- The Youth of Things: Life and Death in the Age of Kajii Motojirō by Stephen Dodd
Stephen Dodd’s The Youth of Things: Life and Death in the Age of Kajii Motojirō contains the first complete translation of Kajii Motojirō’s works, along with a series of thoughtful and well-researched critical essays that situate the iconoclastic “modernist” in the intellectual and artistic currents of 1920s and 1930s Japan. Beginning with its appearance in the clever title, the word “things” is used to suggest the materiality of the modernist moment, or Kajii’s fascination with the speed, motion, and commodification of city life. At the same time, the phrase “the youth of things” foreshadows the end of a modernist movement that would soon rupture and slip away. In the case of Kajii, the divergent meanings of Dodd’s title converge at the level of the body: from the mid-1920s until his death in 1932, Kajii graphed his own physical decline from tuberculosis in a series of finely detailed and sensitive prose poems, pictures of the world and his own body falling through it.
In his introduction, Dodd uses Kajii’s writing as a means to recreate the breadth and dizzying scale of cultural production that took place in Japan from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, along with the attendant social and political changes. By situating Kajii among a group of male contemporaries who made up the literary establishment (bundan) of his day, Dodd stresses that although Kajii was drawn to various movements, he never followed any one literary coterie in particular. Far more pressing was the question of his own mortality. The first chapter of the book focuses on how Kajii crafted a writer’s persona out of his experience of severe illness and impending death. This study does not fall under the category of the “literary biography” per se, but does demonstrate Dodd’s mindfulness of how bodily experience generates subjectivity. Indeed, this chapter goes one step further, arguing for a link between Kajii’s physical body and Japan’s “body politic,” which grew increasingly nationalistic in the early 1930s. By parsing Kajii’s use of the trope of darkness, for example, Dodd illustrates how it referred both to Kajii’s spiritual quest (for a darkness replete with peace) and to the ways in which the state attempted to banish those with unhealthy bodies and unhealthy thoughts. Dodd’s openness to reading the text through various lenses (including gender studies, psychoanalysis, and poststructuralism) lends itself to a refreshing breadth of interpretation. Like his subject, Dodd’s work cannot be reduced to a single approach.
In chapters 2, 3, and 4, Dodd turns an analytical eye to Kajii’s texts. At first, he pinpoints the modernist strain in Kajii and attempts to define the movement itself. Rather than locate modernist leanings in pulsating city streets or in the rows of commodities that line market shelves, however, Dodd focuses on the deep sense of loss that reverberated through the intellectual and artistic movements of Japan in the [End Page 126] 1920s, which were suffused with the sense that one could never go home again. He nevertheless identifies a sense of optimism in Kajii’s work, which increasingly reflects the writer’s growing interest in a realm of pure sensation and also explores “new meanings for space and time” (p. 67). Providing numerous examples of sensation in the texts he examines, Dodd traces how the nihilistic Remon (Lemon) can be refigured from a story of annihilation to one of epiphany: the bright yellow fruit splattered over the books that Maruzen had rendered as commodities. Other moments in Kajii’s writings also come to mind: his painfully beautiful evocation of the passage of a frog through water in Kōbi (Mating), or the main character’s midnight walk through the mountains in Fuyu no hae (Winter Flies). In Kajii’s hands, the world is rendered in shifting but vivid images, sounds, and sensory perceptions that reduce...