Friday, 1 May 2015

Realm of the Dead by Uchida Hyakken

Realm of the Dead is a book I've been meaning to reach for a while now, published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2006 and translated by Rachel DiNitto, who has also written an in-depth study of Hyakken in Uchida Hyakken - A Critique of Modernity and Militarism in Pre-war Japan, (Harvard East Asian Monographs - 30). Realm of the Dead is made up of two books by Hyakken, the same titled Realm of the Dead/Meido from 1922 and also Triumphant March Into Port Arthur/Ryojun Nyujoshiku from 1934. Between the two volumes there is a one page preface from Hyakken for the collection Triumphant March Into Port Arthur, in which he goes some way in explaining the ten year gap between the publication of the two books, the main cause being the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, reading this short preface from Hyakken comes the realization that Realm of the Dead is a book that would have perhaps been improved upon with the addition of at least a few pages by means of a further introduction or afterword to give a fuller con-textualisation to his writing and it's period. As well as writing an alternative version of I Am A Cat, Hyakken is also famous for being the subject of Kurosawa Akira's film Madadayo, in 1911 he was a pupil of Natsume Soseki, and after graduating from Tokyo University taught German at the Imperial Japanese Army Academy from 1916.

The two books consist mainly of short stories, 18 in Realm of the Dead and 29 in Triumphant March into Port Arthur, some of these in the later barely cover two pages, but reading Hyakken is to marvel at what he achieves in such a short space, his writing inhabits in lucid prose, realms of consciousness peeping out into vistas of the subconscious, or vice versa, at times surreal, reaching depths and heights that at times abruptly end as if their narrator is awakening from a dream or vision. Hyakken's compressed world is sometimes similar to that of Kafka, the inconsequential can be flipped over into being the consequential, plunging the narrator into philosophical explorations and interior ruminations which throw the narrator's world view into unexpected trajectories, the dilemma of a found wallet being one. Reading Realm of the Dead reminds me of the need to track out two other books, one being A Thousand One-Second Stories by Inagaki Taruho and the other is The Beautiful and the Grotesque by Akutagawa, in places it's interesting to remind yourself that Hyakken was for a time a contemporary of Akutagawa, perhaps he can be identified here appearing as Noguchi in the longer story The Bowler Hat, the narrator and Noguchi almost vie with each other as to who is the more affecting of the two writers, Noguchi departs the story eventually overdosing. Hyakken's stories do dip into some strange territories, one narrator finds himself being interrogated by melting police detectives, and although brief his stories impress with their unrelenting nature, in others the reader may pause and begin to question as to the motives behind Hyakken, or his narrator's reasoning in relating their narratives. In Whitecaps the narrator relates the story of how he and his Uncle find themselves rowing out to sea with the task of disposing of their pet dog that is guilty of biting a neighbour's child, reading Hyakken's stories sometimes feels that some could come closer to being described as narrative obstacles rather than ending with clear conclusion, although an overriding one could be that sometimes life is not good.

Across both of the books of stories there are number of different styles and narrative forms, some are dark explorative fictions, some feel that they maybe inspired from real life experiences and settings, there are a number here set in Hosei University, (including the title story of Triumphant March into Port Arthur), where Hyakken taught and perhaps if you are well grounded in Taisho/early Showa era history, some of the symbolism and portraits will begin to come into sharper focus, the story Triumphant March into Port Arthur is a far from being a celebratory narrative following the narrator watch a newsreel of the battle, which is centred around the meeting between General Nogi and General  Stessel, the narrator leaves the theatre with tears down his face, loosing all sense of his bearings he describes - 'The crowd kept clapping. My cheeks wet with crying, I fell into formation and was led out into the quiet of the city streets, out into nowhere'. Many of the stories feel that they have a metropolitan setting, but amongst these The Carp seems to pause for a moment to offer at what first appears as a landscape view, although with Hyakken it doesn't take too long before things begin to take on an alternative perspective, the narrator finds himself pursued into the landscape, the motives or identities of his pursuers uncertain, a mountain range comes into view, one pointing up resembling the dorsal fin of a carp, at points the delineation between land and sky becomes distorted, a spot of bright light appears and the narrator can hear an echoing sound that seems to grow in volume, the narrator finds himself on the other side of the light, staring back he notices that the side he was in is shaded in darkness, before him he observes a lake, in it a beautiful carp swims, the narrator becomes entranced by the fish, whose reflection he can see projected or reflected in the sky, the story ends with the narrator trying to restrain himself from diving in to swim with the beautiful fish. It's a beguiling story, reading it again on it's own and taken out of the stream of narratives from these stories, is to realise Hyakken's ornate  combination of allegory and modernist prose, to read The Carp is to perhaps picture a narrator witnessing an aspect of one of the stories from Ugetsu Monogatari - Muo no Rigyo/A Carp That Appeared in My Dream, and in another of one transcribing the journey from the mortal into the immortal, a fascinating collection that rewards after repeated reading.  

Realm of the Dead at Dalkey Archive Press                       


Parrish Lantern said...

I've just picked up from a local second hand bookshop "I am a Cat", although based on this write up the pupil's work has a greater degree of interest for me, especially with the mention of Akutagawa in reference to this work

me. said...

Very much enjoyed this book, although if you're not a fan of (in places very) short fiction this book might not be the book for you.

Finishing this at the moment though prompts me back to reading some more Akutagawa.

vanessa said...

Hi! It’s been a while since you published this post but I wonder if you know some Japanese and have read other works by Uchida. Actually, I started exploring the life of Uchida because I had watched a film called “Zigeunerweisen“ by Seijun Suzuki which is an adaptation of Uchida‘s Sarasate no ban ie The Disk of Sarate. Since there are no translations available in English or in my mother tongue so I’ve never had the chance to read the original prose. But later I have observed that part of the plot of The Bowler Hat from Realm of Dead share some similarities with the film. I wonder if that is the case!

me. said...

Hello!, apologies I've not visited my blog for a while and only just picked up your comment, sorry. I've not read anything else by Uchida but I think the film mentioned takes a number of stories for it's inspiration, the translator of Rachel DeNitto has written an essay on it -

I've got to sit and watch the film soon!.