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  • Uchida Hyakken: A Critique of Modernity and Militarism in Prewar Japan
  • Hosea Hirata
Uchida Hyakken: A Critique of Modernity and Militarism in Prewar Japan By Rachel DiNitto. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. Pp. x + 285. $39.95.

The presumed topic of this ambitious study is the unique Japanese writer Uchida Hyakken (1889–1971). The real topic, however, may not be this fascinating, iconoclastic, and minor yet charismatic writer. In this book, you will not find the usual critical biography of an author. What DiNitto presents, instead, is suggested by the subtitle of the book. We might read this as an assertion that Uchida Hyakken wrote critiques of modernity and militarism in prewar Japan. Or we might interpret this to mean that DiNitto is using Hyakken as a pretext for her own critique of modernity and militarism in prewar Japan. The answer, that DiNitto is indeed arguing for a radical reinterpretation of Hyakken’s literary agenda, is revealed in her provocative thesis. I wonder what would happen if we showed this thesis to some of Hyakken’s maniacal admirers in Japan. I am guessing that they would be puzzled. Herein lies the surprising newness and challenge of DiNitto’s study, if seen especially from the perspective of the rather small field of Hyakken scholarship.

That DiNitto preceded this study with a translation makes the effort as a whole unusually conscientious. We should be grateful that, thanks to the Japanese government’s (obviously nationalistic) “Japanese [End Page 524] Literature Publishing Project,” we can read English translations of most of the texts to which DiNitto refers. DiNitto translated two early collections of short stories by Hyakken and published them as Realm of the Dead.1 Without these translations, which are first-rate, one might feel adrift when reading her study. That said, Realm of the Dead itself oddly has no introduction whatsoever—nothing about the author Hyakken, nothing about when these stories were written. Thus, if you do not read Japanese, you need to read both her translation and her monograph to understand Hyakken’s work adequately. Unfortunately, although DiNitto extensively analyzes what I consider to be Hyakken’s masterpieces—“Tokyo Diary” and “The Sarasate Disc”—these stories are left out of Realm of the Dead.

Dostoevsky, in his introduction to The Brothers Karamazov, tries his best to respond to his readers’ foremost concern: Why should I read this book? Dostoevsky is actually focused on one potential problem, the banality of Alyosha, his own appointed hero:

Starting out on the biography of my hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in some perplexity. Namely, that while I do call Alexei Fyodorovich my hero, still, I myself know that he is by no means a great man, so that I can foresee the inevitable questions, such as: What is notable about your Alexei Fyodorovich that you should choose him for your hero? What has he really done? To whom is he known, and for what? Why should I, the reader, spend my time studying the facts of his life?2

Most likely DiNitto felt a similar pressure when deciding to write a book on Uchida Hyakken. Just as Dostoevsky was anxious to defend his choice of the “not-so-great” Alyosha as the hero of his novel, DiNitto has to convince us that the writer under discussion holds some special value to our field. If the writer to be introduced were already a major figure in his or her native country, the task of a monograph writer would be easier. Hyakken, however, is decidedly a minor figure in Japan, though his writings and quirky personality have generated an almost cultic following. Many discovered Hyakken after his stories [End Page 525] were made into the art-house film Zigeunerweisen (1980), by Suzuki Seijun, and after Kurosawa Akira’s final film, Madadayo, came out in 1993. Madadayo was based on Hyakken’s life. The writer and artist Akasegawa Genpei, in his postscript to Chikuma nihon bungaku zenshū: Uchida Hyakken, admits that he had never read Hyakken’s work until he was asked by the editor of this volume to write an essay on Hyakken. Of course, Akasegawa fell in love with Hyakken’s...


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pp. 524-533
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