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  • Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan by Miri Nakamura
  • Seth Jacobowitz
Nakamura, Miri. Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Asia Center, 2015. Pp. 153.

What are monstrous bodies and what implications do they pose for our understanding of Japanese modernity? Miri Nakamura's Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan sets out to answer these questions in four chapters that expose powerful tensions and anxieties in imperial-era Japan. Her book wades into an already crowded field of scholarship on monsters, ghosts, and the like, including Marilyn Ivy's Discourses of the Vanishing (1995), Susan Napier's The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature (1996), Gerald A. Figal's Civilization and Monsters (1999), Nina Cornyetz's Dangerous Women, Deadly Words (1999), Michael Foster's Pandemonium and Parade (2009), and Mark Driscoll's Absolute Erotic, Absolute Grotesque (2010). Monstrous Bodies is at its best when its author engages in close reading of its five primary literary texts and offers some refreshing insights on the topoi of hygiene, eugenics, and madness in relationship to colonialism. Yet the book at times falls short of expectations in its methodology, the strength of its central thesis, and its selective relationship to existing scholarship.

The book consists of a brief introduction and conclusion bracketing the four chapters. The first chapter reads an allegory of public sanitation campaigns against cholera into Izumi Kyōka's phantasmagoric, modern reinvention of medieval tale literature, "The Holy Man of Mount Kōya" (1900). In keeping with the theme of twins and doppelgängers, the two middle chapters share the common header "colonial doubles" to read hidden contradictions in the imperial imagination, first in Edogawa Rampo's short story "The Twins" (1924), and next in the discourse of schizophrenia in Yumeno Kyūsaku's magnum opus Dogura Magura (1935). The final chapter is a comparative look at two identically titled short stories, ostensibly science fiction narratives of artificial reproduction: Hirabayashi Hatsunosuke's "The Artificial Human" (1928) and Takada Giichirō's "The Artificial Human" (1927). With the possible exception of Kyōka, an outlier both in terms of period and canonical status as an author of belles lettres, the book mostly treats genre fiction writers closely associated with the popular literary magazine Shin seinen (New Youth), which ran from 1920 to 1945, then fitfully resumed after the war until 1950.

In the first chapter Nakamura reads epidemiologically into the figure of a Circelike sorceress living in a remote mountain fastness, who seduces the men who wander into her domain and then transforms them into dumb beasts when she tires of them. She meets her match in the form of an itinerant monk who just barely manages to escape her charms and lives to tell the tale. Namakura sees in the story a confluence of emerging discourses of sanitation and medical sciences overlaying the familiar tropes of purification and exorcism associated with Buddhism. While seeing in the femme fatale even a metaphorical vessel for fears of sexually transmitted disease, [End Page 336] Nakamura provides valuable background on the health campaigns in the rise of the Meiji era's (1868-1912) modern nation-state. On the other hand, where Nakamura claims a direct correlation to discourses of hygiene against cholera, there exists at best circumstantial evidence. This marks a recurrent pattern in her book, in which she mounts varying degrees of historical evidence to reinforce literary interpretations. Unfortunately, missed opportunities abound to situate her work in dialogue with scholarship in the field and accordingly shore up her own claims. In her sole mention of setsuwa (tale literature) in the book, Nakamura recalls the dangerous sexuality of the woman reborn as a vengeful giant serpent in the endlessly reimagined Dōjōji tale, as well as tales of supernatural foxes that bewitch men in the guise of beautiful women. Yet it is well established that Kyōka drew upon setsuwa for the text's framing technique as well as some of its dominant tropes. While this arguably goes against the grain of conventional attitudes toward the prevailing ethos of "Civilization and Enlightenment," Kyōka's derivation of conversational...


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pp. 336-339
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