Books / Reviews

Tales of a Heian Casanova

by Steve Finbow

Ariwara no Narihira (825-880), a Japanese Don Juan, a Casanova of the Heian Period (794-1185), a poet, one of the prime authors of “Ise Monogatari,” is the hero of these 125 interconnected tales written in verse with prose links.

THE ISE STORIES: Ise Monogatari, translated by Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler. University of Hawai’i Press, 2010, 269 pp., $19 (paper)

A seminal text in the Japanese classical literature canon, “Ise Monogatori” influenced “The Tale of Genji” and became a source for Noh drama and works of art during the Edo Period (1603-1868) and beyond.

Joshua S. Mostow and Royall Tyler’s exemplary edition provides an analysis of the textual versions, a commentary on the various editions, an interpretation of their meaning, and an explanation of their inspiration and influence.

Ariwara no Narihira encounters many women on his travels and the tales derive from the love poems used as means of courtship and seduction in a world with a strict code of ethics and aesthetics. Mostow and Royall provide historical backdrops, character biographies and textual references for each poem, as well as explications of variant editions, semantic and etymological issues, and scholarly and cultural arguments.

The introduction provides an intriguing history of the poems, their possible authors and the beginnings of vernacular Japanese literature. Unlike “The Tale of Genji,” which critics claim as a psychological novel, a narrative memoir, or an ur-fiction, “The Ise Stories” form a loose biographical series of poems or romances based on the sexual exploits of a man with close links to the imperial court in Kyoto.

Ariwara no Narihira, grandson of Emperor Heizei, was forced to live life as a commoner (albeit with court privileges) because of a failed coup on behalf of his grandfather. The new translation explores the intricacies and eroticism of courtship and the techniques of writing poetry, including the allusions and metaphors used by the poets and the signals and symbols used by the lovers.

Rather than breaking the flow of the stories, the commentary adds to the experience; the reader is immersed in multilayered poems, using the notes to embellish the verse and understand the layers of meaning, reference, textual sources and historical characters.

As an example, the 24th story concerns a woman who has taken a new lover after her husband has been away for three years. When her husband returns to their country home after being at court, they trade letters, only for the husband to discover his wife has promised herself to another man that very night. The husband leaves heartbroken and the wife gives chase, collapses and writes on a stone in her own blood:

He did not love me,

and now he has gone away;

I could not stop him,

and for me the time has come

to disappear from this life.

The commentary links this episode with earlier poems, 15th and 16th century interpretations, the woodblock art of ukiyo-e, and the modern-day practice of some yakuza — derived from courtesans — to cut off the tips of their little finger. It also provides an analysis of the seasonal and temporal metaphors of differing woods used to make bows, the authors maintaining the classical syllabic form of tanka 5-7-5-7-7 in their translations.

The book includes illustrations from the “Saga-bon” (1608) showing examples of ukiyo-e-style scenes from Ise monogatari that testify to the historical importance of these poems.

Over 400 years on, this new translation and attendant commentary provide a service not only to scholars and students of Japanese classical literature but also to readers in general.

A major work of translation and scholarly interpretation, readable and informative, with its appendices of principal characters, previous commentators and commentaries, a family tree of dramatis personae, bibliography and detailed indices, Mostow and Tyler’s edition is sure to become the standard English-language text of this classical work.