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  • Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature
  • Nanette Gottlieb
Sirens of the Western Shore: The Westernesque Femme Fatale, Translation, and Vernacular Style in Modern Japanese Literature. By Indra Levy. Columbia University Press, 2006. 352 pages. Hardcover $39.50/£25.50.

Sirens of the Western Shore is a welcome addition to studies on the emergence of the written vernacular in Meiji Japan and on the importance of translation to modern Japanese literature. Indra Levy approaches her topic through an analysis of the relationship between the "Westernesque" femme fatale and language in an evolving parade of modern fiction, beginning with Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909) and moving on through Tayama Katai (1872-1930) to the Naturalist theater of the Shingeki (New Theater) school.

What defines a Westernesque woman? Levy has coined this term to refer to femme fatale figures in modern Japanese fiction: they are Japanese women whose "physical appearances, personal mannerisms, lifestyles, behaviors, and ways of thinking" speak of the West, so that "these women emerge in literature as the alluring embodiments of Japan's cultural assimilation of the modern West" (p. 5). Just as their perceived cultural hybridity shaped their appeal, so also the exoticism of modern Western vernacular writing drove the emergence of vernacular writing in Japanese literature, and these two elements in tandem "were the privileged objects of an exoticism that underwrote the creation of Japanese literary modernity itself" (p. 5). The book argues that the combination of the once exotic genbun-itchi (lit., unification of speech and writing) literary style that emerged in Meiji Japan and the Westernesque female characters it was used to create are the result of an approach to translation central to the formation of modern Japanese literature. The Westernesque woman is an embodiment of translation rather than a mere representation of otherness.

Levy develops this theme through a focus on the work of three men important in the development of modern Japanese fiction and theater: Futabatei, Katai, and Shimamura Hōgetsu (1871-1918). Concerned to draw a critical distinction between [End Page 512] parody and exoticism in the evaluation of the encounter with modern Western literatures, she carefully juxtaposes examples of the two in each section. She thus examines Futabatei against the background of earlier translators and the excesses of the contemporary vernacular novelist Yamada Bimyō (1868-1910); she compares Katai's work both with that of his early mentor Ozaki Kōyō (1869—1903) and with his own pre-Futon literary struggles; and she contrasts the naturalistic representation of the new Japanese woman found in Hōgetsu's New Theater with gender performance in both kabuki and the Shinpa (New School) theater.

The book comprises seven chapters divided among three sections, each section beginning with a few pages of introduction. Part 1 ("Foreign Letters, the Vernacular, and Meiji Schoolgirls") deals with the character of Osei in Futabatei's Ukigumo, described as the prototype for the Westernesque female. Preceding the discussion of Osei as such is a chapter looking at the intricate tripartite interrelationship in Futabatei's work (and his times) between original work, developing the vernacular as a literary style, and literary translation. It is difficult to overstate the influence of translations from Western languages on Japanese literature of the Meiji era, particularly in its early stages. Levy has fun in the early pages of this chapter, attempting a hilarious English version of the nonsensical geography-based puns employed by gesaku writer Kanagaki Robun (1829-1894) at the very beginning of this period. From there, she traces the importance of kanbun in translation into Japanese and then, in an exposition that offers a new take on ground otherwise well worn in studies of the subject, foregrounds the importance of translation in the emergence of a vernacular literary style.

The second chapter of part 1 focuses on the virtually simultaneous but independent appearance in 1887 of the schoolgirl, a literary icon of modern Japan, as a central figure in both Futabatei's Ukigumo and Bimyō's Fūkin shirabe no hitofushi. Levy links schoolgirl characters and the first vernacular novels as each in their different ways bridging gaps between East and West...


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