Sunday, 19 February 2012

Snakelust by Nakagami Kenji

Snakelust was published by Kodansha International back in 1998, and is a translation of seven stories written by Kenji Nakagami by Andrew Rankin. Nakagami's stories depict the harsh world and lives of the burakumin, often incorporating elements and episodes from his own life, he was awarded the Akutagawa Prize for his short story Misaki/The Cape in 1975, notably Nakagami was the first author born in the post-war period to be given the prize. When moving to Tokyo, unlike many writers Nakagami worked in many manual handling jobs, and would often write in Jazz clubs. Oddly there are more studies of Nakagami in English than there are actual translations of his works. The stories here move between the contemporary and the medieval in their setting, his stories find their expression with a mythic-like quality and share interconnecting motifs, a reading of the short story The Immortal from his short story collection The Kumano Collection sees it also set in Nakagami's native Kumano following a holy man wandering through the forest who encounters a woman, and features a fleeing noble cortege, and includes scenes reminiscent here in the short story Crimson Waterfall.
The Mountain Ascetic/Shugen follows a man from Kumano as he tries to establish himself in Tokyo, the opening of the story begins with a description of the mountains echoing with the mingling sound of cicadas and Buddhist chant, coming to a close on the decaying corpse of a nameless monk, still the chant emanates from the pile of bones. The narrative leads on to a description of a man, described as being 'more muscle than brains', a man barely able to contain his passions, a drinker, due to his violent temper his marriage falls apart, and he returns to Kumano. Giving up cigarettes and alcohol the man wanders into the mountains in search of finding some form of reconciliation within himself, whilst walking he experiences three visitations, due to his exhaustion he believes that they could be hallucinations, the first is of a ghostly monk, which he identifies as being his dead brother who had committed suicide aged 24, the second is of a picnic scene with a mother, child and grandmother, the mother is crying. The third is of three men stacking stones lamenting about the misfortune that another of them has met, two of the men appear to be disfigured, one man has no hands, he moves the stones with the stumps of his wrists, another has no legs, the third man is dressed in white, perhaps swathed in bandages. Walking further the man finds himself chanting a sutra over and over, the man recalls his brother and a violent episode towards his wife, his frustration reduces him to tears, eventually he succumbs to sleep. In the night he is awoken by the sound of chimes in the darkness, he finds that it's source is from a monk performing an absolution of sorts. The visions that the narrator saw on the mountain seem swathed in enigma, mountains for Nakagami are places inhabited with spirits and have huge significance in these stories, landscapes that are open to a vast imaginative canvass where his characters find deep spiritual expression, each of the scenes the man sees could be seen to be representing the culminating scene within their own story.

The Wind and the Light/Somoku, in some ways is a companion piece to The Mountain Ascetic, it opens again in a mountain setting, Nakagami sets it near Odaigahara, with a man suffering from arrow wounds stumbling through the forest, coming across another man, at first it's seems uncertain to tell from which person the narrative is coming from, or the time period its set in. The man without the arrow wounds begins to assist the wounded man, after sometime the wounded man begs to be thrown off the cliff. Like the previous story the narrative flicks between the narrator recounting episodes from his past, the flashback sequences here sees the man recall a time in his youth when he had kept pet finches, his memory focuses particularly on a blind bird that he would grab in his fist and almost squeeze to death, and another memory sees him mistakenly open an egg with a living chick inside, he becomes rapt with guilt, he identifies himself with a character from Kamo no Chomei's Hosshinshu. Helping the man down from the mountain he begins to feel the man's pain, this transference of pain and also of spirits is another prominent motif in Nakagami's narratives, the wounded man suddenly bursts into tears asking why is it that he's helping him and begging to be left or killed, in the distance voices can be begin to be heard calling the wounded man. As in the The Mountain Ascetic the narrator has a brother who had committed suicide in the past, and the man suddenly comes to the realization that the wounded man is his brother visiting him with a message.

