Between modernism and modanizumu


MODANIZUMU: Modernist Fiction From Japan, 1913-1938, compiled and edited by William J. Tyler. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, 605 pp., $47 (cloth).

When reading William J. Tyler’s anthology, “Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913-1938,” one realizes that “modanizumu” (modernism) is a very broad term. It seems to mean, for Tyler anyway, any work produced during the years he designates that is not absolutely reactionary in its style or concerns. Thus readers who are hoping for Japanese fiction that, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, “make(s) it new” may be disappointed to find that Tyler’s expansive definition of modernism allows him to include work that simply deals with the new: the “fashion, mores, and manners” of the years with which he is concerned.

Whether Tyler’s definition is too broad is a question probably best left to those interested in literary taxonomy. Those of us who are more concerned with exploring a corner of the Japanese literary map so far largely ignored (at least in English), however, will be happy with Tyler’s big-tent version of modernism. It allows him to include work by writers such as Edogawa Ranpo (also spelled “Rampo”), an author who would seem to owe more to 19th-century decadents than to the less sensational writers who followed them.

As Tyler notes, for example, the code at the center of “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” evokes “The Gold Bug,” a story by Edgar Allan Poe from whom the pseudonym “Edogawa Ranpo” is derived. The criminal at the center of the yarn, a villain called the “Gentleman Burglar,” reminds us that Edogawa Ranpo was a great fan of nonmodernists such as Arthur Conan Doyle.

Poe and Doyle were each, in their different ways, masters of the short story. That “The Two-Sen Copper Coin” evokes both the writers almost guarantees that it will be a cracking good read, and indeed this boy’s own adventure (Tyler calls it “vernacular modernism”) will delight even those who are no longer, or never were, boys.

Other stories fall under the rubric of Tyler’s modanizumu because they confront the political morass into which, during the modernists’ heyday, Japan was sinking. Less a boy’s own adventure than a literary one, Jun Ishikawa’s “Mars’ Song,” banned by the proto-fascist government as soon as it appeared in 1938, is an antiwar piece that avoids the earnestness and obviousness that all too often renders banal art produced in the service of a cause. “Beginning and ending at dusk,” as Zeljko Cipris notes, “it is largely a story about sanity’s twilight,” and the nationalist madness toward which Japan is lurching is made manifest by the citizenry’s ceaseless bellowing of a prowar anthem called “Mars.” The narrator of the tale is, apparently, the only one who can’t bear “the clamorous sound of the popular refrain.” All he can do in response, however, is to write.

At the end of part one of “Mars’ Song,” picking up his pen, the narrator tells us that he will “begin his story with actual facts,” and thus, entering part two, it becomes unclear whether we are reading an account of things that happen to the narrator, or if we have entered the alternate reality of the narrator’s novel. Whichever it is, Ishikawa is able, while never bludgeoning us with the mounting horror, to examine different aspects of it.

A movie the narrator wanders into, for example, paints the encounter of victor with vanquished in one of Japan’s colonies as “a vision of peace itself, a happy interaction between peoples of different nations.” Just before this bucolic scene, we recall the narrator had become aware that “behind a smokescreen of feigned nonchalance lay a powerful weapon. It took careful aim and hit its target with uncanny accuracy.” Ishikawa, one understands, is talking not just about the battleship scene that preceded the “happy interaction between peoples,” but also about the power of media to distort the “actual facts.”

Facts grown fuzzy and distorted realities are integral to many of these stories, but they figure most powerfully in a piece that is not a story at all: Yasunari Kawabata’s screenplay for the seminal but seldom seen “Page of Madness” (1926). It may be simply that the still young medium in which Kawabata was working forced him away from the conventions that continue to constrain most of the work in this volume, but his screenplay — a bullet-pointed list of scenes — is the most formally inventive piece in the collection.

• . . . The mad dancer is dancing


Madman A in Cell 1.

Madman B in Cell 2.

Madman C in Cell 3.

The dancing dancer’s legs,”

The above sequence was pulled almost at random from “Page,” and it points, in its austerity and use of juxtaposition, toward a style of modernist writing one wishes were more prominent in this volume. For what is here, however, 25 pieces by a broad range of authors plus Tyler’s intelligent introductions, this anthology remains essential reading.