Nagai Kafū's (1879-1959) story takes place within one cycle of the calendar, and most of it is centered around the four seasonal fushime, or periods of seasonal transition. This fact is significant because the work as a whole can be seen as a meditation on transitions, not only of the seasonal type, but of personal transitions from youthful innocence to the realm of experience, or of the larger, more turbulent historical transitions from the pre-Westernized culture to the new modern Meiji state. The story begins at the fushime between late summer and early autumn, and it finishes in the early stage of summer.
Kafū makes no claim to originality of plot. In fact, the story seems to be taken straight from your standard love story of the Edo theater, or from the collected works of Higuchi Ichiyō. Kafū’s innovation lies rather in how he refashions the story into a kind of anti-bunmeikaika novel, and in how he imaginatively reconstructs the rapidly vanishing culture of old Edo.
The story is set in 1909 in the Shitamachi region of Tokyo, and develops as follows:
Ch. 1- Ragetsu, teacher of poetry, wanders to sister's house at night, half-drunk. Background on his disinheritance.
Ch. 2-7: The Story of Chōkichi and O-ito.
Ch. 2- Chōkichi, 17, waits on bridge for O-ito, 15. O-ito finally arrives, informs him of her new profession.
Ch. 3- Autumn. Chōkichi is despondent, wanders streets, stalks O-ito.
Ch. 4- Chōkichi's troubles worsen.
Ch. 5- Early December. Chōkichi encounters a transformed O-ito.
Ch. 6-7- The theater world of Miyatoza. Chōkichi meets with old friend Kichi, who is now an actor.
Ch. 8-10: The Ragetsu Advises Chōkichi
Ch. 8: O-toyo meets with Ragetsu to discuss Chōkichi. Ragetsu, against his better intuition, sides with O-toyo. O-toyo takes omens from an Asakusa temple.
Ch. 9: While on a walk, Ragetsu advises Chōkichi to obey his mother and finish school rather than pursue a career in the theater. Chōkichi wanders streets, recalls Shunsui’s “Calendar of Plum Blossoms.”
Ch. 10: Beginning of summer. Melodramatic ending. Senzoku and Yoshiwara are underwater. Ragetsu visits sister, finds Chōkichi ill with typhoid fever, watches house while Chōkichi is taken to the hospital. Snoops about house, finds letter. Realizes that Chōkichi might have attempted suicide after losing O-ito and being advised not to become an actor. Ragetsu regrets the advice he gave the boy, and vows never again to betray the boy.
II. The Two Worlds of 1909 Japan - Meiji Modernity vs. Shitamachi Plebeian Culture
First, let me briefly define the two conflicting social spheres depicted in the story. The driving idea behind the Meiji period was modernization, which sought the creation of a westernized, industrial-capitalist nation-state. The center for this new nation-state was, of course, Tokyo, particularly the “high-city” regions surrounding and west of the Tokyo castle. The stated goal of the nation was bunmeikaika, or “cultural enlightenment,” and risshin shussei, or “self-realization and social enhancement,” was the personal goal of much of its citizenry. Ambition and respectability were highly valued; inefficiency and backwardness – including the perceived “backwardness” of the old plebeian culture – were deplored. It is these modern materialist values that dominant the harsh, competitive, and egocentric world that Sanshirō and Hirota-sensei inhabit in Sōseki’s Sanshirō (1908). However, in Nagai Kafū’s story "The River Sumida," the older way of life can still be found in certain pockets of the low city near the river.
Located around the Sumida River and Edo Bay, Kafū’s shitamachi culture was, in contrast to the top-down ideology of Meiji modernization, an amalgam of residual cultural inclinations that were developed and cultivated by the non-elite merchant class. Soon after the Meiji Restoration, the old “vulgar” arts born along these banks came to offer a kind of refuge – especially for Edo elegists such as Nagai Kafū – from the new capitalist ethic. Profligacy and aestheticism – the kind represented in Sumidagawa’s main character Ragetsu – together offered the possibility of resistance to official ideology.
As Jinnai Hidenobu points out in Chapter Two of Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology (Tokyo kūkan jinruigaku in the original), in the early Edo period sacred places of worship developed not around the city’s center – as was the case in Europe – but in areas removed from the major centers of activity. In the high lands of early Edo, temples were built along the edges of hills, with the woods in the background; in the low city, the temples were set apart from the centers of town, and “jutted toward the water’s edge” (Jinnai, 87). Set apart, these sacred hubs served as a temporary escape from the commercial and personal attachments of the city, and they attracted a motley host of characters ranging from itinerant priests and nuns to musicians, entertainers, and, after the areas had evolved into akusho (or “places of ill-repute”), prostitutes and their customers. In such places, the sacred and the profane had always been inextricably linked, as both the pious pilgrim and the lustful young dandy sought different forms of what was essentially the same thing – escape from the quotidian and the attachments of the city.
This aspect of the city is the focus of Kafū’s Sumidagawa, though not from the perspective of either pilgrim or dandy. Instead, the work is centered on a former kōshoku otoko (or “amorous man”) who has somewhat settled down, and a young boy who is torn between the high-city and low-city ideologies. Interestingly, the high city – the city’s political center – is barely even mentioned in the work, as all the action revolves instead around the Sumida River, where, in addition to worldly men of taste like Ragetsu, "sinister-looking men" gather around Asakusa Temple (193) and "evil-eyed rickshawmen loiter about" (202).
But by the Meiji period, these hubs of escape were no longer limited only to those areas surrounding the major temples, but were expanded to include much of the lower city, whose culture served – if not geographically then at least imaginatively – as a sort of fantasy land where writers like Nagai Kafū and Mokutarō Kinoshita could retreat. Henry Smith observes in his essay “Sky and Water: The Deep Structures of Tokyo” that
“For these 'medievalists,' as the architectural historian Takashi Hasegawa has called them, the appeal of the Edo landscape was essentially pictorial, as framed in the prints of Hiroshige or Kobayashi Kiyochika (1877-1915)" (33).
