Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi" by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi by Junichiro Tanizaki (1935, 138 pages-trans. by Anthony Chambers) is simply an amazing work of art.   Written nearly 75 years ago, it is my first preWWII Japanese novel, it feels like it could have been written last week or in the 18th century by someone with a very strange sense of humor and amazing talent.   I simply loved this work.   It is darkly hilarious.   An acute psychological insight is shown throughout.   The book opens with a very deeply nuanced interpertation of a portrait of the samurai lord who is  the central character in the book.    I do not think Henry James or Gustav Flaubert could have produced anything better.   The Secret History of the Lord of  Musashi is written as if were a biography done by a traditional Confucian historian who is writing a tale of heroic days gone by to inspire readers to good deeds.    Tanizaki is considered the first Japanese author to give complete portrayals of
female characters in a literary work.

Tanizaki felt that the values of traditional Confucian writings had hampered the development of  Japanese literature.    Characters were not whole persons but stereo types and any narrative prose about the past tended to be simply hymns to the greatness of old leaders.   Confucian teaching regarded  fiction as the product of an effete and decadent mentality and would be horrified by anything that suggested an imperfection in the character of a samurai lord.    The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is a parody of this tradition.    It centers on how a great samurai developed a strange sexual fetish and how this fetish came to be the secret ruling passion of his life.

The narrative is set in the 16th century.    Our hero, for that is who he is, is a royal hostage in a castle under siege by an opposing warlord.   (It was the practice in 16th century Japan, just as it had long been in Europe and China,  to place royal children in the hands of  potential enemies as a kind of peace keeping device.)    Our hero is 12 years old and very excited by the battle outside the castle.   He begs his attendant, a low ranking samurai to let him join the fighting.    His request is denied.   He then asks an older servant woman to help him slip out of the castle.   She knows if he gets killed her life will be lost so she says ok I will let you see something you will find interesting.   She takes him to a room where the women of  the castle are "dressing heads".    In samurai battles it was customary to cut off the head of an opposing samurai you killed and bring it back as a trophy to present to your over lord.    Of course a bloody head would make a poor show so a ritualized procedure for cleaning up heads developed over time.   

I cannot take you to the battlefield, but if you want to see some heads I can arrange it for you...She explained in a whisper that almost every night five or six of the women had been selected to attend to the enemy heads taken in battle.   They would check the heads against a list, label them and wash off the blood stains...The women would dress the hair, touch up the dye on the teeth and even apply some light cosmetics to make the head presentable...Dressing heads, as it was called, was considered women's work, and  their being a shortage of women in the castle, some of the hostages had been ordered to help.

Our 12 year old hero begins to feel his first sexual stirrings.

The heads themselves do not make a strong impression on him.   It is the contrast between the heads and the women working on them that somehow excites new feelings in him.   He fixates on the hands of the women as they dress the heads.  

This seemed to enhance the strange beauty of their hands, especially as he saw them braiding the hair of the heads.   He was fascinated by the tender care and love they seemed to give to the heads.   He begins to have fantasies. 

His fantasy, therefore--the pleasure he would feel if he were a head placed before the girl-was illogical.   It was the fantasy itself that gave him pleasure.   He indulged in the fantasy that he could become a head without losing consciousness.   He tried to imagine that one of the heads brought to the women was his own.   When the girl tapped a head with the ridge of her comb, he imagined that he himself was being tapped, and this brought his pleasure to the summit:   his brain grew numb and his body trembled.    Among the many different heads, he would concentrate on the ugliest...and say to himself, "That is me".   This gave him far greater pleasure that identifying with the head of a splendid young warrior.   In short, he envied the pitiable, repulsive heads more than the beautiful ones.

Then he notices one of the heads is without a nose.    It was the custom on the battleground at that time to cut off the nose from any head of a samurai you killed if you did not have time to cut the head of  in the heat of  battle.   After the battle was over, you could then use the nose (which the killer kept) as proof the head of the fallen warrior was your trophy.   To have your nose removed and then never to have to reunited with the head was a great shame to the warrior and might cause a disgrace in the afterlife.    Heads without a nose are called "women's heads".

In a  series of bizare events, one night our 12 year old hero sneaks into the enemy camp.  He enters the tent of the opposing general and he kills him with a stab through the throat.   As he was trying to cut off his head he is interupted by two of general's pages.   He kills both of pages, he knows he must run for his life so he cuts of the nose of the general and takes it back to the castle with him.    The general has been "denosed".   If word of this gets out it will be a great humiliation for the entire clan and a horrible shame on his family.   The attacking army declares that their general is ill and leaves the battlefield.   Our hero wants to tell everyone what he has done but he knows if he does no one will believe him.

