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The urban underclass of a modernist Tokyo

by David Cozy

THE SCARLET GANG OF ASAKUSA, by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Alisa Freedman, foreword and afterword by Donald Richie. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 2005, 231 pp., $17.95 (paper).

“Art is bad,” Guy Davenport posited, “when it is poor in news,” and it is not surprising that a literary modernist such as Davenport would think so. The tremendous detail with which James Joyce recreates, in “Ulysses,” the Dublin of June 16, 1904, is emblematic of how rich the modernist strand of literature is in information, and of how much denser in knowledge this type of writing can be than many works in the realist or naturalist traditions.

The sheer amount that we can learn about the Asakusa of 1929-1930 from Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa,” along with the unconventional form Kawabata adopted to deal with the confusion of knowledge that modern urban life threw up, place this novel squarely within this tradition of which “Ulysses” is the paramount example.

The authors of such works seemed to believe that the standard first-this-happened-then-that-happened narratives were no longer adequate to capture the frenzy of modern city life, and this work suggests that Kawabata felt the same. As a simple portrait of Asakusa wouldn’t do, he gives us instead a picture of a place that never stands still: a moving picture.

This is entirely appropriate because, as Donald Richie reminds us in his excellent foreword, Asakusa was the site of Tokyo’s first movie theater, the Denkikan, and, as we see in the course of the novel, home to a great many other forms of popular entertainment.

Indeed the novel had its genesis in that quintessential popular forum, the newspaper: the first 37 of the unfinished novel’s 61 chapters appeared in the evening edition of the Tokyo Asahi between Dec. 20, 1929, and Feb. 16, 1930. Kawabata’s modernist evocation of Asakusa was, therefore, news: He was writing about the Asakusa that then existed, and like the mishmash of articles that shared the front page with the chapters of Kawabata’s creation, it is an unparaphrasable collage of scenes from the life of the city.

One element of that collage is a seller of rubber balls. “A red ribbon droops from her bobbed head, and beneath her short open skirt, her legs (stockings rolled) dance the Charleston — cha cha, cha cha — while through her dark encarmined lips she whistles jazzily along. She keeps time, bouncing that ball like a tambourine or like castanets.”

With this ball-bouncing modern girl, Kawabata gives us a picture of the urban fizz he means to capture in his novel. The narrative — the story of the preposterously named gang that gives the novel its title — is, we soon see, only a loose thread on which Kawabata can string depictions of other Asakusa characters, sociological speculation, pictures of neighborhood life, and moments of melodrama.

The melodrama reaches its peak when a woman named Yumiko (she seems to be the leader of the Scarlet Gang) bites a capsule of arsenic and then kisses the man whom she cannot forgive for abandoning her sister. This is, of course, a scene out of what Kawabata calls elsewhere in this book “a real old-fashioned novel,” the kind of story that was being projected on the screen at the Denkikan.

This bit of popular storytelling helps Kawabata to capture an Asakusa driven by popular culture. His appropriation of a form not usually thought, in those pre-postmodernist days, to belong in literary fiction reminds us once again of Joyce’s method in Ulysses, a novel which, Richie reports, Kawabata had attempted to read in spite of his limited English.

As Joyce, however, is thought to be impenetrably difficult, invoking his name may scare off less adventurous readers. But, as subscribers to the Tokyo Asahi would have no doubt testified, even though the plot serves mostly as an excuse for digressions, the novel is full of page-turning pleasure, and thanks to its collage-like form that pleasure is delivered in many different ways.

We get, for example, astute sociological analyses of Asakusa:

“This place is all hustle and bustle on the surface — there’s probably no other place in Japan where so much is happening. But essentially Asakusa is like a specimen in the Bug House — that’s right, something completely different from today’s world, like a remote island or some African village led by a chief, a whole net of time-honored codes over it.”

What is striking is that this description does not seem entirely inapplicable to 21st-century Tokyo.

If sociology seems too earnest to be entertainment, there is also the found poetry of the revue billboards: “MAJOR DANCE REVOLT OF THE NAKED IT GIRLS,” “GREAT NAKED MARCH, ALL AND EVERYTHING GROTESQUE.” There is Tokyo lore, now almost forgotten. We learn, for example, of the “cat catcher” who “lets loose a sparrow on a string. Cat is lured closer. . . . Nabbed tabby is beaten to death at once. . . . Cat-catcher hides the pelt under his clothes . . . . It brings in a lot at the samisen store.” All of this and more is presented in a manner as delightfully sly as the introductory note in which Kawabata apologizes to the characters who populate his book: “members of the Scarlet Gang or any of the others who make their dens inside or outside of Asakusa Park.” He hopes they will forgive him, “because, in the end, this is just a novel.”

The words of Kawabata’s book are complemented by illustrations that appear to be skillfully done. This is uncertain because, with a couple of exceptions, they are no larger than postage stamps, too diminutive, that is, to really take in. This small lapse, however, is more than made up for by Alisa Freedman’s excellent translation of what could not have been an easy text to render into English, her useful introduction, and the typically insightful foreword and afterword by Richie.