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A History of Modern Japanese Literary Criticism: Act One, Scene 2


(Act One, Scene 1 can be found here.)

Disclaimer: The following is for reference only. Its sole purpose is to give readers an overview of the history of modern Japanese literary criticism. I have avoided using all features common to the dramatic form, including plot, character development, word play, humor, Verfremdungseffekt, involution, and any explicit or implicit references to myself, Ryan Morrison, and the narrow world I inhabit.

Dramatis personæ, in order of appearance

  • Akagi Kōhei 赤木桁平 (1891-1949)
  • Ikuta Chōkō 生田長江 (1882-1936)
  • Orikuchi Shinobu 折口信夫 (1887-1953)
  • Satō Haruo 佐藤春夫 (1892-1964)
  • Nagai Kafū 永井荷風 (1879-1959)
  • Nakano Hideto 中野豪人 (1898-1966)
  • Arishima Takeo 有島武郎 (1878-1923)
  • Hirotsu Kazuo 広津和郎 (1891-1968)
  • Kikuchi Kan 菊池寛 (1888-1948)
  • Satomi Ton 里見弴 (1888-1983)
  • Chiba Kameo 千葉亀雄 (1878-1935)
  • Kume Masao 久米正雄 (1891-1952)
  • Edogawa Rampo 江戸川乱歩 (1894-1965)
  • Aono Suekichi 青野季吉 (1890-1961)

Act 1: The Meiji and Taishō Periods (Continued)

  Act 1, Scene 2

It is now 1916, and despite the portentous chill felt by Ōsugi Sakae and others, Taishō (1912-1926) is turning out to be a rather pleasant and prosperous era. The early-Meiji spirit of liberalism has been revived, and the Blue Stockings (Seitō, 1911-1916), Japan’s first feminist group founded by Yosano Akiko and Hiratsuka Raichō at the behest of Ikuta Chōkō, wages war against the patriarchy and its essentialist myths. Such progressivism, however, has produced a wave of conservative detractors, including the reactionary disciple of Sōseki, Akaki Kōhei.

Akaki Kōhei: The moral fabric of our society is unraveling! Everywhere is depravity and corruption! I hereby call for the extirpation of all profligate literature (yūtō bungaku no bokumetsu), including that of the whore-mongering, self-obsessed Naturalists! Those in the Aestheticist (tanbishugi) camp shouldn’t sit too comfortably, either. They too shall be eradicated!

Ikuta Chōkō: Now, now, don’t be so hard on the Naturalists. They’ll dig their own graves just fine without us. To me, the worst are the “ludicrously idealistic” (medetai risōshugi) Shirakaba writers, who write in a bloated, lofty style as if Naturalism had never happened. Even as we speak, they’re building some absurd utopian village (Atarashiki mura, 1918-present) in the hills of Kyūshū, led by their Tolstoy-inspired guru Mushanokōji Saneatsu. What would Nietzsche — whom I was the first to translate, mind you! — have to say about such puerility (osanago-shugi)?

Orikuchi Shinobu: Yeah, the Shirakaba group is pretty lame. But who fares better? The Aestheticists? They’re just as out of touch with reality — look how they gush like schoolboys over every new exotic fad, whether it’s from Edo, China, the West, or the Southern Barbaries.

It is now 1919, and Satō Haruo, Nagai Kafū, and Nakano Hideto are discussing the various modes of criticism.

Satō Haruo: All criticism is ultimately impressionistic, despite Kikuchi Kan’s claim that subjective criticism is the preferred method of charlatans. Criticism — regardless of what it’s “about” — is ultimately a discourse of the self. [Kobayashi Hideo, as we’ll see in the next act, would later build on this.]

Nagai Kafū: I’d much rather wander the shitamachi streets half-drunk than get lost in the labyrinth of the self. Yet I can understand your reluctance to confront the world directly. As I explain in my recent essay “Hanabi” (“Fireworks”), I was enraged by the High Treason Incident of 1910, which the authorities used as an excuse to establish a surveillance state. Yet I did nothing. A coward, I am capable only of retreating into the long-vanished world of Edo. If anyone needs me, you can find me in one of its brothels, courtesan breast in mouth.

Nakano Hideto: Solipsistic impressionism, anti-modern escapism . . . when are we going to get serious about confronting reality? Let this moment mark the beginning of Japan’s proletarian movement — a “people’s arts” (minshū geijutsu) for and by “the fourth class” (daiyon kaikyū)!

