Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

February 21, 2012

Japanese Masters: Mizukami Tsutomu (novelist)

Mizukami Tsutomu (1919 - 2004; 水上勉) was a literary author of fiction who often straddled the border of pure literature and more popular genres. More than ten of his novels were made into films, a sure sign of his popularity in his own country (strangely enough, these films mostly remained outside the Western "Japan canon"). When I lived as researcher in Kyoto in the early 1980s, I often saw his books in bookshops and on shelves of friends. In the West, he is almost unknown - it was only in 2008 that, coincidentally, translations appeared in both English and German of his masterwork, The Temple of the Wild Geese, and in English also of his novel Bamboo Dolls of Echizen. This neglect is strange, for Mizukami's greatest work has a certain obsessiveness in common with Tanizaki and Kawabata, and gives atmospheric depictions of the world of priests and geisha in Kyoto, as well as the poor countryside of the Wakasa area. It has also strong folkloristic elements.

By the way, the author's name can also be read as Minakami - that was in fact the pseudonym he used as a writer, but as he himself was not strict about it and "Mizukami" is the  pronunciation now usually used in Japan, we will keep to Mizukami.

Mizukami was born as the son of a shrine carpenter in the Wakasa region of Fukui Prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast above Kyoto. In his early teens, he became a novice in a Kyoto temple (a subtemple of Shokokuji), taking his vows in 1930. But the young Mizukami had a difficult time in the Zen establishment, moving from temple to temple. In 1932 he entered the Tojiin and went to nearby Hanazono Middle School, but had quite a turbulent relationship with the head priest whom he considered as corrupt. He left in 1936, after graduation.

Mizukami then entered Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto to study Japanese literature, but dropped out due to financial problems. It took a long time to get on his feet - he had thirty-six different jobs in this period, from vagrant peddler to clerk in a geta shop and manager of a mahjong parlor (which of course gave him the  life experience useful for a writer). Study with the author Uno Koji (1891-1961), known for his naturalistic novels in a personal style, led to his first autobiographical novel (The Song of the Frying Pan, 1948), but Mizukami was unable to support himself by writing for at least another decade. His breakthrough came in 1959 when he published an extremely popular mystery, Mist and Shadow. It was detective fiction with a social theme, a genre initiated by Matsumoto Seicho (Ten to Sen). In 1961 Mizukami wrote The Fangs of the Sea in the same vein, a mystery novel about the Minamata Disease, caused by environmental pollution, that won him the Mystery Writers' Club Prize. His most enduring popular work in this genre was Straits of Hunger from 1963.

Mizukami used the financial security provided by these mystery novels to step back into pure literature. The Temple of the Geese (1962) was based on his own temple experiences and won him the prestigious Naoki Prize - it has been filmed by Kawashima Yuzo and is generally considered as his masterwork. The years of literary and social apprenticeship now paid off.

In The Yugiri Brothel at Gobancho (1962) Mizukami wrote about a young girl from a poor family who is sold to become a geisha (Gobancho was a geisha district in Nishijin, Kyoto). In the same novel, he treats the burning of the Golden Pavilion from a different point of view than Mishima Yukio had done. Local color is very strong in The Bamboo Dolls of Echizen  ("Echizen" is the traditional name for Fukui Prefecture where Minakami was born), which won very high praise from Tanizaki in 1963. Minakami also excelled in the genre of the literary biography. His biography of his literary mentor Uno Koji won the Kikuchi Kan Prize in 1971, and his study of the 15th c. eccentric Zen-master Ikkyu was awarded the Tanizaki Prize in 1975.

Mizukami started only in his early forties as a full-time writer, but his output was tremendous: he wrote between 5 and 10 books a year, in the 1960s even 15. Already in 1968 his Selected Works were published by Shinchosha in six volumes. In 1976-78 followed his Collected Works in 26 volumes (Chuo Koronsha), and again in 16 volumes in 1995-97. Besides fiction (both high-brow and middle-brow, and often a mix of both), he also wrote travel essays, autobiographical reminiscences and popular books about Buddhism. Kyoto and its temples were a favorite subject. His travel essays were collected in 1982-83 by Heibonsha in eight volumes. Mizukami wrote in a beautiful literary style, but in his dialogues he also used dialect elements.