The young, brooding Chōkichi too seeks refuge in these pictorial corners of the city, as evidenced by his numerous wanderings around these neighborhoods. During one such brood, he happens upon the address of the fictional Tanjirō of Tamenaga Shunsui's Calender of Plum Blossoms.
"How he wished that he could have lived just such a life. . . The dreams spread their wings, the blue sky was bluer and higher. From the distance came the sound of a confectioner's flute. The weird, low strain, unexpected in these back streets, added a touch of sadness, mysterious and quite beyond description. . . . For a time Chōkichi forgot his dissatisfaction with his uncle. For a time he forgot the anguish of reality" (215).
Risking oversimplification, I think it might be possible to see each of the story’s characters in terms of their identification with either of two cultural spheres. Ragetsu and Chōkichi most obviously represent the newly marginalized Edo plebeian culture, while O-toyo, though a teacher of “vulgar music,” is clearly on the Meiji side of the ideological divide.
Shōfūan Ragetsu, the disinherited poet-profligate who teaches the composition of haikai poetry for a living, is the story’s hero. Roaming the night streets half-drunk, and stealing the occasional peep at the women bathing behind the fences, Ragetsu is a far cry from the model Meiji citizen of the day. Though once heir to a pawnshop in Koishikawa, he has been disinherited by his family for refusing to renounce his degenerate ways, and, although married (to a former prominent geisha), he and his wife are childless. But more importantly, it is above all his knowledge of and fondness for the old Edo art forms, along with his vow of loyalty to the boy at the end of the story – " . . . there would have been no point to it unless he helped Chōkichi become an actor, and brought him and O-ito together. The name of Shōfūan Ragetsu, master of poetry, man of the world, had been shamed" (217) – that place him firmly in the shitamachi camp.
For Nagai Kafū, it is exactly this figure of the profligate-scholar who serves as the perfect apparatus for critic of modernity, for he is, like the more intellectual Ōgaiian bōkansha (or “bystander”), also a kind of bystander who is close enough to the world to observe in detail the vanities and the desires that drive the age, yet who is distant enough to see beyond it, to a kind of eternal backdrop -- a kind of mono no aware -- that lies behind things. Such a brief but evocative vision comes in the first chapter after Ragetsu arrives at his sister’s house in Imado.
“Not quite sober yet, he would from time to time hum a strain of the ballad to himself. Then, his eyes closed, he would let out an unrestrained belch, and, swaying from side to side, glance over at his sister. She was in her forties, and the sad light of the lamp made the emaciated little figure look yet older. And she had once been the pretty, pampered daughter of a successful pawnbroker – the thought did not fill Ragetsu with nostalgia or sorrow or any other mood akin to reality. No, it took him beyond such feelings, and made him think only how very strange it all was. He had been young and handsome in those days himself. He had been popular with the ladies, and he had had his good times, and finally he had been disinherited for all of the seven lives to come. . . . [These memories] would stay in his memory and O-toyo’s as long as the two of them lived, and then one day he and his sister would be gone as well, and so the others would vanish like smoke” (184).
In Chapter 7, Chōkichi, torn between the desire to become an actor and the duty to fulfill his mother's dream for him to become an official, sits down at Tōshōgū shrine to mull over his fate. Here he begins to perceive the existence of two distinct worlds – the exciting world of the theater, on the one hand, and the harsh world of contemporary Meiji Japan, on the other -- and realizes for the first time which side he is drawn to, and which side those around him are on.
"He compared the ways of the two women, the respectable one who was his mother, and the other, the woman with the past. And he compared the sort of person he had teaching him in school with the sort of person his uncle was" (198).
Other characters on the Shitamachi side of the divide include Kichi, the barber's son and old friend of Chōkichi, who has become an actor in a popular theater troupe, and now goes by the name “Tamamizu Saburō.” There is also the daughter of the pastry shop, O-ito, who is Chōkichi’s longtime friend, but who since beginning her geisha career has developed into quite the sophisticated little 15-year old lady, who has little time for the boyish Chōkichi. There is also the Yoshichō lady who recruits O-ito into the Shitamachi pleasure quarters. There is also Otaki, Ragetsu’s wife, who was once a top mistress at the Yoshiwara house. It is significant that she is contemptuously referred to as the “aunt from Koume” by O-toyo, who is on the other side of the divide. And finally, there is the third person narrator, who closely identifies with both Ragetsu and Chōkichi, yet who is not altogether unsympathetic toward O-toyo's sacrifices for the sake of her son.
On the other side, there are those characters who represent in one form or another the modern Meiji state and its bureaucracy. These include most prominently Ragetsu’s sister, O-toyo, who, despite between a "teacher of vulgar music" (211), clearly belongs in this category, as she will apparently stop at nothing to see her son Chōkichi leave the old Edo world and enter the elite ranks of Tokyo, even if it costs her everything in the process. Other characters that identify with this ethos include O-toyo's husband (who died soon after inheriting the failing business "Sagamiya"), O-ito's father (the deceased carpenter), O-ito's mother, Ragetsu’s dead father (who owned and ran the pawnshop "Sagamiya" in Koishikawa), and the "typical Meiji gentleman" who are the imagined future customers of O-ito (191).
[Still more to come from Mabel Callahan on the parallels between Sōseki's Sanshirō and Kafu's Sumidagawa, and on the various influences from Higuchi Ichiyō, Ise monogatari, and works of the yomihon genre!]
 For more on this work, see my article “Tamenaga Shunsui’s Spring Colors: A Plum Calendar – Japan’s First Novel?”