japan, not cut off in a jungle like other Japanese soldiers who fought on or at least hid after Japan surrendered). The martinet’s crippling was quite inglorious.

“Plum Blossom by Night” (1930) has an ending, a trick ending that I also don’t like. “Life at Mr. Tange’s” (1931) doesn’t really have an ending, but does show something about class and social relations in prewar (WWII) Japan. “Pilgrim’s Inn” (no date indicated) is a sketch of a situation that also casts some light on rural poverty.

I don’t think that there is much that is imagined, except in “The Salamander,” and this collection of sketches did not build a clamor for translations of more of the large corpus of Ibuse publications.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray




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