Friday, November 05, 2010

Japanese Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyōka ('The Surgery Room' and 'The Holy Man of Mount Kōya')

Izumi Kyōka (泉 鏡花) was the pen name of Kyōtarō Izumi (1873 – 1939), a Japanese author who wrote during the late Meiji era and the early Shōwa periods. He was known primarily for his short stories and plays and "developed a reputation for writing about the grotesque and the fantastic". Drawing on "Edo period popular fiction, folklore and Noh drama, more than half of Kyōka 's works incorporate some form of supernatural element." Unfortunately very little of his work has been translated into English.

Four of his stories have been collected into the book, Japanese Gothic Tales, translated by Charles Shiro Inouye. Today, for the Classics Circuit Land of the Rising Sun: Meiji-era Japanese Classics tour, I'm going to talk about the first two, 'The Surgery Room', and 'The Holy Man of Mount Kōya'.

The Surgery Room
(also called 'The Operating Room')

Kyōka's earliest stories were not very well received but he finally achieved some success and recognition with 'The Operating Room'. In this story, a beautiful Countess has been brought to the hospital so that the doctor, a Doctor Takamine, could perform surgery on her. However, the proceedings are complicated by the fact that the Countess refuses to be anaesthetized. When pressed on why exactly she won't allow it, she confesses, "I've been keeping a secret in my heart. And now I'm afraid the medication will make me reveal it." Just what that secret is, and what happens next though, I can't tell you without spoiling the story.

When I first read it, I admit that it seemed a bit too abrupt and disjointed. Even the flashback, essentially to explain the secret, was quite vague. However, looking back on it, it has a certain poignancy to it, along with some powerful, visual scenes. And at just 10 pages I think it's the kind of story that should be read again and appreciated more by reading it through with a better understanding of what it's about.

The Holy Man of Mount Kōya

The Holy Man of Mount Kōya is usually considered Kyōka's most well-known, and representative work. This story was much longer, at just over 50 pages, and where I felt the first one too compact, and rushed, in this one he took his time letting the narrative unfold. A young man befriends the monk of the title on a train. As they are travelling some distance in the same direction, they decide to become travelling companions. They spend the night at an inn, and the monk begins to tell the story of a strange encounter he once had while on a pilgrimage.
From the Afterword:
The young priest crosses a flooded road and enters a mountain wilderness. He encounters an older woman who is alluring yet also nurturing. While with her, he is horrified during his night on the mountain and also fascinated by the woman's powers. Because his sexual desire is bridled by the commitment he has made to a religious order, he overcomes temptation long enough to learn the truth about the woman. Affording both horror and comfort, his close encounter with her teaches him something about his own sexual nature and the meaning of love.
The framework of The Holy Man of Mount Kōya draws heavily on the old folktales and legends that he first discovered in his mother's library of kusazōshi and as such it reminded me of the fantastical stories with supernatural elements in Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Akinari Uedo or the folktales retold by Lafcadio Hearn in Kwaidan. The isolated setting and the unusual happenings lent the story a certain sense of unease. I also enjoyed the story within a story structure, and the care he took with describing the characters and the mythology. The images I have from this story won't soon be forgotten.

I'd heard of Izumi Kyōka before, probably due to the fact that there is a Japanese literary award named after him, the Izumi Kyōka Prize for Literature, but this was the first time for me to read any of his writing. These two stories were really quite distinct from each other, and it'll be interesting now to read the last two stories in Japanese Gothic Tales, and compare them. Stay tuned for that.

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To see a list of the other posts and participants of the Land of the Rising Sun: Meiji-era Japanese Classics tour, please click on the button.

*Factual information courtesy of Wikipedia

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  1. I've heard of Izumi Kyoka but have never read anything by him. I'm interested in the Koyasan story as I have a friend whose family runs a temple there:)

  2. I was a bit disappointed in the stories I read for Circuit -- they were abrupt and disjointed as you complain. I'm sure they would have been better had I reread them a few times!

    But the second story sounds satisfying! I think I'm more easily satisfied with longer stories. I may have to find that one. I'd love to learn more about the folktales, etc.


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