• SHARE

BUTTERFLY IN THE WIND, by Rei Kimura. Amsterdam: Olive Press, 2003, 166 pp., with illustrations, $16.95 (paper).

Poor Okichi — carried away against her will to become concubine to the American consul in Japan, torn away from her handsome lover, stigmatized forever as “Tojin” Okichi, property of the hairy barbarian.

She gazed in horror at his “large frame and the long red beard that covered the lower part of his red leathery face.” His hands were like “the hairy legs of a giant spider reaching out for her.”

Since “outside her work as a geisha, she had never interacted with any man in a social and non-working situation,” she was tongue-tied, despite “the speech lessons that taught her to speak beautiful and classy Japanese.”

Poor Okichi here had a number of other problems. Among them was 20th-century word usage in a 19th-century situation. She had learned that “you became a pawn of the big guns of this town and did what they wanted you to do” — a full hundred years before you could put it that way.

Another problem was that, although she says she stayed three whole humiliating years with the American barbarian, the assertion contradicts historical fact. As stated in the Kodansha Encyclopedia, poor Okichi “was returned home after three days by (Townsend) Harris, who complained that her skin was infected.” Her consequent social stigma was thus based not so much upon her being sent to the foreigner as upon his rejecting her.

But if that were generally acknowledged, what then of the legend of the poor cast-off young creature, what then of the Okichi industry that so enlivens little Shimoda and what then, indeed, of this book? Very well, let us start over again.

Poor Okichi, gazing with horror at the advancing large red frame. Do you recognize the scene? It is from Victorian melodrama, and Okichi is the spotless heroine whom we watch being besmirched. As in many a novel, play and poem from this era, our pleasure derives from contemplating her innocent downfall. “An outcast, she belonged to them, the feared foreigners with their base values and morals.”

“Would she be able to sail safely through the turbulent sea of hatred and contempt that would be waiting for her?” Obviously not or else the plot would get swallowed up instead of the heroine.

So the further wretchedness of Okichi is carefully filled in. Various trades are attempted; the lover returns only to be left for his own good; our heroine hits the bottle and ends up a pathetic suicide victim. What more could a good Victorian melodrama want?

I do not know that the author actually intended to write this brilliant pastiche of pop Meiji literature, but some of the touches are certainly inspired. For example, Okichi’s face was “so naturally fair that she didn’t need much of the white powder that masked the faces and often the hearts of the geishas.” Her reflections include “Another victim in the trail of broken lives Townsend Harris left behind in Shimoda.” And there is the moral observation of “no pride and no retributions in love.”

So, in the spirit of that contemporary postmodern literary dictum that tells me that I, rather than the author, am free to make of any text what I will, let me call this book one of the most subtle and successful of impersonations, one that perfectly pantomimes the tired legend of Okichi and the whole dreary social structure that supports it. Indeed, the careful and expected banality of the language proves the very vehicle that carries this critique of Meiji morality to its proper end.

The title tells all — a butterfly in the wind. The prosaic image is brilliantly chosen. I can think of nothing to equal it since the casting of John Wayne as Townsend Harris in that dazzling farrago, the 1958 “Barbarian and the Geisha.” In the film, the discerning director knew that he was dealing with trite material and did what he could with it.

It is not so clear that Rei Kimura is equally certain but, given the benefit of the doubt, it is possible that she read up on platitudinous Edward Bulwer-Lytton and leafed through the overblown “Golden Demon” of Koyo Ozaki. She is, after all, the author of “Tropical Rain Over My Heart” (under the name of Irene Goh), which gained good reviews — among them one of my own.

So, this saga of poor Okichi is a romance — or perhaps a parody of a romance. In any event there is no bibliography.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW