Tag Archives: Okamoto Kanoko

Five 1938-39 stories by Okamoto Kanoko, and (more interesting) her own life story

It seems that Okamoto Kanoko (1889-1939) went from being a neglected to a doted-upon wife whose husband acquiesced to her bringing younger men to live in their household. A noted tanka poet and Buddhist scholar, she only began writing fiction in the last three years of her life and only went from narcissistic self-congratulation in the I-novel style to stories about unrequited love during the last year and a half.

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Donald Keene who objected to her overblown (quite unJapanese!) style, considered her a “minor but unforgettable writer,” singling out Rōgishō (Portrait of an Old Geisha) for special praise. It seems to me the most autobiographical of the five stories translated by Sugisaki Kazuko in The House Spirit and Other Stories. Not that Okamoto had been a geisha, but she definitely took up a series of younger men to nurture in various ways. Kosono sponsors her all-but resident electrician, Yuki, to do his own work (inventing). Kosono does not goist her foster daughter, Michiko, on Yuki and encourages him to play around, as well as financing his existence. He is chagrined that being freed of the burden of supporting himself, he does not accomplish the great things he thought he would were he free:

“He remembered those days when he had to work on trivial jobs. He didn’t like it, but he could bear it because he had an ambition, a thrilling dream that someday he would have enough money to devote himself to creation of new things. But this living once materialized, living it daily was boring, almost tormenting. Working in quiet isolation he became sometimes frightened with the notion that he might be going in an entirely wrong direction in his research, and thus would be left behind the mainstream of the time.”

In the collection, “Old Geisha” is preceded by the later “Sushi,” a piece about a man named Miyato who as a boy was so fastidious that he would only eat eggs and seaweed. His mother made sushi for him and coaxed him into eating. At the time of the story a young woman, Tomoyo is trapped, literally caged, as a cashier in the family sushi shop, where Tomoyo is a regular. He tells her how he came to be able to tolerate sushi and then ceased to patronize the shop. Yes, that is the whole story. I preferred the novella “Food Demon,” (my favorite of Okamoto’s fiction available in English translation that was paired in another translation with A Riot of Goldfish) also centered on food preparation and presentation.

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(1919 photo with her son Taro)

Okamoto’s stories are plotless. One might say that they are character-driven, though I’d say they elaborate situations of unhappiness, often self-defeat, though class differences also figure prominently.

“North Country” (Michinoku), the shortest, describes a young woman, Ran, who takes pity on a young man called “Shiro, the Fool,” who refuses to marry. Shiro does not realize she is waiting for him and disappears.

“The House Spirit” (Karei) also centers on a restaurant. It is patronized — if that word is appropriate for someone unable to pay for his meals — by an artisan (Tokunaga) who makes exquisite metal ornaments that have gone out of style. The mother of Kumeko, the current owner, accepted occasional masterpieces from him and supplied him the loach soup and rice that kept him going. Kumeko decides to continue her mother’s charity, though Tokunaga withers away.

“The River” (Kawa) features an unnamed daughter of a traditional, prominent rural family. Naosuke, an employee of her father, pines for her and drowns himself after she marries (and he builds a bridge for her wedding). This story resembles that of the hopelessly smitten lower-class worker in “A Riot of Goldfish.”

The collection is filled with unfulfilled yearning from both sexes. Some of the scene-setting is overwritten (I’m pretty sure not just in translation). Though Okamoto experienced considerable anguish early in her marriage, she eventually had the love not only of her prodigal-returned husband, and two sons (all artists), but her physician and other young protégés. Sugisaki’s biographical sketch, which does not even allude to any of the stories in the book, is probably the most interesting story in it.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Two novellas about young male creators by Okamoto Kanoko

Okamoto Kanoko (née Ohnuki Kano, 1889-1939) was a scholar of Zen Buddhism and a tanka poet who wrote fiction during the last three years of her life. Being of upper-class origin, her fiction tends to focus on resentful working-class males. Whether males from lower classes of the early Showa-era idealized her peers as she portrays them as doing is a question I can’t answer, though I am suspicious.

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The protagonist of her novella Riot of Goldfish (Kingyo Ryōran), Mataichi is the son of a goldfish-seller who is enchanted by Masako, a shy girl whose rich father (Teizô) underwrites Mataichi’s fishery studies. Though distant glimpses of Masako, up the hill above his family’s fishponds, enchant him, he has no chance of wedding her and sublimates his desire into trying to breed a goldfish as beautiful as (he thinks) Masako is. The breeds he engineers (life he creates) keep being washed away in floods. Masako has no idea he is trying to recreate her in piscine form, or, for that matter, that he has been in love with her for most of their lives.

“The Food Demon” (Shokuma), Besshirô, is also smitten by the beautiful daughter of his patron, Okinu, and desperate to be regarded as a master artist, to be addressed with the honorific “sensei.” He alienates those who had admired his knowledge of and skill at painting and calligraphy, though what he produces is dismissed as “tasteful,” lacking the spark of genius.

His genius is for the less exalted “art” of cooking, which has lower prestige but gives very tangible pleasure. He gives cooking lessons to the pampered Okinu and her drudge sister Ochiyo, but only the latter really notices how handsome and gifted he is.

Their father provides Besshirô and the meek wife he has been pressed by the aunt of his dead painter/restaurant-owner friend, Higaki, to marry a small house and a small stipend, and Besshirô takes out his frustrations mostly on his wife, Isuko (Higaki’s only cousin).

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There are no female characters developed at all in either novella. The only one who is not a drudge or an impossible fantasy is a female Buddhist scholar (what Okamoto was) who delivers the “no more than tasteful” verdict on his paintings, but genuinely appreciates his culinary skills. Even she is little developed.

The protagonists bring Zola (especially L’ouevre) to my mind with his fatalism in the traditional Buddhist guise of karma. Mataichi is more focused (beyond the point of obsession!) than Besshirô, who writhes in disappointment and resentment of his social superiors.

Goldfish has something of a plot, Food-Demon fills in the background of its protagonist, including the harrowing cancer death of Higaki). In the story’s present Besshirô gives a demonstration of handling endive, leaves his female students in their mansion, goes home, rails at his wife, and drinks a lot of beer as he watches hail fall, and while his wife keeps their son quiet in the bedroom.

Food-Demon is more about attempts to integrate Eastern and Western art and aesthetics than the aesthetic of Mataichi, though he is even more intent on creating beauty than Besshirô is.

The two novellas, translated by J. Keith Vincent were published in 2010 by Hesperus with an enthusiastic foreword by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray