Friday, September 12, 2008

Interview with translator Alisa Freedman

Something I came across today: an interview with Alisa Freedman, assistant Professor of Japanese Literature and Film at the University of Oregon, and translator of Kawabata Yasunari’s modernist novel The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (Asakusa kurenaidan; 1930). Having gotten through Kawabata's original only by reading it in conjunction with her translation, I must say she's performed a most valuable service in rendering this highly experimental and difficult novel into English.

But more on this novel another day-- time has expired, and more, it's like a sauna in here.


Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed, we are all grateful to Professor Freedman for translating this work. I tried to read it as an undergrad in the early 80s, but really struggled with it.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read the translation, but I really enjoyed reading the original. It was many years ago, but I think I can still remember background to the novel.

The first 37 chapters were serialized in Tokyo Asahi shimbun, while the remaining chapters were published in Kaizou and Shinchou. There are a total of 61 sections, but most regard the novel as unfinished.

Kawabata wrote the work between 1929 and 1930, years of recession. (Triggered in part by the U.S. market crash of 1929).

The characters include:

The 1st person narrator: who is in possession of three distinct voices: 1) first-person participant; 2) first-person scholarly observer or flaneur-type; and 3) third-person omniscient.

Yumiko: reveals self in various disguises, attractive, hermaphroditic features, mouth full of arsenic when she kisses Umekichi on boat.

Tokikou: Kurenai gangster.

Haruko: raped, sold to prostitution.

Umekichi: Real name is Akagi; loverboy on boat; henriki dates back to first sexual experience at age 6.

Ochiyo: Yumiko's sister who went mad after love affair with Umekichi.

Otasaburou: Boy actor

Left-handed Hiko:

Ken the carp-food eater:


This is what I still recall. I'm sure there's much I'm leaving out.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Fanny and Jill for reminding me of some of the details from the story. I remember their being many particularities of culture that I had to familiarize myself with. They included:

*The Denkikan theater
*The Asakusa opera
*Inari jinja
*Uguisudani (in ueno)
*Kototoi hashi
*Kisakata (police station)
*Fujito gakkou
*Kamiarai hashi
*Yoshiwara horiwari
*Asakusa kouen
*5-story pagoda near sensouji
*Ushijimaguu in mukoujima (holy cow statue)
*Rokku theaters near shouwa *Mukoujima dam
*Casino follies
*Miyato theater
*Sumida kouen
*Hachiman jinguu in Fukagawa (where Falcon gangsters are)
*Hisago street (yonekyuu street)
*Nihon theater
*Kitamaka street

*Hanakawado building
*Kawagoe reformitory
*Iojima prison
*Komagata bridge
*Okuyama (bad area at night)
*Shitaya ryuusenji-machi (also site of Higuchi Ichiyo's Takekurabe)
*Komagata riverbank trashbin (azuma hotel)
*Haihin hotel in Kamakura
*Denpouin gardens near sensouji
*Sanja jinja
*Zuiun whore of asakusa (memorialized in senou shrine) and Himemiya
*Hitomaro jinja
*Uba ike (filled in 1898) in Asaji plain
Yuuraku theater, Teikyou theater (where Genji/Ariwara Narihira dance takes place)
*Ueno matsuzaka store
*Oshiage stations, mimeguri-guu, kinshibori eki
*Nikolai cathedral
*Atami beach
*Matsukiyou street shouchiku theater
*Tawaramachi, Asakusa honganji
*Yokuderamachi in ushigome
*Mito residence
*Zubu- koujiki homeless
*Zube- bad girls
*Gure- homeless kids

I'm sure there was more, but this is what I still remember. Sorry for not having time to give an explanation of each particularity, and for not giving the kanji. Time has expired for me, too, and, more, it's like a sauna here also.

-Sarah S.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sarah, Jill, and Fanny. I hope I can add something to the discussion by talking a bit about some of the themes and recurring features of the work. No time to go into detail, though, so I'll just provide a short list.

