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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.3 (2001) 585-609
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Amorphous Identities, Disavowed History: Shimada Masahiko and National Subjectivity
“I am my own, independent (hitori no) Tower of Babel,” proclaims Akuma Kazuhito, the protagonist of Shimada Masahiko’s (b. 1961) Boku wa mozoningen [I am an automaton] (1986).1 This essay reads a sampling of Shimada’s narratives written between 1985 and 1989 as a set of discursive forays into dominant modern Japanese models of individual and national subjectivity, forays that unsettle the practice of marshaling Japanese literature to complicity with those cultural models. His characters persistently inhabit the interstices of identifying categories, bartering their erotic bodies in the contemporary global market economy. These 1980s texts are liberally peppered with postcolonial and postmodern jargon and concepts, such as that of in-betweenness. Because of these and other attributes U.S. Japanologists frequently designate (and dismiss) Shimada as a “postmodern writer.” I want here to rethink how these postmodern traits signify—as not mere reproduction of but as politically informed commentary—in these [End Page 585] 1980s texts. Shimada’s texts are deeply self-reflexive, intellectual exercises on contemporary theoretical issues. Hence postmodern signifiers (fragmentation, pastiche, polymorphous perversity, and so on) that appear in his texts are, rather than simply “natural” (nonreflexive) occurrences, strategic signifiers. That is, they function as citations of postmodernity that also bring very modern pressures (such as concern over the status of literature, subjectivity, and national identity) to bear on the postmodern condition. More specifically, I understand Shimada’s texts to parody the utopian celebration of postmodernity as liberating subjects from national boundedness while relentlessly critiquing how the retention of not only the emperor system (tennosei) but the Showa emperor himself into the postwar period functions as the stabilizing counterbalance to the destabilization of the postmodern subject. That is, as the axis of Japanese identity the emperor embodies a mythic disavowal of history, history that would potentially anchor the subject against postmodern amnesia and pastiches of the past. For Shimada the emperor is a very specific signifier, or the nodal point through which modern Japanese identity and Japanism as a naturalized ideology are constructed. Repeatedly he asks, How can Japanese (individual) identity be cohesively constructed when the (national) relation to the emperor is, rather than historically queried, confronted, and denaturalized, merely repressed or even disavowed? To claim that Shimada offers a politically cogent strategy would be to overstate my point. Parody by its nature reproduces what it parodies; moreover, Shimada’s is certainly intellectually elitist. Can inciting laughter constitute a political act? However, in the 1980s narratives I discuss here, the specific problematics of the emperor as signifier and the psychic “hybridity” of young Japanese in the wake of global capitalism as well as the occupation are consistently brought into sharp (critical?) focus.
While Shimada has enjoyed some critical acclaim—his first work, serialized in 1983, Yasashii sayoku no tame no kiyukyoku [A divertimento for a gentle leftist], was nominated for the Akutagawa Literary Prize, and Muyu okoku no tame no ongaku [Music for a somnambulist kingdom] (1984) was awarded the Noma New Writer prize in 1984—his later fictional works have not been received as well.2 His political satire and intellectual sophistication please literary critics, but his rough (lack of) style and “unconvincing” characterizations annoy them. Vexing the overtones of cyberpunk, science fiction, [End Page 586] and postmodern youth culture that nuance his work, Shimada’s hand traces undertones of psychological traumas. The resultant characterizations, fusing facets of human beings and automatons into uneasy compounds, suggest a contemporary dystopia and do not easily conform to any generic standards.
In this essay when I use the term Shimada, I intend that it designate not simply Shimada-the-author but, rather, a performative bundle that incorporates his expository writing, roundtable appearances, public persona, theatrical and filmic appearances, narrative texts, and more. Mirroring his interpretation of Mishima Yukio, Shimada collapses essay and fiction into a dense intertexuality.3 By establishing a self-referentiality that obfuscates rather than reveals interiority, he toys with the metafictionality of shishosetsu (personal, confessional fiction) as well as with the Western theoretical insistence on the unalterable distance of...