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Literary Mischief: Sakaguchi Ango, Culture, and the War (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 196-200 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

We all know the dangers of jumping to overrapid conclusions about a book simply by considering its cover. Few frontispieces have made such an immediate impact on me in recent years, however, as that used for this study of an author whom Rebecca Copeland aptly pigeonholes as “unconventional, rebellious, and transgressive” (on back cover). The cover comprises a single photo of the writer Sakaguchi Ango, crouched at his kotatsu with pen in hand but almost buried under a morass of scrap paper, discarded cigarette butts, and any other kind of household trash you may care to mention. The portrait, part of a famous series taken by Hayashi Tadahiko, appears entirely apposite, encapsulating the essence of this iconoclastic author, in similar vein to the editors’ chosen title for this study, Literary Mischief.

For those with a background in twentieth-century Japanese literature, the editors may appear oversensitive in their defense of this project. For many, Ango has long been viewed as “one of twentieth-century Japan’s most creative and stimulating thinkers,” and his interest in “issues that energize discourse across a wide variety of concerns—political, social, literary, ideological, and philosophical” has indeed come to be seen to have “shaped Japan in those crucial decades of the war, surrender, and recovery” (p. vii). And, in an insightful overview of the significance of this seminal author, Karatani Kōjin goes further: bemoaning the fact that, too often in the West, Japanese literature is dominated by those who conformed to the “horizons of expectations” (authors such as Kawabata Yasunari, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, and Mishima Yukio), he recommends a heavy dose of Sakaguchi Ango’s literature as a means to “smash these expectations” (p. 31).

So what lies behind the attraction of this unashamedly controversial author? In both their introductory pieces and their respective chapters, the two editors provide a series of convincing answers to this question. Doug Slaymaker begins the justification by arguing that “the framework and questions [Ango] provides are relevant to tropes of fiction and criticism beyond the borders of Japan and outside his historical moment” (p. vii). Homing in on the author’s deliberate juxtaposition of individual and cultural identity formation, Slaymaker suggests that Ango’s work speaks “not only directly to Nietzsche and Husserl but also to contemporary thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari, or Homi Bhabha” (p. viii). Reading these studies and the translations that follow with that claim in mind, it is easy to begin to make such connections. However, with the notable exception of Homi Bhabha, whose vision of culture as a site of contestation and resistance is painstakingly depicted by Slaymaker as “correlating to Ango’s attempts to formulate culture in the face of the colonial racism of the wartime discourses” (p. 88), this claim remains largely unexamined. Because they successfully made the case for reconsideration of Ango’s oeuvre, one hopes the editors will continue with this endeavor in their ongoing research.

At the same time, as Doug Slaymaker and James Dorsey are at pains to stress, there is more to Ango’s appeal than his broad reach. Another quality, alluded to by several contributors, was his genre-bending: it “matters little whether Ango was contributing a piece to a contemporary journal as ‘fiction’ or ‘essay,’” argues Slaymaker. “They could each, together, speak to the same set of issues” (p. viii). One could go further, as Karatani chooses to in arguing that Ango’s was a “deliberate quest to decimate all literary genres” (p. 24). The paradox is picked up by Dorsey in his introduction:

Though he sometimes wrote autobiographically, Ango did not indulge in the “I-novel” format . . . . While he did flirt with some of the techniques of Japan’s modernists . . ., Ango did not continue for long in that vein. During the war years he associated mostly with liberal thinkers at least peripherally associated with the Communist Party . . ., but Ango himself was never committed to either the politics or its ideological literature.

(p. 6)

It quickly becomes clear that what Ango sought more than anything else was the creation of a bungaku (literature) that was “all encompassing, indiscriminately embracing the entirety of the human experience simply because...

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