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

June 30, 2014

Nagai Kafu: A Strange Tale from East of the River (Bokuto Kidan, 1937)

Nagai Kafu is the greatest flâneur among all Japanese authors - he explored on foot all downtown neighborhoods of Tokyo, something which not only found its reflection in essayistic works like Hiyori Geta ('Fair-weather Geta,' 1915), but also in the stories he wrote. Never has the geography of Tokyo been described in such detail, be it the boards of the River Sumida in 1910 in the eponymous story, or the district east of the Sumida in the late 1930s in A Strange Tale from East of the River.

(Nagai Kafu in 1927 - Photo Wikipedia)

Kafu's descriptions of Tokyo are so reliable that Edward Seidensticker used his writings as important sources for his two books about the modern history of the metropolis: High City, Low City and Tokyo Rising.

This is what I love in Kafu's work - life in Tokyo is evoked so lively and naturally, that for a while we as readers also become 'Tokyoites.'

But Kafu is not only a great wanderer or evoker of atmosphere, he is in the first place a great writer. In this respect, Kafu has often been misunderstood - even by his translator, Edward Seidensticker, who deprecatingly called him a 'scribbler,' blinded by a restricted and too traditional view of what a novel should be. In fact, Kafu was one of the best Japanese authors of the 20th century, also someone who was fully aware of major trends in Western literature, which he read in the original French or English.

The literary interest of  A Strange Tale from East of the River - in my view his best work - lies in the original mode of narration -  the setting is that of an author who is writing a novel for which he is collecting materials. Like Kafu, he enjoys wandering through Tokyo, and that is why he visits the Tamanoi, a raw, low-life prostitution area east of the river Sumida. Kafu gives parts of the novel the narrator of his story is writing, interspersed with the adventure of the narrator, and several general observations, poems, etc. (The haiku in the story are a reminder that Kafu was also a good haiku poet!). This is true metafiction. As William Tyler says in Modanizumu, Modernist Fiction from Japan (1913-1938), Kafu fuses elements of classical lyricism, the 'novel within the novel' of Edo-prose, and the modernistic 'novel as commentary on the novel.'

A Strange Tale from East of the River is not only a well-crafted novella, it also has an unforgettable atmosphere: the long walk of the narrator through Asakusa where he visits a second-hand bookshop, the interrogation at a police post (these were the years leading into the war, and the authorities were not easy on the population), the view of Tamanoi with its dilapidated houses seen from the railway dyke, then the sudden rain and the meeting with the prostitute Oyuki who deftly entices him to her room by borrowing his umbrella.

That summer, he keeps visiting her mosquito infested room in the evening for long talks (and something else, which he whispers into her ear without revealing it to the reader), never disclosing his true identity as a writer - and she also keeps silent about her background and past. She appeals to the narrator because she wears a kimono and old-fashioned hairdo, reminding him of a woman of the Meiji-period. But when autumn starts, he decides it has been enough and stops his visits.

The summer evenings spent with Oyuki have become an unforgettable experience for the narrator, and Oyuki has unwittingly served as his muse.

The Tamanoi, which has now of course disappeared (the area today is called Higashi-Mukojima), was a rather rough red-light district, mostly visited by laborers - the unlicensed prostitutes rented small rooms and sat at the window and called out to the men passing by through the narrow alleys. Passersby were lured into the alleys by signs claiming this was a 'shortcut.' The details in the novella are all historically and geographically accurate.

The Tamanoi was decidedly unglamorous, as is Higashi-Mukojima today. The oldest trade in the world has left, and now the area consists of small shops, small houses and huge concrete apartments. It is a bit boring and looks the same as other areas east of the river. Even the somewhat notorious name 'Tamanoi' has been erased: the Tobu line station of that designation has been renamed 'Higashi-Mukojima.' Only where small private homes still remain can the visitor get a whiff of the atmosphere of old Tokyo thanks to the many potted plants in front of the houses. And of course we have the small Shirahige Shrine, mentioned in the story, and Mukojima Hyakkaen, the Garden of a Hundred Flowers, a garden dating from the Edo-period... and that all in the shadow of the futuristic Tokyo Skytree.

Original: Available online as etext from Aozora Bunko; or from Iwanami Bunko.
Translation: Kafu the Scribbler: The Life and Writings of Nagai Kafu 1879-1959, by Edward Seisensticker (Stanford U.P., 1965). Reprint of the story by Tuttle Books. Both seem to be out of print now, which is a shame - high time to reprint these great stories!