Writing Beyond Realism: The Case of Ishikawa Jun
(Original Author of "Asters")
Ishikawa Jun (1899-1987) is a towering figure in modern Japanese literature. Born in Tokyo, he began his literary career as one of Japan's first translators of French literature, introducing the modernist works of André Gide and others to a generation of readers. His debut as a novelist came in 1935 with Kajin (The Fair One, trans. RS Morrison), a parody of the so-called "I-novel" (watakushi shosetsu) mode of autobiographical realism that dominated modern Japanese fiction for the first half of twentieth century. Kajin was followed by a series of similarly experimental works that challenge the norms of naturalistic realism, including Ashide (Reed Writing, 1935), Hinkyu Mondo (Dialogue on Poverty, 1935), Hibutsu (Hidden Buddha, 1936), Yamazakura (The Wild Cherry Tree, 1936, trans. RS Morrison), Marusu no uta (The Song of Mars, 1938, trans. RS Morrison), and Fugen (The Bodhisattva, 1936, trans. William Tyler), which won him the fourth Akutagawa Prize.
During the Second World War, Ishikawa buried himself in the study of literature. He wrote a series of important essays on a variety of subjects--Japanese literature of the Edo period (1603-1867), classical Chinese literature, European modernist and symbolist literature, and modern Japanese literature--in order to clarify his own literary orientation and philosophy. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Writing Beyond Realism: A Critical Study of Ishikawa Jun's Early Fiction and Essays, with Translations, Ishikawa's entire corpus can be understood as a sustained attack on the notion of mimetic realism, which he regarded as the dominant paradigm of modern Japanese literature. More than any other modern writer, Ishikawa recognized that the key fault line in the arts is the divide between realist modes and nonrealist modes. His two masterpieces of interwar literary criticism are Bungaku Taigai (A General Approach to Literature, 1942), a collection of previously published essays dating back to May 1936, and Mori Ogai (Mori Ogai, 1941), a critical appraisal of his literary idol Mori Ogai (1862-1922), published just before the twentieth anniversary of his death.
After the war, Ishikawa continued to explore alternatives to conventional realism in his fiction. But unlike his earlier Gide-inspired metafiction, his postwar fiction moved increasingly toward fantasy, allegory, and alternate history. In retrospect, we can see that Ishikawa's attempt to push modern Japanese literature beyond the phase of naïve realism was ahead of its time. Today, the novels of Murakami Haruki (b.1949) and Takahashi Genichiro (b.1951)--not to mention anime, manga, and other forms of popular culture--all speak to the fact that magical realism, speculative fiction, and other forms of post-realism now constitute the mainstream of Japanese fiction. This trend extends beyond literature: one only has to turn to artists such as Aida Makoto (b.1965) and Murakami Takashi (b.1962) to see how the "fantasy turn" has taken place in the art world as well. Indeed, fantasy seems to occupy the position that once belonged to realism.
Perhaps the finest example of Ishikawa's postwar fiction is his allegorical masterpiece Shion Monogatari (1956), which was translated into English by Donald Keene as Asters in 1961. Inspired by Gustave Flaubert's La légende de Saint-Julien l'hospitalier (The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier, 1877), the story is set in premodern times in an age of feudal wars. It obliquely addresses the most urgent concerns of Japanese people at the time: war, trauma, historical amnesia, responsibility, and the problem of evil. The four main characters each represent a different category of evil. Tonai (the rural-born diviner) represents the evil that results from moral corruption and worldly ambition. Princess Utsuro (Muneyori's wife)--whose name literally means "empty" or "hollow"--is a high-born sex fiend whose evil stems from her unbridled carnality. Yumimaro (Muneyori's uncle) is a vulgar brute whose petty brand of evil is the result of his perverse privileging of his inclinations. And Muneyori--the work's central character--is a nobleman who has a natural genius for poetry but chooses instead to follow his destructive impulses. Muneyori represents a kind of diabolical evil that is non-pathological and exists for its own sake. The work received the Ministry of Education Prize for Literature in 1957, and has been a consistent favorite among Japanese readers.
Like so many of Ishikawa's works, Asters abounds in binary oppositions: country and city, poetry and prose, art and politics, self and other, utopia and dystopia, memory and forgetting, Eros and Thanatos, body and spirit. These binaries often collapse into one another, or are sublimated into a higher unity. The work's central dichotomy is represented by the two characters Muneyori and Heita, who initially appear to be polar opposites. Heita is a world-renouncing, self-denying hermit who lives in a cave and spends his time sculpting Buddha statues in the mountains. For him and his tribe, history is a nightmare that must be forgotten: he surrounds his cave with memory-blotting wasuregusa (day lilies), which literally means "forgetting grasses." By contrast, the ruthless Muneyori seeks to remember his past atrocities by planting Asters--flowers associated with never forgetting--over those he has killed. For him, the traumatic past is something to be preserved and celebrated. In the final climactic scene, the two seemingly antithetical characters are revealed to be uncanny mirror images of one another. Muneyori's final declaration that "Heita is myself" suggests the unsettling possibility that radical good and radical evil are somehow identical.
Prominent literary and art critic Kato Shuichi (1919-2008), writing in 1968, ranked Ishikawa as "Japan's finest postwar writer." Other critics have described Ishikawa as Japan's last bunjin, a Chinese-derived term that refers to the literati writers and artists of the Sino-Japanese tradition who devoted their lives to the pursuit of art. Ishikawa's literary protégés included leading postwar novelists, Oe Kenzaburo (b.1935) and Abe Kobo (1924-1993). The latter, in his eulogy for his mentor, ranked Ishikawa as one of the most erudite and encyclopedic minds in Japan, calling him "the Jorge Luis Borges of Japan." Other distinguished admirers have included novelists Mishima Yukio (1925-1970) and Shibusawa Tatsuhiko (1928-1987). Influential literary and cultural critic Suzuki Sadami (b. 1947) aptly summed up Ishikawa's legacy when he wrote: "The world of Ishikawa's novels constitute the very backbone of the literary arts of the Showa period (1926-1989)."
Article by Ryan Shaldjian Morrison
Ph.D., Professor of Japanese Literature, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, Author of Writing Beyond Realism: A Critical Study of Ishikawa Jun's Early Fiction and Essays,with Translations (forthcoming)
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