Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu

Recently published by University of Minnesota Press The Book of the Dead/Shisha no sho is an immersive read which was originally serialized in 1939 and then the text was revised by Orikuchi for it's publication into book form in 1943. Although in itself the text spans a hundred pages or so, The Book of the Dead comes armour plated with an extensive introduction from Jeffrey Angles, (translator), entitled Bringing the Dead to Life in which he examines the text and gives a biographical glimpse into Orikuchi's life and writing and their relation to the book. Along with this is included three translated essays from Ando Reiji's study of Orikuchi, The Mandala of Light, (which itself was awarded the Oe Kenzaburo Prize), translator's notes, a glossary and a bibliographic section, being the first translation of the book into English, this will, no doubt remain the definitive edition of this fascinating and enigmatic book for years to come. Shisha no sho, also to note was made into a film by master animator Kihachiro Kawamoto.

Set in eighth-century Japan, so interestingly to us the book offers a retrospective view within multiple historical frames and interpretations, the book contains three primary plot lines and characters - the Fujiwara maiden's pilgrimage, based on Chujo-hime, Shiga Tsuhiko, whose dead spirit is re-awoken in search of the love he last saw before his execution as the result of a power struggle, Tsuhiko is inspired from Prince Otsu and lastly, Yakamochi, a statesman who could be seen as an orbiting character, but whose perspectives add another dimension and distance to the main progress of the story. Orikuchi, as well as a writer of fiction and poetry, was also an authoritative ethnologist, folklorist, linguist, and a disciple of Kunio Yanagita, author of the famed Tono monogatari, for his academic writings, Orikuchi wrote under the name of Chōkū Shaku, throughout The Book of the Dead Orikuchi incorporated the subjects of his non-fiction, with this in mind it's interesting to contemplate the character of the storyteller who accompanies the maiden when she arrives at the temple, she appears to embody the notion of the oral storytelling tradition as she informs and fills in details for the maiden upon her arrival of her enigmatic pilgrimage.

Reading Ando Reiji's opening essay it's some way reassuring to discover that he had initially struggled with grappling the text of this enigmatic book, although with it's mysteries Reiji's observations offer some illuminating answers, interpretations and observations, in particular of the way that Orikuchi re-sequenced the text when it came to it's book form, which possibly seems to be a precursor 'cut up technique' of Gysin and Burroughs and of the need to play literary detective when reading, Reiji makes comparisons to Edogawa Rampo, Orikuchi had alluded that the book was an eulogy to a dead lover of a same sex relationship - Fuji Musen, in some places when reading it feels as if Orikuchi had climbed a mountain in Shisha no sho and then turned and swept away his own footsteps. The prose style of The Book of the Dead is similar in some ways to entering the explorative narrative landscape of another modernist - Hyakken Uchida, both appear to pursue and describe their subjects and themes to the point of abstraction and beyond and to read The Book of the Dead in it's serialized form, pre-reorganisation, would be an interesting exercise.

In his introduction Jeffrey Angles examines how the book related to the times of it's conception and unearths a number of embedded allegories within the text that offer up potential critiques or anomalies to the dictates of it's times, which adds another aspect of the book when reading. Despite it's brief length the book has a compactness to it, perhaps not in plot but in it's symbolism and themes, the discussions here explore Orikuchi's use of Egyptian imagery and theme, the story comes described as being 'loosely inspired by the tale of Isis and Osiris', as well as this much time is given over to religious speculation which arises through the text in the commentaries. In some ways the book feels very much as being one of vying visitations, Tsuhiko whose vision awakens from beyond and is in search of the realization of earthly pursuits and desires, and also of the Fujiwara maiden who begins to envision her unearthly enlightenment approaching over the mountain, the book reads as if entering a portal between the two, the cycle of relinquishing and begetting. Along with the accompanying texts The Book of the Dead is a landmark translation that proves to be both an enigmatic and revelatory read, tectonic in it's implications.   

The Book of the Dead at University of Minnesota Press                  

to read an excerpt at Granta   

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