When the house in which Junnosuke Yoshiyuki grew up burned down, Lawrence Rogers tells us, “he fled the flames with only his Debussy records and some fifty poems he had written in a notebook.”
Given the family in which he was raised, it is no surprise that, even as a teenager, Yoshiyuki had already given art pride of place in his life, and that his relation to art bordered on the neurotic. His father, Eisuke Yoshiyuki, for example was a Dadaist poet, who, in Donald Richie’s account, “gave up on literature and threw away his library, all except the three books he had published.”
What is surprising is that even a man with as unconventional a background as Yoshiyuki wrote so many stories driven by a fear of being made to conform.
The vehicle that might cause a man such as himself (he was a writer very much in the tradition of the Japanese I-novel) to conform was sex — sex that might lead to pregnancy, children and, therefore, in Yoshiyuki’s view, a domestic prison.
None of the tales collected in “Toward Dusk” make sex sound like an activity that might be a healthy part of being human. Rather, sex is frightening both for the domesticity to which it might lead and for the dank clamminess with which, in Yoshiyuki’s world, it seems always to be linked.
In “The Molester,” for example, men gather in a “small, closed room … hot and muggy … ” to listen to what they take to be recordings of women having sex. In “At the Aquarium,” a university student is attracted to a young housewife he sees staring at “fish tanks … grimy with slime.”
A boy just awakening to the possibility of sex, is forced, in “A Bad Summer,” to inhale not only the odor of the ocean, but also the seaweed’s “dark, mysterious smell,” when a clump of the “dripping brown weed” is rubbed into his face. All of this slimy fecundity contributes to Yoshiyuki’s ominous take on the erotic.
Sex fascinated the author, as it does the narrator of “The Molester,” who, borrowing a piece of Yoshiyuki’s biography, has given up his job editing a scandal sheet to devote himself to writing novels. He is contacted by a dentist researching what he calls “sensual sounds,” and whose data are a collection of recordings he has made of women “engaged in bedroom talk.” Intrigued, the narrator travels to a provincial city to meet the researcher. At first the dentist seems hesitant to play the tapes, but finally, in the small uncomfortable room behind his primitive surgery, the dentist lets him hear some of his collection.
“Keep still,” the dentist’s voice is heard saying.
“Ow! Ow!” the woman responds.
“Just a little bit more. I’m going to do it now,” he says.
“Ah, ah, ah,” cries the woman.
The tape winds on until the dentist exclaims “Look there! It’s in right up to the root,” and it becomes clear, given the setting, that the talk the men are hearing has to do with an activity more often associated with pain than with pleasure. One suspects however, that for Yoshiyuki, sex contained plenty of both.
This ambivalence is present in “Midnight Stroll,” a story about a student living in a rented room, whose landlady, straitlaced by day, lies in wait, perfumed and speaking in “a strangely feminine voice,” to seduce him when he makes a late-night visit to the downstairs toilet.
When sex arrives, even less subtly, on the scene — the landlady begins to work in a cabaret and to entertain men she meets there in the living room — the boy escapes on the midnight stroll of the title, and during this walk becomes momentarily aware of “the nebulous fear [he] felt toward this thing called ‘woman.’”
The awareness quickly fades, however, and he returns home, understanding that, though nothing has changed for him, his landlady, having entered the sexual demimonde, “would have a more meaningful life opening up before her.”
Yoshiyuki writes from a male, and often misogynistic, perspective: Women most often exist in his stories only as carriers of the sex with which they threaten men.
This view is, in many ways, deplorable; it is never, however, in Yoshiyuki’s tales, less than fascinating: a corrective, useful and ugly, to the hearts and flowers with which we are constantly bombarded.