Yasushi Inoue did not make his debut in literature until 1949 at the age of forty-two. He did so with the two short novels Bullfight and The Hunting Gun; the former won him the prestigious Akutagawa Prize—the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer—and he went on to write over fifty novels and win every major Japanese literary prize, including the Order of Culture, Japan’s highest artistic honor, in 1976. It seems safe to say that Inoue was worth the wait.
His reputation in the west has similarly been a long time coming. Pushkin’s editions are not the first of his work to appear in English (The Hunting Gun in particular was released in another translation by Tuttle in 2001), but despite occupying the upper echelons of postwar writers in Japan, he has not yet achieved the western readership of his Nobel-Prize-winning and -nominated contemporaries Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Inoue is best known in Japan for his historical fiction, which may hold less interest for a western audience unfamiliar with tenth-century East Asian goings-on; still, the matter may best be chalked up to the fact that literary renown, particularly for literature in translation, is a strange beast. Whatever the cause, it has nothing to do with Inoue’s caliber as a writer. (Mishima, after all, was never awarded the Order of Culture.)
Inoue worked as an arts reporter in Osaka after his university years, and his experience as a journalist served him well as a novelist. Though in the afterword to The Hunting Gun he refers to the novel as the work “of a very green novelist,” one has to wonder where the “youthful ungainliness” he describes is to be found in its pages. His debut is written with the remarkable economy, sensitivity, and detail of an old master. There is no clumsiness here, no thread left loose, no veering into melodrama despite the unabashed tragedy of its subject matter. The novel is at all times subtle and distilled, and contains more emotion in its 106 pages than a lesser or truly “green” writer could muster in several times that length.
Set in the years immediately following World War II and framed as a series of letters, The Hunting Gun concisely and elegantly explores the distance between individuals in intimate relationships, the ways in which disparate lives intersect, and the relationship between fiction and reality. The novel opens with a brief introduction by the unnamed narrator, into whose possession the letters comprising the main story have come. A minor poet, the narrator is invited by an old high school acquaintance to contribute a piece to the magazine The Hunter's Friend, of which he is the editor. It is assumed that the invitation is extended out of courtesy, and the narrator himself has no interest in hunting. However, “as chance would have it,” he has recently taken interest in the idea of the hunting gun as a symbol of violence and human solitude, and he accepts. The resulting prose poem describes a lone figure carrying a Churchill double-barrel shotgun plodding his way through the snow up Mount Amagi, pipe in mouth, with a setter ahead. Some months later he receives a letter from one Misugi Jōsuke, a man who believes he is the figure described in the poem. Though he claims to never have read poetry in his life, Misugi explains that he is honored to have inspired the piece and impressed by the poet's insight into his state of mind at the time, having only seen him from afar. Misugi tells the narrator he will send three letters his way rather than burning them. He insists these letters will help the narrator to better understand him—and “humans are, in the end, stupid creatures who cannot help desiring that someone know us as we are.” By beginning the novel with an explicit explanation of the hunting gun’s symbolism, Inoue deftly sets the tone of The Hunting Gun and binds the subsequent letters to this symbolized view of human nature: isolated, brutal, and desperate above all else to be known.
Following the ten-page-long introduction, the story moves from the narrator to the three women of Misugi’s letters: Shōko, his niece; Midori, his wife; and Saiko, his recently deceased lover and sister-in-law. Each account provides a different perspective on Misugi’s infidelity and character. To draw an obvious comparison, the technique is reminiscent of Rashōmon—what is unique here is that the events themselves never change, only their interpretations. Though Shōko’s youthful ideals of love and relationships have been deeply shaken by the revelation of Misugi’s affair with her mother, she remains sympathetic and naïve, seeing him as noble in his suffering for a secret and forbidden love. “How could I have imagined,” she writes, “a love that stretched out secretly, like an underground channel deep under the earth, flowing from who knew where to who know where without ever feeling the sun’s rays?” Not being immediately implicated in the affair herself, Shōko views the triangle which has long eroded her family with the distance of an intimate bystander. Learning of the illicit relationship between Misugi and her mother only by reading her mother’s diary shortly before her death, her character demonstrates how even the most private actions between individuals are rarely truly private. Sin, Shōko learns, can be inherited.
Midori and Saiko’s views of Misugi are less forgiving. Midori in particular describes him as “not a man to make a woman happy . . . completely devoid of an endearingly human side,” though she is soon revealed as a complexly flawed character, and not just a stock image of the long-suffering wife betrayed. Saiko as well is acutely aware of what she calls Misugi’s “wicked” side, and is tormented by its contrast to the undeniable purity of their love. She fixates on this dissonance as a sin, repeating the phrase in her diary—“SIN, SIN, SIN.” Though each woman holds a distinct view of Misugi’s character, in sending the correspondence from all three to the poet narrator in order to explain himself he acknowledges the equal validity of each perspective. The marks one leaves on those around him may reveal more than a person could ever reveal about himself. The reader is thus given a multifaceted portrait of a man without ever hearing more than a few lines from him directly. Shōko's idea of Misugi in particular has little to do with that of the adult women’s—the notion of sin is the only constant.
Inoue’s use of the word “sin” here is telling. Though the Japanese zaiyaku (罪悪) lacks the religious resonance of the English sin, the novel is dotted throughout with Christian imagery. A petal, for example, is “crucified” in glass; Saiko recalls Misugi saying that every person has a devilish snake within him. This motif is notable not only for its religious implication of man as inherently flawed, but also for its being decidedly western. There are other instances of western imagery as well, such as the repetition of SIN in Saiko’s diary “piled as high as the Eiffel Tower” and the English hunting gun itself. Inoue’s decision to describe the human heart in terms of western—indeed, foreign—symbols turns the heart itself into something foreign and, to his original Japanese readers, ultimately unknowable.