Snakelust/Jain, a story that was adapted to film by Kazuhiko Hasegawa, was released through A.T.G in 1976 under the title Seishun no satsujinsha/ The Youth Killer, Nakagami wrote the screen play which is a close rendering of this disturbing tale of family dysfunction taken to murderous degrees. In the story Kei's intrusion into the family is felt more prominently than in the film, it could be said that  Jun is tormented by his mother's jealousy which unleashes his pent up rage. Makeup/Kessho sees familiar motifs that appear in this collection, the figure of a brother who had committed suicide features in the background, the narrator works at a timber yard, (the family business in Jain is in lumber), and also the narrator keeps birds, here once he reaches breeding a hundred birds or pairs he then lets them go, watching as they disperse across the neighbourhood. In Kessho the protagonist is a man who is separating from his wife, the narrative is built up with thematically linked observations about the make up worn by key women from his life, his sisters,  mother and wife. The men in Nakagami's stories appear as men with a robust physicality, but as the jacket of the book describes - Again and again Nakagami confronts us with the disturbing fact of man's ultimate helplessness before the power of female sexuality.

Kurenai no taki/Crimson Waterfall and Oni no hanashi/A Tale of a demon are set in old Japan, A Tale of a Demon is a short story of a warrior from Koga deceived by a demon living on the Tatsumi Bridge, which Nakagami sets in the old Province of Omi, (now Shiga Prefecture), who appears to him as a beautiful young woman. Crimson Waterfall, a violent tale set in feudal times follows a noble cortege escaping from warring factions through a forest in Kumano, and is told mainly from the perspective of the princesses bodyguard, the group is made up of him, the princess and two ladies in waiting. The story follows the guard as he lusts after the princess, killing the ladies in waiting when they become separated from her, he tells her that they were caught and killed by the pursuing bandits. At night whilst she sleeps he rather gleefully contemplates her vulnerability, the story ends fulfilling the title's implied bloodiness. The last story is Juryoku no miyako/Gravity's Capital, an erotically charged story where the old and the contemporary begin to converge. From it's opening the story had me completely absorbed - She is standing in the doorway bathed in a stream of early morning sunlight when she says she's seen a god come soaring across the sky and land in the zelkova tree in the middle of the field. This story is largely told through the perspective of Yoshiaki, a construction worker who lives in the mountains who moves from site to site, intending to stay just for a night with a girl he meets. In the morning the girl begins to tell of a Prince that visits her during the night, at first he doesn't believe a word, as the story unfolds and the more he becomes involved with the girl, the more he becomes to realize that she is suffering a form of possession from the ancient Prince. He tries to smother the visions and the voices she hears and sees with his own passion, but putting his ear to her chest he too begins to hear a voice emanating from within her.

Studies in English:

Nakagami, Japan: Buraku and the Writing of Ethnicity
Anne McKnight
University of Minnesota Press, 2011

Negotiating Identity: Nakagami Kenji's Kiseki and the Power of the Tale
Anne Helene Thelle
Iucidicium Verlag, 2010

Out of the Alleyway - Nakagami Kenji and the Poetics of Outcaste Fiction
Eve Zimmerman
Harvard University Press, 2008

Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers
Nina Cornyetz
Stanford University Press, 1999

Works in English:

The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto
translated by Eve Zimmerman
Stonebridge Press, 2008

translated by Andrew Rankin
Kodansha International, 1998

The Immortal
Short story translated by Mark Harbison in the Showa Anthology
Kodansha International, 1985

Works in French:

Nakagami is more widely translated in French than in English, the publisher Editions Fayard publish five of his novels, and Editions Philippe Picquier publish Misaki/Le Cap and also Kiseki/Miracle. 


Parrish Lantern said...

I have The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto & have read a sample (Kindle) of Anne McKnight's Nakagami, Japan: Buraku and the Writing of Ethnicity, not yet read The cape but intend to shortly & will probably end up reading the other as what I'd read appealed enough to make me want to explore more. Great Post Thanks.

me. said...

I've got a copy of The Cape and Other Stories to read soon, and also Out of the Alleyway, I'd like to read Anne McKnight's book too, it would be great to see some of the novels make it into translation at some point in the future.