Early on in Natsume Soseki’s 1908 campus novel “Sanshiro” — one of the most important expositions of the inter-connectedness of visual and literary art ever written — a young scientist, Nonomiya, looks up at a long, thin, white cloud floating diagonally in the sky.
“Do you know what that is?” he asks the titular Sanshiro. “That’s all particles of snow. When you look at it down here, it’s not moving in the least. But up there, it’s moving with a velocity greater than that of a hurricane. Have you read Ruskin? … It would be interesting to sketch this sky.”
When people think about the literature of modern Japan, they tend to think that most of its influences have been, well, literary, whether native or foreign in origin. But in fact — as I would like to show in this four-part series tracing the story from the 19th century to the present — revolutions in painting and visual art have played a defining role in the creation of diverse and often unappreciated aspects of modern Japanese literature.
When Japan emerged from two centuries of seclusion to enter the modern world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it struggled to reform and standardize its language and create literary works that could realistically depict the world in the manner of the Western novel.
The difficulties were considerable — the Japanese language itself needed new grammar, such as standardized verb tenses, the merging of literary and colloquial forms and even the creation of third-person pronouns. (The modern word for “she” — kanojo — was not in common currency until the Taisho Era (1912-26)).
Yet even as Japan was absorbing the influence of the Western novel, it was also undergoing a revolution in the visual arts.
When Futabatei Shimei wrote Japan’s first modern novel, “The Drifting Cloud,” in 1887-88, even the title corresponded to one of the revolutions in painting of the 19th century. The enormously influential art critic John Ruskin — partly in defense of the startling cloud-scape paintings of J. M. W. Turner — had argued in “Modern Painters” (1843-60) that painters should free themselves from convention and paint the exterior world with fresh vision, informed by scientific knowledge and insight.
One area to which Ruskin devoted particular emphasis was the painting of clouds, which he analyzed at length, inspiring a new generation of mid-Victorian painters.
When Japan evolved new literary forms in the novel, poetry and on the stage from the mid-Meiji Era onward, it was not simply a matter of reinventing ways of writing — it was a revolution in the way people saw the world.
In painting, if you followed Ruskin’s advice, no longer would you render clouds in the tired, manneristic way that whole schools of painters had done before; now, you would actually observe the reality of clouds closely as they appeared before your eyes. And you would augment your own observation with up-to-date scientific understanding of what you could not physically see.
But, by extension, both literary and visual artists could apply this fresh vision and rational analysis not just to clouds but to every nebulous aspect of human society around them, right down to individuals.
In “The Drifting Cloud,” Futabatei dispenses with the outlandish, didactic plots of Edo Period (1603-1868) fiction and concentrates his vision on the interactions of just four characters, particularly the interior world of his frustrated, socially alienated protagonist, Bunzo, a recently unemployed clerk.
This is a milieu completely different from anything that had been described in Japanese literature before. And it required a literary artist with fresh vision and powers of analysis to get this modern, interiorized world down on paper.
As Western painting (yōga) was being introduced to Japan by artists such as Antonio Fontanesi (1818-1882) at the Technical Fine Arts School in the late 1870s, and as Japan began to find its first native masters in the new medium such as Chu Asai (1856-1907) and Kuroda Seiki (1866-1924), new painterly ways of seeing began to transform Japanese literature.
Through Asai, the poet Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) met a Western-style painter called Nakamura Fusetsu (1866-1943) who turned Shiki decisively in the direction of realism and the adoption of a literary style known as “sketching from life” (shasei). This allowed Shiki to bring a crisp new vision to haiku poetry, encouraging a direct description of the world around him rather than a rehashing of previous literary forms.
By the turn of the 20th century, “sketching from life” had become such a popular literary form that the editors of the literary magazine Hototogisu encouraged the submission of prose essays in this liberating new style.
What applied to revolutions in painting should also apply to literature: that much seemed obvious. And late 19th-century European movements such as symbolism comfortably spanned the worlds of literature and painting. In the case of Japan, these connections between literature and visual art were even more accentuated by the illustrative traditions of Japanese books, in which visual art and stories were often enmeshed.
Yet for all the synergy, were there not fundamental differences in the two ways of representing the world? That was a highly complex problem that would require some profound contemplation by Japan’s brightest minds at the turn of the 20th century and lead — as I will discuss in this space in the first week of November — to the creation of some of the greatest masterpieces of modern Japanese literature.