Books / Reviews | ESSENTIAL READING FOR JAPANOPHILES

Kafu Nagai's 'Geisha in Rivalry' abounds with scheming, manipulation and, yes, sex

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

At a night at the Imperial Theatre, an unemotional middle-aged businessman bumps into a geisha with whom he had an affair some years back and then forgot about while living abroad. They resume their relationship, and he takes her away to an onsen hot spring, only for her to run into an actor with whom she becomes infatuated. In retaliation, he turns his attentions to another geisha in the same house.

Geisha in Rivalry, by Kafu Nagai, Translated by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich.
208 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING, Fiction.

Set in the Shinbashi geisha district of Tokyo at the beginning of the Taisho Era (1912-26), this novel of sexual scheming and manipulation is representative of Nagai’s rediscovery of the fast-disappearing traditional culture of Japan after he had lived for over four years in America and France.

Nagai was a master stylist and to appreciate what makes his work so enduringly beguiling, much hangs on the quality of the translation. This volume — first published in English in 1963, but still in wide circulation — leaves you feeling a little unsatisfied, and should perhaps only be treated as a spur to further readings.

Intriguingly, this volume is a translation of a censored version of a more racy original. The unexpurgated original — complete with more explicit descriptions of various sexual transactions was only published in Japan after World War II and translated into English by Stephen Snyder in 2007. Extracts of the uncensored novel were also translated by expert translator Edward Seidensticker in his book, “Kafu the Scribbler.”

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