Mount Fuji is the gift to writers that keeps on giving

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

In the pages of the richly nourishing “Mountain/Home,” a new compilation of translations from Japan, we have a book that truly endorses Robert Graves’ contention that, “a well-chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of medicine.”

Mountain/Home: New Translations from Japan, Edited by Frank Stewart and Leza Lowitz.
160 pages
UNIVERSITY OF HAWAI’I PRESS, Anthology.

The book begins with a selection of writings relating to Mount Fuji. An emotive symbol of beauty and natural perfection, the mountain has been deified, but also trashed, its environs disfigured by factories, highways, train lines and urban congestion.

During World War II, both Japan’s military government and Allied forces requisitioned the peak as a propaganda tool, the former to inspire feelings of nationalism, the latter to invoke homesickness. Then, following Japan’s defeat, the Occupation viewed Fuji — as the editors of the anthology note — as a “symbol of a divinely sanctioned, fascist, militarized version of Shintoism,” and prevented its likeness from being used in films and posters.

Such is the mountain’s power; it can turn people into fawning devotees and political zealots, but also fine poets, as some early entries in the collection from the Heian Period (794-1185) testify. For a society that discouraged direct expressions of emotion, the poetic content of the period is surprisingly ardent. The court lady Ki no Menoto, reflecting on the insistent passion of an expectant paramour, writes that, “even the gods can’t quench/the flames of Fuji.”

Supplementing our enjoyment of the writing samples are illuminating introductions to some of the sections, such as Eric Selland’s thoughts on the experimental poet Minoru Yoshioka (1919-90). Combining the voluptuous and grotesque, Yoshioka confounds readers’ expectations by dispensing with punctuation, conventional syntax and clear subject-object formations. The result is verse whose structure is virtually impossible to render in English. Half in wonder, half in despair, Selland concludes that, “In order to translate a Yoshioka poem, you have to stop the movie and splice the film in just the right places. But where do you stop the film?”

It may be an ordeal for the translator, but the result, pyrotechnic and modernist, allows the reader to abandon the incessant search for meaning, surrendering instead to the associative nature of the language.

Nobuo Ayukawa (1920-86), a former soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army and a staunch critic of recidivist conformity in the postwar era, was one of a small number of poets who appointed themselves torchbearers of memory, stricken conscience and a sense of personal remorse at not having perished with their compatriots.

His early postwar poems reflect an inability to liberate himself from the swamp of the battlefield or the despair of the hospital ship. In the words of translator Shogo Oketani, he was never quite able to purge himself of the spectral presence of the dead, who “were still with him, roaming the deserted streets, floating between the lines of poems.” Needless to say, the samples of his work represented here have a persistently haunting quality.

Later in the book, the translations step a little further away from the slopes of Fuji and to the wider theme of “home.” In a triptych entitled “Three Linked Stories,” Yumiko Kurahashi (1935-2005) appropriates the powerful residue of dreams to transport us into an alternative reality resembling the shape-shifting milieu inhabited by the creatures of Japanese folk tales.

Characters from the classics, earthier and more priapic, are re-immortalized, and given extended narratives. Thus, in one instance, the historical concubine Lady Nijo is re-empowered with the gift of extracting revenge on a thoughtless lover.

In the powerful short story “Villon’s Woman,” Osamu Dazai gives us a vivid portrait of postwar urban Japan, soured by a nihilistic cult of self-obliteration. Dazai’s main protagonist is a feckless wastrel, an alcoholic writer with a silver tongue, a string of sloppy infidelities and a strong suicidal tendency. Strikingly like Dazai himself, he proclaims, “From the time I was born, all I’ve ever thought about is dying.” Although Dazai eventually, after a series of failed attempts, took his own life, the story leaves us wondering whether his fictive self’s surprisingly resourceful young wife can lift her partner out of his stew of self-pity.

Throughout, even when it appears to recede, Mount Fuji stands sentinel. “The collection,” series editor, Frank Stewart, asserts, “circles back to earlier literature, ending with Mutsuo Takahashi’s meditations on the humble beauty of the home, with Mount Fuji in the background.”

In this final entry in the anthology, “Sketches: A Man and His Home,” Takahashi attempts to convey something about himself, while remaining partially concealed behind descriptions of objects within the interior of his residence. In his fiction, a birdcage is not just a birdcage, a bookcase is more than a repository. A postbox, photo stand or sink become less objects and more like subjects for imaginative riffing.

In just four short lines, the writer turns a simple flight of stairs into an existential escalator, conveying him to the working and sleeping zones of his life, but also further up on the mechanisms of motion, to the “eternal rest that lies not far off in the future. In other words, nothingness. And perhaps not even that.”

“Mountain/Home” is an uncommonly absorbing anthology of translations, one that carries the reader throughout.