I think I first learned of Tayama Katai from a book on history of Japanese literature in 2012. The book seemed to present him as an important and influential figure, so when deciding on what Japanese books I’d like to read, his stories landed on the list easily. Or maybe I got the idea of wanting to read him from THIS. Anyway, after some googling I found a translated collection of his most important works – he primarily wrote short stories. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a rare and expensive book, so it took me several years until I finally decided to buy the thing, read it and decide whether it’s worth any attention…
Katai was born into an impoverished noble family long after its prime. If that wasn’t enough, his father died when Katai was 5, making his family’s condition even worse. Being supported by his older brother, the only breadwinner of the family, made him feel deep shame for a long time. Having become an adult, Katai decided to pursue a career in one discipline he could do best: literature. Katai managed to establish himself as a professional writer, but the feeling of inferiority and chronic unhappiness, which accompanied him since childhood, never really went away. Soon after that, the writer got married, which only added to the pile of his misfortunes…
THE QUILT (FUTON)
Takenaka Tokio, a middle-aged failed writer, frustrated by his day job and stuck in a loveless marriage, receives a letter from a young female fan of his work, Yoshiko. He agrees for her to become his apprentice and soon Yoshiko goes to the capital to attend school and moves into the writer’s house. As time passes, the old man falls in love with her more and more. Yet, he refrains from confessing his feelings to her, afraid of societal consequences. Eventually, the girl gets a boyfriend. Tokio, torn between jealousy and wanting the best for the girl, contacts her family. The young couple ends up having sex, which, when the truth about their relationship gets out, makes her father call her back to her provincial hometown. Tokio returns to his usual miserable life. The only thing reminding him of his past bliss is the titular old futon in which Yoshiko slept. And in which he now buries his face.
Early Meiji era was a time when Japan was adopting all the achievements of the Western civilization on fast-forward. Not only in technology and societal structure, but also in the field of culture. That meant that Japanese writers were quickly processing the major currents of Western literature, occupying themselves with one for a few years only to hastily skip onto the next one. Tayama Katai was mainly related to the current of naturalism – writers who pondered the concept of “human nature” and “nature as a force”, after centuries of religion having the monopoly on explaining the world. For Katai, though, nature equaled fate – the force which, in his opinion, was responsible for his unhappy life.
Katai’s most well know novella, Futon (like most of his stories) is a personal, autobiographical story. What’s more, it started a whole genre in Japanese literature called the “I Novels” – embarrassing confessions and loser biographies like Dazai’s “No Longer Human”, for example. The story was enthusiastically received by critics for daring to do what writers usually do not – Katai exposed his social standing to risk by having this shameful story published for anyone to read. As the introduction to this story collection points out, it’s pretty much non-fiction. The names of characters were changed, but apart from that, it’s a memoir. Katai only wrote what he knew. Writing like that is very convenient, isn’t it? You just write what you experienced, which isn’t hard. And you can always spice up the story by confabulating a bit – your work nominally is fiction, after all. You can have the best of both worlds that way. The translator poses the question of “Is this hacky?” in the introduction. You don’t need to be much of a literate to write down a sorta interesting fragment of your life. In my opinion, although it’s easy, it is possible to write a good, interesting story this way, so I wouldn’t be too harsh on Katai. Most of his works were true stories of himself and his acquaintances, but they definitely left a mark on the history of literature.
THE END OF JUUEMON (JUUEMON NO SAIGO)
The narrator goes to a mountain village to visit an old friend. Upon arrival, he learns of a recent wave of arson incidents. Turns out the one responsible is Juuemon, an outcast living in a shack nearby. Juuemon, who seems like a remorseless villain at first, becomes more pitiable as the narrator learns more of his life’s story and the villagepeople. Mercilessly ridiculed since childhood, he slowly descended into a spiral of self-destruction, drinking his family’s fortune away. In the end, he gets lynched and soon after his death his wife retaliates by burning the village to the ground. Although it’s supposed to be a story of a victim of society, Juuemon is far from innocent. He definitely is evil and callous, which spoils the antisocial message behind The End of Juuemon… At first, Katai wanted to translate a story by Hermann Sudermann, a German naturalist, but he ended up writing a remake of it set in Japan, supposedly inspired by real events.
ONE SOLDIER (IPPEISOTSU)
A sick Japanese soldier in Manchuria walks alone in search of a doctor, then dies a painful death shortly before the doctor arrives. Katai never was a soldier, but he was a war correspondent who had to return to Japan because of a sickness. Less a “war is hell” kind of story, war in Ippeisotsu is ugly and undignified, but in a passive, unimpressive way.
THE GIRL WATCHER (SHOUJO-BYOU)
A middle-aged man’s only joy in life is staring at young girls while riding the train. He’s unable to do anything but look at them and fantasize because of his strict upbringing. At the end, he dies, shoved out of a train. Another story of a loser.
THE RAILWAY TRACK (SENRO)
A child gets run over by a train. That’s it. Just a description of a fragment of reality.
THE PHOTOGRAPH (SHASHIN)
Some soldiers take a group photo. Hmm…
THE SOUND OF WHEELS (KURUMA NO OTO)
A soldier dies.
ONE COLD MORNING (SAMUI ASA)
Kids drown a mouse. Okay…
This story collection sure is high literature. It definitely isn’t something you’d read for leisure. After having read it, I’d say you can easily IGNORE IT and just read a Wikipedia article or something. If you’d like to try reading it in Japanese, it can be read online at Aozora Bunko. I guess.