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, June 22, 2010

Vita Sexualis by Ogai Mori-A Leading Meiji Period Novelist

Vita Sexualis by Ogai Mori (1909, trans.  by Kazuji Ninomiya and Sanford Goldstein, 154 pages)

Ogai Mori (1862 to 1922) was born into a privileged family in the southern Japan.   His family had long had the been by right of inheritance physicians to the daimyo (a feudal samurai lord) of the region.    As the oldest son of the family, Mori as expected graduated from Medical School.   In his younger days he studied Confucian texts to supplement his schooling and insure a grounding in the classics.    After graduation he enrolled in the Japanese Imperial Army.   The army sent him to Germany to pursue advanced medical training and while there he developed a passion for European literature.     Upon return to Japan he was given a high ranking position in the army medical corps.   While pursuing his military career he started at his own expense a literary journal in the pages of which Japanese literary criticism first began.   In time he  was promoted to the position of Surgeon General of the Japanese Imperial Army.   While in the army he served in Manchuria and Taiwan during periods of combat.   As a hobby he pursued his writings, the most famous of which is The Wild Geese.

Vita Sexualis is considered an autobiographical novel of the sexual development of Mori.   It was considered so daring at the time that it was banned three weeks after its initial publication and Mori drew an official reprimand from his military superiors.   The book is narrated as if one writer was presenting the manuscript of a second one.     In a very good introduction to the book, Sanford Goldstein, gives us a very interesting account of the place of erotically explicit literature in the literary culture of Japan of the period.   Vita Sexualis is in no sense at all a an explicit book but it does talk in an open way about homosexual activity (including rape) in Japanese all male boarding schools which were attended by most elite Japanese of the time.   The book is told sort of one year at a time starting with age six and ending at age twenty one.    The narrator ends up in medical school just like Mori did.   We see him learning about self gratification from his peers up to his first sexual encounter which was with  a prostitute.   This  is portrayed as a normal right of male passage at the time.  I thing the suggestion that elite Japanese males commonly visited prostitutes and tea houses  of bad repute is   probably one of the reasons the top functionaries of the Imperial Army did not like his book.   We also see the role of  geisha in the life of the Japanese elite.   There is a lot of blurring of the line between prostitutes and gieshas in Japanese novels.       Given time it was expected that gieshas would provide sexual services and also cultural instruction to young elite males.   For sure this is the depiction of that aspect of Japanese life is shown in Vita Sexualis.   I think maybe the real  reason his book was banned as he revealed to much "boy's club" information about life among the elite in Japan.

I enjoyed this book.   It is well written by an obviously very cultivated and highly intelligent man.   It gives us an interesting look at the upbringing of elite males in Japan in the early part of the 20th century.   One must think that the elite males who were the classmates of the main character in 1904 (when they were about 20) lead Japan into war  thirty years later and we have to wonder if the values of classical Japan are already being shown as eroding in this 1904 work.    

I recommend this book for any one very into the Japanese novel  or anyone interested in the culture of early 20th century Japan.  It is also a book those interested in seeing an open treatment of homosexuality in Japanese literature will enjoy.    For those new to the Japanese novel I would recommend that they read post WWII books first then after you have read most of the major post WWII authors you will get more from this book.

Mel u
Just for fun I looked at the Wikipedia article on literature in 1909 (a purely Euro-centric list in all years it seems) and Vita Sexualis deserves a place as least as well as 80 percent of the selections on their do.


Violet said...

This sounds really interesting. As you say, the book was probably banned because it alluded to "secret men's business". I'm putting it on my TBR list, although I doubt my library will have it. I've been really surprised at the lack of Japanese Literature available through the state library system here.

Nora said...

This was a brilliant review :)
You really made me want to read this book and I think I'll have to put in on my TBR list :).

Anonymous said...

Wonderful review. I find Ogai Mori and his works fascinating. You are right - he was very cultured and learned. this coupled with his insight into Japanese culture and soceity made a very powerful writer of his era. Will add this to my pile.

Mel u said...

Violet-I could see no other reason why the book was banned-it is not explicit of anything like that

Nora-thanks ever so much

Kinnareads-I am looking forward to reading his Wild Geese soon-thanks for visiting my blog

me. said...

Many thanks for this review,i'm hoping to read some Ogai soon.

Mel u said...

me.-I will look forward to your thoughts on Ogai Mori

@parridhlantern said...

Based on your review, this is a must, for me, as it probably help with my understanding of this nations culture & by doing so the writers I admire, thanks.