A beautiful cherry-blossom tree stands right beside the sento (public bath) I religiously go to, and its top branch hangs over an opening in the roof. In early April, petals were falling from the branch down into the water, which comes out of the ground the color of strong coffee.
Until last year, I looked forward to that season at the bath, as if the pale pink petals atop the black smoking water were a symbol of the coming together of heaven and hell.
But on April 9, 2010, one of my dearest friends, the playwright and novelist Hisashi Inoue, passed away, age 75; and this year like last, those petals floating on the surface of the water only brought thoughts of the end of a precious friendship that lasted for more than 35 years.
Since his death, a number of his books, both fiction and nonfiction, have appeared. While wildly popular for his theater works and his prose, Inoue was largely neglected by Japan’s scholarly and critical elite. They failed to see that beneath the light humor of his wordplay and his droll characterizations lurked very serious themes regarding the social evils permeating this society. Inoue was a brilliant satirist.
But also since his death, the scholars and critics have been coming around to him; and I have no doubt that Inoue will come to be considered one of the towering literary figures of postwar Japan.
Of the books that have appeared in the past year, the most recent, “Fukai Koto o Omoshiroku,” published at the end of April by PHP Kenkyujo, is the most revealing of Inoue’s personality and the sources of his gift.
In English, the title might be rendered “Make the Profound Interesting,” while its subtitle translates as “The Origins of Creative Writing.” At only 117 pages, in its clear and unambiguous style — and with hiragana readings of the kanji — this is a book I highly recommend to non-Japanese who are in the early stages of learning to read the language.
“Make the Profound Interesting” is an account of an interview with the author on NHK satellite television in 2007. Inoue takes us from the early years of his childhood, through his time at university, his various jobs and his career in writing for the theater and the creation of fiction. The fascinating thing about this account is that it forms an enlightening picture of what an author draws on for inspiration and guidance.
Born in 1934 in a small town in Yamagata Prefecture, at the age of 5, Inoue lost his father, a budding author. Part of Inoue’s drive came from his wish to fulfill his father’s dream.
In his play about the life of poet Kenji Miyazawa, “The Drama Train of Ihatovo,” he created a special ticket that “a person who passes away hands to someone who comes later, entrusting to them those things they were unable to finish.”
Inoue was in the first grade when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and he recalls his feelings at the time in this book. His mother did not support the war effort, and he was branded a hikokumin (traitor) by his classmates. “But I was ever the optimist,” he writes, “and have always banked on things getting better.”
This is a key to understanding Inoue’s view of his country: Despite suffering and tragedy, he believes that people will always walk in the light.
His life and work are intimately tied to the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, and in fact he spent more than two years working in a hospital in Kamaishi, one of the coastal towns devastated by the megaquake and tsunami that struck on March 11.
The lot of the farmers and workers of Tohoku, one of Japan’s less well endowed regions economically, created in him a passion to right wrongs and establish an equitable society in this country.
When he arrived in Tokyo to study at Sophia University, he was so painfully embarrassed about speaking with a Tohoku accent that he developed a stutter, pronouncing “Yotsuya” as “Yochiya.” At the station, he wanted to buy a ticket to Tachikawa, where he was staying, but because he couldn’t pronounce it, he invariably asked for a ticket one stop past it.
These experiences coursed directly into one of the main themes of Inoue’s work: the misery of the disadvantaged and dispossessed. He saw his creative mission in terms of giving these people the wit and weapons with which to fight society’s oppression and better their circumstances.
Inoue cut his teeth as a scriptwriter at the Furansuza (France Theater), in the Tokyo downtown entertainment district of Asakusa. That theater presented everything from skits to strip shows, and it was there Inoue met and worked with two actors destined for fame in Japan, comedian Kei Tani (who took his stage name from Danny Kaye) and the star of the hugely popular “Torasan” feature film series, Kiyoshi Atsumi.
Later on, however, if I had to choose one thing that characterized Inoue’s ardor for the theater it was his love for and rapport with the audience.
“When on the first night,” he writes in “Make the Profound Interesting,” “the audience applauds and they tell you, ‘Great play, I was really moved, I laughed a lot,’ that’s all the pay you need.”
This laughter was what kept him going, and indeed he once said: “People can’t laugh on their own. Laughter is something that takes on meaning only when it is shared with others. … So long as humans can talk, their words will create laughter. This is, to me, the most human thing that we can do.”
I suppose it was this that deflected the attention of the scholars and critics from his work. Humor played an immense role in the literature and theater of Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor in 1868; but since then the nation’s mainstream literary and theatrical culture has concentrated on the serious, the sober and the earnest.
Inoue was a staunch advocate of nonviolence. His many plays and novels dealing with Japan’s aggression in the 1930s and ’40s, and its aftermath, create a body of work that analyzes the psychological traumas caused by terror.
The last lines of “Make the Profound Interesting” are these: “Plays, novels, essays … I want to continue writing these for as long as I can. ‘What was that war [World War II] really about? What good did it do anyone?’ That’s all I have left to write about.”
I will not be able to associate the falling of the cherry blossoms with anything but the passing of my dear and wonderful friend. But, as Inoue always said, “What we all must do is pass on a better world to those who come after us.”
He entrusted that special ticket to many more people than even he could have imagined.