Tag Archives: The Old Geisha

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

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