Here are some of his major works:
  • The Temple of the Wild Geese (Gan no Tera, 1961). 
    Mizukami used thriller techniques in this semi-autobiographical novel, set in a Kyoto temple called "the Temple of the Wild Geese" because a famous painter has decorated the sliding doors with these birds. The story centers on Jinen, a thirteen-year old novice with a mysterious background. The orphaned son of a beggar, he has a grotesquely formed head and is generally unhappy and ashamed of his past. The priest of the temple, Jikai, has taken an ex-geisha from Gion, Satoko, into the temple.  In modern Japan, priests are allowed to marry, but playing around with geisha is of course a sign of lewdness in a priest. On top of that, Jikai is a notorious tippler. The lonely Jinen develops a crush on Satoko, and she does not completely discourage his youthful fancy. The unlikely love triangle leads to a brutal climax - Jikai disappears. Has he really departed on a walking tour of penance, as Jinen says? A story with great psychological depth and written in a beautiful style.

    The English translation was made by Dennis Washburn and published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2008 (also includes Bamboo Dolls of Echizen);  the German translation was made by Eduard Klopfenstein, also in 2008.

    The Temple of the Wild Geese was filmed in 1962 by Kawashima Yuzo (another Unknown Master) in vibrant black-and-white. Wakao Ayako plays the role of Satoko. Jinen is older than in the book, he is in Middle School and looks about eighteen - this makes the love triangle more probable.

  • The Yugiri Brothel at Gobancho (Gobancho Yugiriro, 1963)
    A young woman from a poor family in Fukui is sold to the Yugiri geisha house in Nishijin, Kyoto. A rich merchant wants to be her lover, but she is already in love with a local boy who has become a novice in the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Out of frustration he in the end sets fire to the priceless structure...

    The Yugiri Brothel at Gobancho was filmed in 1963 by Tasaka Tomitaka (another Unknown Master).

  • Bamboo Dolls of Echizen (Echizen Takeningyo, 1963)
    A young bamboo craftsman, Kisuke, takes his father's prostitute Tamae as a wife and insists on treating her as a mother - the two never become lovers. The story has weird Freudian overtones. Cared for by Tamae, Kisuke becomes a renowned craftsman, a maker of the bamboo dolls the region is famous for. Part folk tale and part social realism, set in the isolated rural scenery of Fukui Prefecture. Lots of local color, often of a primitive and ghostly nature.

    Bamboo Dolls of Echizen was translated by Dennis Washburn and published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2008 in the same volume as The Temple of the Wild Geese.

    Bamboo Dolls of Echizen was filmed in 1963 by Yoshimura Kozaburo (yes, another Unknown Master!) as a stylish melodrama. 
Anthologies of Japanese literature in English contain two further short stories by Mizukami: The Showa Anthology (2) contains "Mulberry Child" in the translation by Anthony H. Chambers, and Autumn Wind contains "Bamboo Flowers" in the translation by Lane Dunlop.

Films other than those mentioned above based on novels by Mizukami Tsutomu include: Mist and Shadows (Kiri to Kage) was filmed in 1961 by Isshi Teruo; The Story of Echigo (Echigo tsutsuishi oya shirazu) was filmed in 1964 by Imai Tadashi, and stars Mikuni Rentaro; Straits of Hunger (Kiga kaikyo, also titled "A Fugitive from the Past" in English) was filmed in 1965 by Uchida Tomu - a study of the dark underbelly of postwar society; Shadow of the Waves (Namikage) was filmed in 1965 by Toyoda Shiro; Clouds at Sunset (Akenegumo) in 1967 by Shinoda Masahiro; the same director also filmed Ballad of Orin (Hanare goze Orin) in 1977 - protagonist in both films was Iwashita Shima; and Father and Child (Chichi to Ko) by Hosaka Nobuhiko in 1983; in the same year followed The Legend of the White Snake (Hakujasho), another and more erotic take on the love triangle between a lustful priest - second wife - and novice, here with Koyanagi Rumiko.