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91 A Man on a Child’s Swing Contemporary Japanese Poetry Let me start with an image from Japanese cinema—­ it is of a man singing, the old bureaucrat played by Takashi Shimura in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a drama of contemporary life. The man’s name is Watanabe, and he sings something desperate, poignant, and off-­ key as he sits in a child’s swing in a small park somewhere in the gray ruin of postwar Tokyo. We know from the film’s narrative that Watanabe has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and that none of his coworkers or family is able to give a damn. He’s spent a few nights prowling Tokyo’s nightlife for its dizzying myriad of cheap distractions—­ until he meets a sweet bar girl who has a child in whom he takes an interest. Their relationship is chaste but then begins to convulse. Empowered by fear and a newly aroused compassion, Watanabe comes up with a plan to influence his moribund municipal office to build a playground. He struggles to build human connections, redeem a life without relationships, without meaning. Finally, through a twist, he succeeds , and, in a scene late in the movie, we find him, still dressed in his long coat and business clothes, seated happily on a child’s swing during a snowfall. Kurosawa’s 35 mm black-­ and-­ white film captures the flurry as amulets of insight falling on the somewhat outsize hat and mortal shoulders of “salary man” suddenly made joyous. Watanabe will have his park! He has transformed his own dedicated, incremental misery into a site for the temporal amusement of children. This is the story of modern Japanese poetry too. It rises from the spiritual, dehumanizing torpor of lives confused and ruined through the long century of Japan’s Westernization, industrialization , and militarization since Commodore Matthew Perry’s 92 black ships forced the opening of Yokohama Bay to foreign trade in 1866. Nearly a century later, by the time of Kurosawa’s film, so much social change and cultural displacement, so much true upheaval had called all that had been traditional into question . It was thus with traditional Japanese poetry as well. The old forms of tanka and haiku spoke for other times, in languages that were fairly restrictive, not only in terms of diction and grammar, but even in vocabulary. A traditional tanka or haiku poet could not mention all the new things—­ a steam locomotive, an iron bridge, foreign sailors on liberty gathering at Tokyo Station, an atom bomb. The old literary practices, for all their fabled charm, were almost exclusively bucolic and came couched in a language all too literary—­ a language that had quickly become a “foreign” one. The new poets initially responded by revamping traditional forms like the haiku and the tanka, incorporating not only new vocabularies but the new, angst-­ ridden moods, and the more libertarian view of personal identities and appropriate poetic subjects. Shiki Masaoka (1867–­ 1902) wrote haiku about drying socks as well as wisteria blossoms. Akiko Yosano (1878–­ 1942) wrote vivid tanka about her own erotic life, mentioning breasts and thighs and the sated tenderness after lovemaking. And Takuboku Ishikawa (1886–­ 1912) brought into the stately tanka the sounds of tubercular breathing and footfalls of wandering drunks. The overall difference was an embracing of spleen, eroticism , and the humbler items of modern life in exchange for the sweet chorus of pond frogs and images of a silvery snow falling on the thatched rooflines of a far-­ off village glimpsed at sunset. Yet the largest revolution was the complete abandonment of traditional forms altogether and the invention of a Japanese free verse reflective of some tradition but responsive to contemporary life. Called jiyuritsushi, or literally “free-­ style poetry,” this new form had, to my mind, three important early practitioners, each with their own stylistically recognizable way of handling the problem of creating a vernacular poetry out of the modern Japanese language—­ two secular intellectuals, Sakutaro Hagiwara and Junzaburo Nishiwaki, and a supremely religious one, Kenji Miyazawa. When Sakutaro Hagiwara (1886–­ 1942) published Howling at 93 the Moon in 1917, the new poetry finally had its first, full-­ fledged champion. Modern spoken Japanese, full of Western neologisms and the unromanticized cares of harried, newly urbanized lives, at last arrived as a poetic language in Hagiwara. The work is entirely in the free style, almost exclusively in the modern language , yet there are shades of archaism, unexpected twists of syntax...


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