- An Age of Melodrama: Family, Gender, and Social Hierarchy in the Turn-of-the-Century Japanese Novel
The transition from the Tokugawa to the Meiji era marked a period of traumatic uncertainty, as old ideologies and social systems gave way to new. Age-old standards and moral values seemed to crumble over night, and in their wake emerged new and, for many, threatening attitudes toward gender, family, and social mobility. We have already seen how this confrontation with modernity, and the pervasive sense of insecurity that it inspired, created a fertile environment for the development of detective fiction in Japanese letters.1 But, as Ken K. Ito demonstrates in this meticulously researched monograph, the same rupture was also responsible for an outpouring of melodramatic narratives. In fact, it is in an insecure world, where change is rapid and moral certitudes upended, that conniving stepmothers, villainous husbands, suffering daughters, and vulnerable orphans—the stock characters of melodrama—find themselves most at home.
The term “melodrama,” which was originally used exclusively in reference to theatrical productions, was long associated with excessive emotion, polarized characterizations of good and evil, fancifully complicated plots, and impossibly contrived denouements. Thus the genre was aligned with hack writing and lowbrow audiences, and few paid it serious critical attention. But in the 1970s, starting with Peter Brooks’s seminal study, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, melodrama gradually gained respectability and began to attract serious and extended consideration in both literary and film studies.2 Many critics, like Martha Vicinus, challenge the superficial disregard of melodrama as “formulaic” and employ its generic features as windows onto cultural contexts. “Melodrama, [End Page 398] whatever its outward form, served as a cultural touchstone for large sections of society that were in awe of, and unclear about, the benefits of the new society being built around them.”3
Taking his theoretical inspiration from Brooks, Linda Williams, Ben Singer,4 and those who, like Vicinus, wrote in reaction to Brooks, Ito similarly uses the melodramatic form as a window onto society. In the process, he offers case studies of four of the most representative melodramas of the Meiji period: Hototogisu (The cuckoo; 1898–99), Konjiki yasha (The golden demon; 1897–1903), Chikyōdai (Raised as sisters; 1903), and Gubijinsō (The poppy; 1907). Devoting one chapter to each case, he not only provides flexible readings of these complex and largely overlooked texts, but also carefully explores the important cultural contexts that informed the writing, namely the rise of a capitalist economy, the institution of the new civil code, and the disruption wrought by these changes on the family.
Ito’s introductory chapter charts the parameters of his study—identifying the characteristics of melodrama, the importance of the Meiji setting, and the symbiotic relationship that the melodramatic mode has had with narratives of the family. Of course, the term “melodrama” would not have been familiar to readers and writers in the Meiji period. Even now, as Ito notes, it is not used with much regularity in Japan. In their own time, the novels that Ito explores were identified variously as newspaper novels (shinbun shōsetsu), home fiction (katei shōsetsu), and, currently, popular fiction (taishū shōsetsu), a term that achieved currency in the 1920s. But Ito argues convincingly for the use of melodrama as an appropriate category for these works and the Meiji culture that fostered them.
Ito focuses his study on family melodramas, in part because emphasis on the family is a hallmark of melodramas generally and the family setting is a central feature of most melodramas, but also, more importantly, because the notion of family was itself essential to the emerging ideologies of the Meiji era. The family offered a site for the crucial transition from Tokugawa notions of lineage to the Meiji construction of [End Page 399] nation-state. Coalescing into kazoku kokkakan ideology, or the merging of the ie (family, house, kinship structure) with the state, the family...