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

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Five Modern No Plays by Yukio Mishima

Five  Modern No Plays by Yukio Mishima (1957, trans. and introduced by Donald Keene, 199 pages)

I am becoming increasingly convinced that one of the defining characteristics of the Japanese novel (and I think there is more to this concept than just the language) is an assumption that the audience for the novels will be familiar with the conventions of various types of Japanese theater.   One of the first Japanese novels I read was Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with  the Sea.    If you merely look at this as purely European novel the plot line is cliched and the characters are not fully developed.    When I stepped back and came to see this as a novel that assumes the ritualized and representational features of classical Japanese theater I was able to see the brilliance in the work.    After reading Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault I read a number of the Amazon and Goodreads reviews.    Many said the characters are not well developed and seem almost like cartoon figures.  Somersault is also, in part, a theatrical novel which assumes a familiarity with the conventions of Japanese theater.   This knowledge is not something arcane that only professors would understand , it is (or maybe better said now was) part of the common culture of the Japanese novel reader.

A year ago or so when I read my first Japanese novel I was just looking for some new to me good books.   Then I moved on to looking for the best of  the Japanese novel.  Now I am trying to understand the Japanese novel as a cultural entity.  That is why I was very happy when I saw this book in a local bookstore.   Donald Keene, the translator  and author of the very informative and well written introduction,  deserves much of the credit for opening up Japanese literature to the English language world through his translations of many books and through the scholars and translators he educated and inspired in nearly 50 years as a professor.    Yukio Mishima (1925 to 1970)   is on all lists of best five Japanese novelists.   One of the themes of his work is the destruction of traditional Japanese culture through the defeat in WWII and the subsequent total adoption of the values of consumerism by most Japanese.    Mishima felt deeply enough about his views to commit ritual suicide in support of them.

Each of the five plays in this book could be performed or read in an hour or so.   The plays have from three to ten characters.    The actors' lines in the plays range from one line to paragraph long dissertations.    Some of the plays border on the drama of the absurd (they probably owe a lot to  the post WWII French theater) and others are simple encounters.   The essential action in the first drama in the collection comes from the conversation of a man who claims to be a poet and a very old woman (she claims to be 99) who says she was once a great beauty.  It is up to the reader to decide if they are what they say they are.  Some of the lines have a brilliant epigrammatic quality that made me read them several times.    I would love to see these performed though the odds of that are pretty low.

I recommend this book to devotees of Mishima (which I have now become also), those who want to acquire a bit of the cultural background to more deeply appreciate the Japanese novel  and to those interested in modern drama.   I am grateful to Vintage International Press for keeping in print so many of  Mishima's works.     There is convincing biographical evidence in the form of reports from multiple sources that Mishima can be listed as a GLBT author.   There are it appears 13 novels in print from Vintage and three collections of plays.   One of  the plays is entitled "My Friend Hitler".    I hope to eventually read all of his translated works.

Here is a link to some more Japanese posts

Mel u


Fred said...

Thanks for the reference to and review of _Five Modern No Plays_ by Mishima. I wasn't aware of them.

They sound interesting. I have read a number of his novels, but I didn't know about the No plays. Considering his concerns and reverence for Japan's cultural past, it seems appropriate that he should create No plays.

Bookphilia said...

Crazy! I just picked this book up over the weekend. Can't wait to read it!

Suko said...

What an interesting review! I am eager to read more Japanese literature. It may take Bellezza's JLC to get me back on track!

me. said...

I've got this book to read,i remember going to see a production of Hanjo many years ago,that also included a performance of the original by Zeami,which gave any excellent contrast between the original and Mishima's modern adaption,thanks for the review.