It is now 1922, and Arishima Takeo and Hirotsu Kazuo are discussing their role in the class struggle, while Kikuchi Kan and Satomi Ton are engaged in their “Content Value Controversy” (Naiyōteki kachi ronsō), which, like most literary debates, will end without conclusion.

Arishima Takeo: As much as I’d love to keep fighting for the workers, Mr. Nakano, I’m afraid the movement has no place for educated aristocrats like myself. [Arishima, sadly, would die in a love-suicide (shinjū) the following year.]

Hirotsu Kazuo: Come on, people! What’s all this talk about class? Art transcends class! The tent of literature is big enough for us all… so long, of course, as you find your proper, class-determined role within it.

Kikuchi Kan: You know, I’ve recently stopped giving a shit about “formal or aesthetic beauty” (biteki kachi). For me, “content value” (naiyōteki kachi) is the only thing that matters. Even the most poorly constructed story can move me to tears if its subject is powerful enough.

Satomi Ton: Horseshit, Kikuchi. Subject alone is worthless. Value is to be found only in form.

Two years have passed, and the discussion has moved to the merits of prose versus that of poetry.

Hirotsu Kazuo: Forget about the form-content problem for now. I want to talk about prose versus poetry. Prose, I claim, is superior to poetry, as it is that which mediates between poetry and life. Of all the arts, prose is closest to life and cannot be disentangled from it. Hence, it is meaningless to speak of “pure form” in works of prose. Wouldn’t you all agree?

Satō Haruo, Arishima Takeo, and Kikuchi Kan (in unison): We agree.

Ikuta Chōkō: Ignorant clods! I’m entirely unconvinced. Life is contingent, subordinate — even irrelevant — to art! Art exists for its own sake, and should be assessed by standards that are independent of life. [With this begins the famed “Debate on the Art of Prose” (Sanbun geijutsu ronsō), which would run out of steam before the year’s end.]

Chiba Kameo: I’m starting to notice some trends in your bickering. Since the Great Kantō Earthquake last year, writers have split into two camps: the Proletarian camp, rallied around the magazine Bungei Senzen, and the New Sensation School — Shinkankaku-ha, a word I coined, mind you! — centered around the magazine Bungei Jidai. My allegiance is with the latter, which boasts two of our greatest writers, Kawabata Yasunari and Yokomitsu Riichi.

It is now 1925, the last year of Taishō, and writers are largely unprepared for the turbulence that would come in the first two decades of the Shōwa period (1926-1989).

Kume Masao: Nakamura Murao and Ikuta Chōkō insist that the “authentic novel” (honkaku shōsetsu) is superior to the “I-novel” (shishōsetsu), but they are wrong. The “I-novel” — or, as I call it, the “state-of-mind novel” (shinkyō shōsetsu) — is Japan’s only true novel. All else is vulgar, artificial and commercial and should be renamed “light fiction” (tsūzoku shōsetsu). [Ikuta and Nakumura counter, and the famous “I-Novel Debate” (Watakushi shōsetsu ronsō) continues for several more months.]

Edogawa Rampo: Kindly add to your list, Mr. Kume, the “detective novel” (tantei shōsetsu), of which I am Japan’s foremost practitioner. Yet recently I’ve come under attack from leftists like Maedakō Hiroichirō, who dismiss the genre as “bourgeois” frivolity. What they fail to understand, however, is that the “detective novel” is more than a game of cat and mouse: it is the purest representation of the enquiry into the human psyche. It is akin to — no, it is symbolist poetry. For the pursuit of the fantastic (gensō) is the pursuit of human knowledge itself!

Aono Suekichi: Right, right, whatever. Now help me hand out these pamphlets, which include excerpts from my recent translation of Lenin’s What Is To be Done? Now the revolution can begin in earnest!

(To be continued…)

December 22, 2009

Ryan Morrison grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and went to school in California. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Tokyo. His blog is Beholdmyswarthyface.

3 Responses

  1. Anthony B. Moon Says:

    Nice piece. I’m currently reading Volume 4 of Donald Keene’s “History of Japanese Literature” (the one on poetry/drama/criticism), so your play is very helpful as a kind of mnemonic supplement. One thing, however: Shouldn’t Orikuchi’s line read “look how they gush like schoolGIRLS over every new exotic fad . . “? Do schoolboys gush?

  2. M-Bone Says:

    The schoolboys in Ogai’s Vita Sexualis did.

  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    I should probably defend Ryan’s artistic judgment here: this was a change that I demanded, er, suggested. Because sure, schoolboys do gush over fads — their voices are just a little deeper, at least in high school — and a gag of the form “those men are so frivolous, they’re practically female!” is clearly tapping into/reinforcing latent sexism.