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  • The Body in Postwar Japanese Fiction
  • Joseph S. O'Leary
The Body in Postwar Japanese Fiction. By Douglas N. Slaymaker. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004. x + 205 pages. Hardcover £70.00/US$95.00.

This book brings into focus a fascinating element in the background of contemporary Japanese culture. Douglas Slaymaker shows how the postwar "flesh writers," Tamura Taijirō, Noma Hiroshi, and Sakaguchi Ango, championed the body or the flesh (nikutai, not karada or shintai) over against seishin (spirit) and kokutai (nation), which had been oppressively emphasized in wartime propaganda. These writers struck a note that would be continued in the funky iconoclasm of Japanese youth up to the 1960s and beyond, notably in the early novels of Ōe Kenzaburō. The "topsy-turvy" years of postwar upheaval brought the nikutai writers to the verge of nihilism. But at the same time they were galvanized by fresh exposure to physical facts, both alluring and sordid, and they used this to liberate Japan from the stranglehold of conservative ideologies. It might be argued that the dialectic between despair and anarchic liberation set up by these writers has continued to play out in Japanese literature ever since.

The impact of nikutai writing invites comparison with that of D. H. Lawrence in the Anglophone world (though it seems to lack any religious or visionary dimension). Prewar Japanese literature was not lacking in sensual lyricism and erotic psychology, but the nikutai writers viewed earlier styles of writing as stilted. They created the impression that "up to this point sex had always been treated as transgression, as a cause for embarrassment and consternation, as something related to the pleasure quarters, aestheticized, or as part of a Naturalistic attempt at a particular type of realism. Even Tanizaki, who made sex and sensuality central to his work, aestheticized it, taking it out of the realm of the physical" (p. 126). That is a rather summary contrast, which readers of Tanizaki's Naomi, Manji, or The Gourmet Club: A Sextet will be inclined to question. Indeed, to judge from Slaymaker's account, the sensuality of the nikutai writers is of a rather primitive order; where Tanizaki's women are diabolically clever, these writers idealize submissive women who offer purely fleshly comfort. [End Page 281]

The age of the nikutai writers was an age of prostitution, not in elegant pleasure quarters but in the form of needy pan-pan girls throwing themselves at GIs. Slaymaker fills out this social background and in light of it gives quite a grim ethical and political analysis of the writers, finding an undercurrent of sexual exploitation that he exposes in tones recalling Kate Millett's strictures on Lawrence: "The experience of empire is never far for these writers: the body of a woman, actual or metaphorical, becomes terrain to be explored and subjugated. . . . The men hope, through sex, to learn more of the world, to learn more of themselves, to change the world, and, usually, to enter some Edenic primitive space" (p. 5). This is far from the ludic tone of much commentary on Japanese literature, and it arouses the fear that the tender body of the literary work will be bruised by the rigors of morality. Though unfamiliar with the nikutai writers, I imagine that Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima, or even The Tale of Genji, could invite equally severe treatment.

Slaymaker deconstructs the nikutai writers' ideology of liberation, finding a contradiction in their pursuit of "release from the pressures of the body by means of that body itself" (p. 73). He finds an undercurrent of desperation in their paeans to the flesh. As "the only alternative available in face of the disastrous idealization, the cerebral intellectualization, of wartime ideologies and their legacies" (p. 76), the body is freighted with anxiety. In Noma's early work, despite his Marxist background, "the self is the only reality and it looks for salvation outside, in the Other, in a search that only highlights its radical solitude" (p. 78). Women as real individuals scarcely count in this quest. Feeling that traditional Japanese writing was unable to bear the weight of the war experience, he developed a viscous style, plunging his readers into the element...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 281-283
Launched on MUSE
2005-07-25
Open Access
No
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