Friday, 4 December 2009

In the Woods Beneath Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom

Ango Sakaguchi, (1906-1955), probably Niigata's most well known writer, another being the poet Nishiwaki Junzaburo, whose poetry I hope to read soon, but I thought it about time to read his 'In the Woods Beneath the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom', written in 1947. I've seen the film adaption by Masahiro Shinoda, and now after reading the story, realize that the film is a very close rendering of this short story. Sakaguchi is often associated with the writer Osamu Dazai, and the Burai-ha, Sakaguchi came to prominence with his essay 'Darakuron/On Decadence', published in 1946 in which he observed how, immediately after the war that the wartime morality had lifted, the Japanese were exploring paths to finding a newer truth. At first I found it hard to accept the premise to this fable like story, in which Sakaguchi turns the enjoyment of sitting under the cherry blossoms and transforms them into objects of horror, inducing those who visit them into a frenzied like state, 'gasping for breath'. I remarked to someone, it's a bit far fetched isn't it, they replied have you been on your own in the middle of night in a cherry blossom orchard?, I confessed I hadn't, I began likening the falling petals to the constant motion of falling snow, and started to doubt my own incredulity.

The basic outline to the story, is that of a fearless bandit who lives in the mountains, scared of nothing except for the feelings of dread and an almost supernatural terror he feels when going under the cherry blossoms in bloom. One day he comes across a beautiful woman and her husband travelling through the mountains, robbing them and then becoming overawed by the woman's beauty, instead of just beating the man, he kills him and makes her his wife. He takes her to his house in the mountains, she demands to be carried on his back, when they arrive she discovers that he has seven other wives that he has gathered over time. Pointing out one of his wives, she demands that he kill her, stating, 'You killed my husband, and now you can't kill your own wife?' when he tries to refuse, one by one she makes him slaughter all his previous wives, sparing one as a maid. The cherry trees seem to coax him to come to them, his new wife taunts him for his ignorance of the refined way of life in Kyoto, he ends up being intimidated by the notion of Kyoto and she lays down the gauntlet to him, 'If you were really the man you think you are you'd take me to Kyoto, with your strength you could surround me with the stylish things of the capital that I crave'...

In Kyoto she quickly gets bored of the jewels and kimonos he steals for her, demanding he start bringing her the heads of the people he stole them from, soon she has a collection of heads that she makes re-enact scenes from their lives, in horrific mimicry. The man gets bored of the killing, to the point of it loosing it's meaning, and being ridiculed for his uncouth country ways by the city folk begins to crave again for his life back in the mountains. He persuades his wife to return, and as they near his house, she makes him carry her on his back, just like when they had first met. Walking under the cherry trees, he feels a dreadful cold, and turning to look at his wife he sees that she has turned into a horrific devil, he tries to shake her off, but she holds on tighter, he manages to throw her, and sets upon her with his hands around her neck, until the life has gone from her. Looking down he sees that she has returned to being his wife. Sitting there as the cherry blossoms begin to fall and cover his wife, he finds that his fear and anxiety have faded and begins to feel the elation of relief from dispelling the two things he most fears. It's a strange, beguiling short story, there are many different interpretations of this allegorical fable which is filled with a symbolism which contrasts pre and post war sensibility and morality. There's not too many translations of Sakaguchi's work into English, although there are some scattered around in various anthologies, it would be great to see them one day gathered in a collected volume. I read the translation by Roger Pulvers in a stand alone edition published only in Japan, although Jay Rubin's translation of this story is available in the  Oxford Book of Japanese Stories.

Ango Sakaguchi museum (in Japanese)

by James Dorsey and Douglas Slaymaker

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