We next meet our hero maybe six or seven  years in the future.   He has already developed into a fearful warrior, terrifying even to those he leads.    He is a second son so he has no hope of inheriting clan leadership as long as his older but weak in character brother lives.    His father is worried as he does not want our hero to become clan leader as he knows he will bring on horrible wars just for the joy of battle.   Now things start to get a bit stranger.    The narrative is done is a completely straightforward fashion as if this is all part of an inspiring tale of heroism.   His older brother is married to the 14 year old daughter of the man whose nose he took when he was twelve.  She is, of course, a great, delicate beauty

A man who has masochistic sexual appetites, as did the Lord of Musashi, is apt to construct fantasies in which his female partner conforms to his own perverse specifications.

Exciting and mysterious events put out her right in front of the castle where his brother and his wife live.   He notices one of the stones in the wall is loose.    He notices there is no moss on that section of the castle wall.   He removes the stone, it is much thinner  than all the other stones.   It leads into a very long upper slopping tunnel.   Our hero

squeezed through the opening, just as one does in the Buddhist purification rite known as "passing through the womb"...At this point, I hope to be forgiven for raising a rather indelicate subject, the design of toilets used by arisocratic ladies of the time...ladies born into a daimyo family never allowed anyone to see their  excretory matter, nor did they ever see it themselves.   Such delicacy was accomplished by digging under the toilet a deep shaft which was filled for eternity when the lady died...In other words, Tereutasu found himself deep in the earth directly below Lady Kikyo's toilet.

I do not want to give away much more of the plot as a lot of the fun of this novel is in the crazy events that take place.   The plot is devilishly clever, hilarious and just flat out wonderfully told.   The hero of this Confucian panegyric can obtain sexual gratification only if he can somehow imagine that the woman he is with is dressing his head.   He even goes so far as to build in Lady Kikyo's bed chamber a hole in the floor with a platform under it so a man can stand on it with only his head sticking out of the floor.   The servant doing this is then advised if he does anything that make him seem living, Lady Kikyo will cut off his nose.   Various melodramas of a sadomasochistic nature played out, with Lady Kikyo the willing partner.   In time our hero's relationship with her ends, how this happens is a great story also.   On the surface, the rest of our hero's life was one of great glory.   Great warlords prostrated themselves at his feet.   Under it all known only to his women and his  servants, the ruling passion of his life was having intimate contact with women in circumstances that would allow him to imagine the woman is ritualistically dressing his severed head.   It is suggested by the narrator, that terrible things happened behind closed doors in pursuit of our hero's needs.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is a weird and wonderful work.   It is a bit of a wicked book and it for sure mocks Confucian traditions as well as Buddhist rituals.    The image of a great samurai leader crawling up a toilet has to be seen as subverting history as taught in Japanese schools.   The female lead in the story is wonderfully realized as a whole person, not a character in a stock history written to instruct elite school boys.   I am trying to imagine an English or American writer of the 1930s who might have produced a story like this but so far I cannot.   I was so happy when I found out Vintage Press has eight other works by Tanizaki in print.   I should also note that this work is beautifully written.   Of course I do not know if it is well translated or not but there are none of the "false notes" that readers have found in the work of other translators.

Junichiro Tanizaki had a very interesting life history.  I will talk a bit about it when I post on his long short story "Arrowroot", which is included as a companion piece by Vintage in the same book as  The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.   


Rosaria Williams said...

Interesting and alluring, though in a dark manner. How much of this is historically accurate, do we know?

Suko said...

Oh, no, Mel! My TBR list is already too long. But this does sound like a very strange and beautiful book, a work of art, as you say.

You've added a signature!

Mel u said...

Lakeviewer-your question motivated me to do a bit of google based research-I could verify that the practice of dressing of heads taken in battle (with the work done by women) was a common practice. The giving of mutual hostages (a common practice worldwide) was common in 15 to 17th century Japan. I have not yet been able to verify if the taking of noses from heads one could not cut off on the battlefield was a common practice. On the subject of the waste disposal as it relates to highly born women of samurai families, I could find no information on this directly. My guess is the practice of taking noses probably is accurate and the description of the toilet practices of high born ladies is a product of legends and is meant satirically. The descritions of battle practices and family structures seem accurate based on my superfical research-

Suki-I bought three more books by Junichiro Tanizaki yesterday!-I had fun adding my signature-I may change background colors soon-

@parridhlantern said...

Already have Some prefer nettles in my TBR, but this seems like a fun addition.

@parridhlantern said...

Although there is a long tradition of Samurai being considered as honorable warrior types, this had become discredited by the Meiji restoration, with the pax tokogawa being a period of forced social & political peace, the samurai became almost pointless, (no battle etc) & yet accounted for a large amount of the revenue with no apparent justification, that & they appeared to be frequenters of the dens of inequity, made them become figures of disrepute & a laughing stock. This only changed with Japan trying to find its own identity against perceived westernisation through modernity.

Mel u said...

Parrish Lantern-thanks much for your very interesting remarks on the decline of the samurai-