While neither so dark nor tragic in tone as The Hunting Gun, the three short stories which comprise Life of a Counterfeiter exhibit a similar treatment of human nature and the lives of others. The title story follows the findings of an arts reporter as he reluctantly undertakes the writing of the painter Ōnuki Keigaku’s biography. Asked to pursue the project before the war and having found the work to be more difficult than anticipated, he allows his research to be delayed for a decade until he can put it off no further—it is at this point that he finds himself fascinated by the figure not of the great painter, but of his counterfeiter.
The narrator’s interest in the counterfeiter is sparked while reading Keigaku’s diary from between the years of 1897 to 1899. Apart from the war and his own personal distractions, the biggest obstacle to working on the autobiography had been the fact that Keigaku was a “prickly” man who never seemed to have any close relationships except for his deceased wife. However, in the diary Keigaku wrote often of a man named Shinozaki—the only name in his diary not that of a family member. The narrator soon realizes this Shinozaki can be none other than the given name of the counterfeiter Hara Hōsen, whose name first came to his attention some years earlier. Though he did not make much of the counterfeiter at the time, the knowledge that this ill-reputed figure known to have led a “dark, unhappy life” was also apparently the only friend of the great painter whose work he forged moves him deeply.
Though Hōsen’s fakeries are skillfully executed, all lack the “innate quality” of Keigaku’s originals—a fine painter, but without genius. One man who knew him as an art dealer describes his impression of him as a man who was “good at everything,” and the narrator finds him to have been remarkably clever in his dealings, moving around frequently without ever straying far from the concentration of Keigaku collectors in the Chūgoku region of Honshū. It soon also becomes clear that he was a man of many talents, not only producing the forged paintings himself but also skilled in calligraphy and carving. Spotting a Hōsen original in an inn and finding in it a quality of exquisite coldness, the question is raised: why would an accomplished person turn to making his living by forgery? Or more precisely, why specialize in the forgery of a friend’s work? While these questions are never quite answered definitively, upon reflecting on the number of Hōsen’s Keigaku forgeries which will likely be handed down within families through generations, the narrator feels as though he is “in the presence of something eternal.” The truth here becomes malleable and nearly immaterial. Fake or no, things of beauty endure. Throughout the story, little more of consequence is revealed about Keigaku, and it is unclear whether the journalist ever completes his biography. While in life Hōsen was overtaken by the greatness of Keigaku, in art it is the figure of the lonely counterfeiter which overtakes that of the respected painter.
The title story takes up over half the collection’s pages, and is far and away the most fully realized of the triad. Still, the two stories which follow are lovely in their own right and give us some insight into Inoue’s flexibility as a writer. Semi-autobiographical and loosely structured, “Reeds” and “Mr. Goodall’s Gloves” both deal largely in the narrator’s childhood memories of his “grandmother” Kano, a former geisha and the mistress of his great-grandfather. Fact and fiction blend seamlessly here—Inoue himself was raised by his great-grandfather’s mistress, named Kano, from ages six to thirteen. These stories do not read as memoir and are certainly not personal essays, but their effortless absence of narrative arc also distinguishes them somewhat from the traditional short story. In any case, if analysis of Inoue’s work thus far is to be any indicator of how his writing should be approached, the literal truth of the stories is without much import.
“Reeds” in particular meanders freely with the recollections of its narrator. Beginning with an anecdote from a newspaper article about a kidnapped child found years later living in a temple, the narrator imagines the fragments of the boy's early memories as an incomplete hand of cards in a game of picture-matching (hanafuda, a Japanese card game in which each suit forms a set of related images, which are matched for points). Inspired by this idea, he reflects that while this boy is something of an extreme example of missing cards, all people have within them an incomplete deck of memories. Sorting through his own scattered recollections, among the most poignant images to emerge is the figure of Kano—a resilient woman, peaceful in the solitude of old age, sitting on the beach in her hometown.
Her character is further developed in “Mr. Goodall’s Gloves,” in which we learn the details of how the narrator came into her care as well as her struggles as a young mistress in the conservative Meiji era. Kano at first appears rather unscrupulous, taking in the boy in order to bolster her position in the family after the death of his great-grandfather. The narrator even goes so far as to define himself during these years as her “hostage.” However, the tone soon softens as he describes her harsh beauty and the affection of their early relationship. The story revolves, rather self-evidently, around a pair of gloves which once belonged to a foreigner named Mr. Goodall. As a child, the narrator discovers the gloves wrapped in newspaper while cleaning his grandmother’s home and is immediately fascinated by them, a symbol of luxury and things western. Kano met Mr. Goodall only once, and withholds the story from the narrator until near the end of her life. Taking pity on the young woman forced to wait outside an event for her lover on account of not being his proper wife, Mr. Goodall offers her his gloves. That is all—the narrator himself remarks that it is not too much of a story. Still, this small act of kindness is indelible on Kano, as expressed in her affectionate preservation of the gloves through the decades, and this impact is transferred from her to her surrogate grandson. Inoue again illustrates the uncanny intertwining of individual lives.
The Hunting Gun and Life of a Counterfeiter complement each other nicely as a pair. Delicate and powerful on their own, taken together the two works form a haunting, sensitive meditation on memory as well as a wonderful introduction to a master sorely underappreciated in the West. While Michael Emmerich’s translations might benefit from the addition of footnotes in a few select places (a brief reference to Okakura Tenshin in “Reeds,” for example), he brings Inoue into a fine English—it is difficult to imagine that any nuance has been lost here. If renown in translation is a strange beast, one may hope it is finally rearing its head for Inoue.
Ariel Starling is a writer and student of literature in Paris.