- Decadent Literature in Twentieth-Century Japan: Spectacles of Idle Labor by Ikuho Amano
The past decade has witnessed a cross-disciplinary resurgence of various forms of radical theory. The work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri has sought to resuscitate elements of Marxism and communism, David Graeber has argued for an "anarchist anthropology," while a recent publication by Sho Konishi makes a strong case for understanding Japanese modernity in terms of anarchist theory. This slim volume by Ikuho Amano adds to this list, by providing a new interpretation of Japanese "decadence" as a radical literary and cultural form.
The focus of the study is the creative labor of twentieth-century Japanese Decadents, that is, an ongoing "narrative process" of experimentation by which they work to "manufacture their own microcosm of pleasure" (14). Amano argues that by interpreting labor in terms of pleasure rather than utility Japanese Decadents explicitly rejected the standard model of labor as found in a modern, capitalist economy. Decadent labor, in contrast to capitalist labor, avoids the "circuit of profit-making and the abstraction of human energy" (15)—it is, to borrow a term from Marx, living labor. Furthermore, connecting this principle of "general" or "libidinal" economy to the work of contemporary theorists such as Hardt and Negri, Georges Bataille and Jean-François Lyotard, Amano extends the concept of Decadent labor as a paradigm for contemporary readings of Japanese Decadence.
Chapter 1, "Immature Decadents," provides a critical analysis of two early works of Decadent literature, novellas with similar themes and both entitled Indulgences, authored by Oguri Fūyō (1875–1926) and Iwano Hōmei (1873–1920). Amano argues that despite sharing common themes of ennui and passivity with European fin-de-siècle Decadent literature, both of these late-Meiji works display a comparatively "immature" perspective on decadence, due to a "lack of foundation in individuality inasmuch as they are intertwined with a collectivism based on paternalism" (53).
Chapter 2 provides a detailed discussion of the "naturalist aestheticism" of Morita Shohei's Sooty Smoke (1909), a text that extends the themes [End Page 478] of the works discussed in the previous chapter, particularly in terms of a more "nuanced contemplation of psychological complexity" (57). Chapter 3 turns to a comparative analysis of two Decadent novels published in 1910, Nagai Kafū's Sneers and Ueda Bin's The Vortex. Here Amano introduces the theoretical structure of Bakhtin's heteroglossia to examine "the process through which the subject negotiates with multiple spectrums of ongoing cultural modernity" (79). This chapter succeeds in showing how the narrative methods of both these texts reveal their respective author's struggles with sensibility of being kich ōsha; that is, "returnees" from a sojourn in the West. She concludes by suggesting that, while both Sneers and The Vortex can be considered "Decadent" works, they might be more adequately described as evincing "dilettantism": "a playful psychic game developed out of the languid feeling of being a latecomer to the Meiji Restoration" (101).
Chapter 4 takes us out of the turmoil of the late Meiji period and into the succeeding Taishō period (1912–1926), more closely associated in popular imagination with a high point of Japanese cultural "modernity" (and "democracy") but also with a sense of cultural malaise and "decadence." Here again, two works are discussed: Satō Haruo's A Pastoral Spleen (1920) and Tanizaki Jun'ichirō's A Fool's Love (1924). Here, Amano suggests, Japanese Decadent writers came into their own, due to being much better informed about European Decadent literature (particularly Baudelaire's notion of an "artificial paradise") as well as having had a longer and deeper experience of the tensions inherent to Japanese modernity. Moreover, she argues, once again invoking the theoretical work of Hardt and Negri, in contrast to the situation of late Meiji, Taishō Decadents engage in a counter-discursive economic paradigm rooted in "self-fulfilling labor and an astute distribution of energy" (125).
Chapter 5 moves to the immediate postwar period, looking at the work of two prominent writers associated with...