Inoue burst onto the Japanese literary scene in 1949 with two novellas, the second of which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. But it was his debut that pleased me more.
The Hunting Gun is a novella set within a traditional framework. This is a structure that always delights me, as it allows an exploration of both past and present, adding additional poignancy to the present, when that is a sad one. It’s particularly effective here in that it left me feeling much more sympathy towards a character who, in some respects, deserves his current lot.
Following publication of a prose poem describing a man seen climbing Mount Amagi with his dog, a double-barrel shotgun resting on his shoulder, the unnamed narrator is surprised to receive a letter from Misugi Josuke claiming to have been the subject of the poem. He also sends her three letters, one from his niece, the second from his wife, and the third, a posthumous letter from his lover. He wants to share the reasons for the desolate, dried-up riverbed of a man the poet recognised within him.
The three letters form the body of the novella, and they tell of a family destroyed by a long-standing secret. When Josuke’s niece, Shoko, reads her mother’s diary following her death by suicide, she is shocked to discover that her mother and Josuke had been lovers for years. You might expect the potential damage of the affair to dissipate once the lover is dead. However, Saiko’s death turns out to be the catalyst for the complete disintegration of the family, as the two living women react in wholly unexpected ways.
Revisiting the affair from 3 viewpoints – the shocked niece, the abandoned wife, and the beloved – the letters are so psychologically astute that they provide a comprehensive answer to the question as to whether a man can write convincingly as a woman. Yes, yes, and thrice yes! They show the damage inflicted by the illicit affair, not only to the wife, Midori, (who has always known) but also to the lover – the burdens of betrayal, guilt and loneliness. Also the contradictions inherent to human nature. How can Saiko behave this way when she could not forgive her own husband for imfidelity? All this and not a cliché in sight!
It appears that Josuke himself hasn’t suffered all that much, but following the receipt of the letters, it is his time to reap what he has sown. He deserves much of it, but I still felt that his niece’s reaction was going to inflict far more pain that was his due.
The lover’s relationship in Bullfight is far more opaque. That Tsugami (married, wife and two children living elsewhere) and Saikiko (war widow) are unhappy is not in question. This is the first mention of them as a couple: but Saikiko had come over the previous evening and they had started quarrelling, as they always did, about whether or not to break up. As the novella progresses, and one unhappy scene follows another, you’ve got to assume that Saikiko regrets being attracted by Tsugami’s unsavoury side.
Elsewhere Tsugami is described as an isolated lonely, soul with a core that refused to catch. In matters of the heart, maybe. He’s a different entity altogether when it comes to business, particularly that business of the bullfight. Tsugami, as editor-in-chief of a newspaper, agrees to sponsor a Japanese bullfighting tournament (one in which bull fights bull). Besides generating money for the paper from ticket sales and onsite gambling, it will bring some colour back to war-torn Osaka and make his name. From the start though the enterprise is beset with difficulty, with setback after setback, and exponentially rising costs. Tsugami is engaged in an exhausting bullfight with his own project, forced eventually to accept the help of black marketeers and other shady characters to gain a chance of success.
The impact of this is that Tsugami, the cool lover, becomes the distanced one, and Saikiko’s love threatens to turn to hate. She’s not even sure whether she wants Tsugami’s big gamble to succeed or fail. While Tsugami’s project allows Inoue to invest his tale with a measure of post-war state-of-the-nation analysis, I always felt that the bullfight itself was a metaphor for the struggle and tussle of Tsugami’s and Saikiko’s relationship – a suspicion finally confirmed in the dramatic closing scene.
This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.
It’s also the start of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press Reading Project. For my first circuit I’ll be travelling East to West from and to Japan. I enjoyed Inoue’s clarity so much, that I’ll be reading Life of A Counterfeiter upon my return.
Next stop: Russia