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Bunroku Shishi: Finding humor in a recovering postwar Japan

by Donald Richie

SCHOOL OF FREEDOM, by Bunroku Shishi, translated and with an afterword by Lynne E. Riggs. Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, 2006, 256 pp., $29.95 (cloth).

Bunroku Shishi (1893-1969), who was born as Toyoo Iwata, had two occupations, just as he had two names. He was a theatrical director who organized the Bungakuza theatrical company and helped introduce modern foreign drama into Japan. He was also, under his pen-name, a popular humorous novelist.

Among his best-sellers was “Jiyu Gakko” (1950), here translated as “School of Freedom,” about the morals and manners of the immediate postwar period.

Like much light literature, the book was originally published in daily installments in local papers (in this case the Tokyo morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun from May to December 1950), appearing in book form only a year later. Thereafter, it was reprinted several times; two film versions were made (Shochiku and Daiei, both 1951); and a television series (Fuji Television, 1965) was created as well.

The author considered the book part of what he called his “defeat trilogy,” a record of the loss of World War II and the resulting Allied Occupation. The first volume was “Ten’ya Wan’ya (This Chaotic World),” 1948, followed by “Jiyu Gakko (School of Freedom),” and concluded with “Yassa Mossa (This Way, That Way),” 1952.

As translator Lynne Riggs writes in her illuminating afterword: “The hallmark of these works is their vivid portrayal of the confusion, distortions, and scars that the war and defeat wrought in the lives of people in various walks of life.” At the same time, Riggs observes: “There is no self-pity, sentimentality, or pessimism in these novels,” since the author was convinced that “the awful experience the Japanese shared would . . . one way be useful to them.”

Whether it has been or not, the novels remain as relics of very real attitudes.

Shishi remembered these when he later wrote: “My quite ordinary, rather somber, life seemed to demand that the newspaper novel I was writing be a bit boisterous, dramatic, and colorful. This became ‘Jiyu Gakko’ in which I sought to portray . . . the tumultuous world that was unfolding under the fiction of ‘freedom’ in those days.”

The fictional nature of “freedom” is demonstrated by everyone having a different take on it. Shishi’s characters experience it in many forms, all of which turn out to be transient.

The main male leaves wife and home to eventually embrace a freedom from all moral scruples, after which he finds himself in trouble.

The main female in the book (his wife) decides that freedom consists of a series of associations with other men, and it is her own lack of experience that finally brings her down as well.

Along the way both find many examples of this strange, new “freedom.” She looks at the young man she is considering. He was “unreliable, careless, superficial, offhand, brazen, effeminate. But these qualities, like those of the new mass-produced materials such as plastic and nylon, were striking for their novelty and texture.”

At the same time, however, to be free was to be confused. “To freedom! That was the call that sounded frequently in [her] ears. One moment she would be fretting out how [her husband] could manage in the heat without a summer shirt; the next moment she would be pondering the recently revised Civil Code.”

Another author might have found in such dilemmas the stuff of satire. Not, however, Shishi. He regards the foibles with an affection that is perhaps the reason for his popularity.

There is nothing barbed in his regard, nothing to be taken that seriously. The philosophical implications of his subject remain unconsidered — the implications of Sartre’s contemporary “dreadful freedom” are unknown.

Shishi writes like the popular dramatist he was and his postwar world has more than its share of chuckles and many good curtain-lines. “In the world of women, a matron in her fifties tends to exude a sergeant-major aura, demoting anyone under forty to the role of common foot soldiers,” he amusingly writes.

It is perhaps this aspect of the book that recommended it to the attentions of the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP), that organ which works on behalf of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan, hires translators and finds publishers. Here, as elsewhere, it is tacitly suggested that interest in Japan is perhaps not best served by serious literature (Yasunari Kawabata, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, et al.) but by something that indicates the reading tastes of Japan at large. Including such popular writers as Bunroku Shishi.

In addition, as Riggs tells us in her afterword, these translations are edited “as requested by JLPP to assure the accessibility of the story to as wide a readership as possible.” In this case the translation is completely colloquial and consequently highly appropriate for light reading of this sort.