- Involution, Edo-style narrator who is aware that he is the narrator.
- Modernist, shinkankakuha features: Ero, guro, making strange, startling descriptions; Sergei Eisentien-esque montage, blown-up images, grotesque close-ups.
- Time leaps, story vs. plot distinction (more blanks than descriptions)
- Linguistic experimentation
- Easily distracted narrator being led by whatever takes his fancy
- Lots of lists (so that he could recreate Asakusa if it were ever destroyed again- like Joyce said of Ulysses)
- Melting pot of Asakusa; both high and low culture presented together
- Anti-(western conventional) novel novel with no linear plot; novel as part sociological study, part linguistic experiment.

Hope this helps. I must say that I loved this novel-- it really makes you rethink this notion of Kawabata being a "traditional Japanese" novelist!

-Katie D.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Katie D. Your mention of the melting pot reminded me of an essay by Chiba Shunji I once read, called (I think) "Rutsubo to shite no Asakusa" ("Asakusa as Melting Pot"). You might want to check it out.

Also related to what you girls have been discussing are the following works:

*Yokomitsu Riichi's Shanghai
*Tanizaki's Koujin ('Mermaid')
*Snyder, Fictions of Desire
*Gonda Yasunosuke's Study of tokyo (1930)
*Seiji Lippit essay from Topographies of Japanese Modernism
*Edo poet Ota Nanpo, debauched man of letters
*nostalgia de la boue (taste for back streets)
*Yoshikazu Katoka's essay from Intro to Contemporary Japanese Literature
*Asakusa Opera from Kafu story, Kunshou (1942)

*Kawabata's sequel to this novel- Asakusa Matsuri (1934-5, also unfinished)

Hope these help!

- Brandy

Ryan said...

Thanks, ladies! Your comments and suggestions are, as always, of great assistance!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, ladies. One thing I forgot to point out: Ch 22, which recounts the collapse of the tower after the 1923 quake, is of great historical value.

Now I'm off to the Shitamachi Museum at the Otani Shouchiku Kinenkan (the ADK building in Ginza). Give me a ring if any of you would like to join! You know my number!


Ryan said...

Thank you all!
Fanny, I'll be joining you later at the museum!


Anonymous said...

Hello. Funny you should mention Seiji Lippit's "Mapping the Space of Mass Culture: Kawabata Yasunari`s Scarlet Gang of Asakusa" in Topographies of Japanese Modernism. I was just reading that last night.

In it, she discusses the two Kawabatas: The Izu traditionalist (conservative, sentimental) vs. the Asakusa modernist (which she distinguishes from the nostalgic Kafu-esque vision of Asakusa).
In the end, Lippit points out, the Izu tradionalist got the upper hand: "It was eventually the trajectory in "The Dancing Girl of Izu" that prevailed" (156). The technical devices he learned during his modernist phase, however, stayed with him.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning the Lippit book. Here are some of my disorderly notes:

a. From external to Internal Margin

b. Mass Culture and the Aestheticization of Speed

c. In Margins of the Newspaper

d. Ruptures of Form-- mixing genres, media

e. Asakusa as Literary Topos -- proper names, all meaning contextual, anti-universal; "vanishing figure" from marginalized culture (marilyn ivy term); commodification of everything; asakusa as phantasmagoria hotch-potch; empire and foreign immigrants, tourists; asakusa melting pot vs. meiji ideology ("Asakusa represents a space in which hybridized, heterogeneous cultures are generated without any unifying principle of national spirit" (145; timothy brennan hotch-potch novel as counterpart to national ideology 146); "Bakhtin's carnival in reverse" (146);

f. Performance and Trauma-- Kawabata's three representative texts from early showa: screenplay A Page of Madness, Izu no odoriko, asakusa kurenaidan; outcasts and lower stratum of society portrayed in all works, even in "traditional" works;

g. Beyond asakusa -- sequel to asakusa kurenaidan halted as asakusa turns more fascist;

Also, she describes the features of Taisho modernism: rejection of realism (both Marxist and I-novel); self-referntial, self-conscious narrator; elliptic narrative style (more blanks than narrative); associated with cosmopolitanism, urbanism, consumerism; mixture of linguistic styles, vulgar and sublime classical and colloquial.


PS I have some chores to run, but I'll catch up with the rest of you at the museum a little later.

Ryan said...


Enjoy the museum. I'd love to join you all, but I've got to be at the Shinbungeiza in Ikebukuro by 4:00 to see "Nakba," the Japanese documentary about the Palestinian Nakba, or "catastrophe," and the creation of the state of Israel.