Some 19th-century blood and gore

THE STRAW SANDAL OR THE SCROLL OF THE HUNDRED CRABS by Santo Kyoden, translated by Carmen Blacker, introduction by P.F. Kornicki. Global Oriental, 2008, 116 pp., 28 b/w illustrations by Utagawa Toyokuni, £35 (cloth)

Santo Kyoden (pen name Iwase Samuru, 1761-1816) was among the most popular authors of his day and one of his best-sellers was “Mukashi-gatari Inazuma-byoshi,” published in 1806 and here translated as “The Straw Sandal.”

W.G. Aston, in his 1899 history of Japanese literature, said the plot of “The Straw Sandal” was so complicated that “it is impossible to give an adequate summary.” But that the reader might look forward to several murders, a harakiri and other suicides, lots of combats and hairbreadth escapes, some strange meetings and surprising recognitions, as well as witchcraft, terror, and ghosts that rove by night.

Cramming all of these popular ingredients into a coherent narrative was indeed a challenge. One that the present edition attempts to meet with a three-page dramatis personae (there are 55 personages to be kept distinct). Such complication did nothing to lessen the narrative’s early appeal.

Nor should it ours. Carmen Blacker, in the preface to her admirably clear translation, maintains that despite Santo’s insistence upon the moral value of the work, it should really be seen as “a satisfying means of entertainment.” Santo, in his own introduction, says that, despite its moral authority, his work is not only an entertaining work of fiction but, actually, “a farrago of nonsense.”

One of his reasons for describing it as such might have been that in dictatorial and censorious Edo, the author had already been punished for writing some mildly political satires — sentenced to 50 days of house arrest and kept in handcuffs the while.

This was a calamity for a man who supported himself and his family by writing and (he was also an artist) drawing and engraving. A result was that later works were, maintained the author, to be considered as didactic exercises teaching civic virtues and inspired by the finest classical models.

“The Straw Sandal,” for example, was said to be based on a famous 1708 play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (later to be referred to as “the Shakespeare of Japan”), and other literary authorities were invoked to prove his work politically orthodox. In fact, however, little was taken from Chikamatsu and a lot was lifted from the popular drama of his day.

Here we have a number of familiar tableaux: the innocent maiden stabbed to death, her murderer himself feeling “stabs of conscience” even though “he had done the deed for motives of loyalty to his lord.” We have the young son slain so that the lord’s lad may be spared. And we have gore galore: “The body of his father was terribly cut about, entrails and insides all spewing out in confusion, and both the body and the shutter on which it lay soaked with fresh blood.”

The contemporary reader of this more than 200-year-old best-seller may also discover certain resemblances here to present-day manga “comic” books. Lively action, limited character, lots of melodramatic coincidence, much gory detail, excess on every page and at the same time a certain attempt at style: “She was indeed a piteous sight, with her blue-black hair in wild disorder, and tears welling from her eyes like the white pearls which foreign women wear as ornaments on their chests.”

This meticulous translation thus offers a number of readings. The plot may be enjoyed for its excessive self with every lost scroll, every sword fight fully described. Or, one may look beyond the action to discover just what mixture of violence and mayhem constituted popular appeal, just what it was that was so enjoyed several centuries ago. Or, gazing beyond this, we can realize that there is little difference and much correspondence.

What appealed in 1806 still appeals in 2008. The certain simplicities of Edo Period pop and the modern manga bridge the gap of time and offer the same simulations. These satisfy similar appetites for a less demanding world, one governed by the easy polarities of “good” and “bad.” They deny the vagaries of the human character and they insist upon the simplicities of vengeance and bloodshed.

Indeed, the pleasures offered by this romance are still vastly appealing, and why “The Straw Sandal” has not already been made into a manga, I do not know.

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