1. The Fantastic: According to Bulgarian theorist Tzvetan Todorov (1939- ), the fantastic is characterized by: a) a hesitation on the part of the reader in deciding whether to interpret the events of the story as real or unreal, natural or supernatural; and/or b) a similar hesitation evident in the characters or narrator(s). To qualify as “fantastic,” the reader must be able to resist reading the story as a simple allegory or extended metaphor; in short, he must read it literally. “Fantastic” works are often divided into two types: strange (in which rational explanation is predominant) and marvelous (in which supernatural explanation is predominant).
2. Gensō bungaku 幻想文学: Fantasy literature. Has roots in Edo-period works by Ueda Akinari, Chinese ghost stories, twentieth-century folklore (minzokugaku), “supernatural studies” (yōkaigaku), etc. Dreams, sleep, and the unconscious are frequent topics/motifs. Fushigi (uncanny) elements/events are often employed as a critique of modernity, bunmeikaika (“civilization and enlightenment”), scientific rationalism, etc. A common theme in such works is the pursuit of “things unseen” (mienu mono). Much of recent contemporary Japanese literature might be classified as gensō bungaku.
3. Yamazakura 山桜: Mountain cherry trees, as opposed to the other type of sakura no ki: village cherry trees (satozakura). Edo-period nativist and literary scholar Motoori Norinaga was particularly fond of this type of cherry tree.
4. Icarus: Son of Daedalus in Greek mythology. Attempted to escape from Crete with the wax-and-feather wings his father made for him, but drowned after flying too close to the sun. Watashi shares with Icarus a tendency to be drawn to the unknown.
5. “Edgar Allen Poe story […] into a teetotum”: A reference to the character Monsieur Boullard in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” (1845). Like Watashi, a teetotum or dreidel stands only when spinning/moving.
6. Gérard de Nerval (1808-1855). French symbolist poet and author, whose works include the novella Sylvie (1853) and the surrealistic autobiography Aurelia (1855). Nerval’s life was described in Arthur Symons’ book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), which was first translated into Japanese by Iwano Hōmei in 1913.
7. Fūrabō 風羅坊: Thin garment easily torn by the wind; by extension, an “eccentric wind-blown spirit” who has submitted himself to the forces of Nature. Matsuo Bashō used the term to refer to himself. The notion has its roots in the Taoist classic, the Zhuangzi. Watashi might be considered a contemporary version of this literary archetype.
8. Nenashigusa 根なし草: Rootless grasses or weeds; by extension, a rootless wanderer.
9. Giseigo 擬声語 (onomatopoeia): Although impossible to convey in translation, the original contains many onomatopoeia: utsura-utsura, furari, hira-hira, gira-gira, gara-gara, yore-yore, yura-yura, fuwa-fuwa, hyoro-hyoro, paku-paku, zukin, zara-zara, jiri-jiri, pishari, dokin, shittori, gata-gata, bun-bun, kara-kara, kururi, mukkuri, chira-chira, waku-waku, hara-hara, kucha-kucha, kyoton to, puttsuri, papa-papa, pishari-pishari, hyū-hyū, kera-kera, hyokkuri, zoku-zoku, ran-ran, pin-to, pechanto, etc.
Things to Consider
1. Make a list of all terms/allusions you are unfamiliar with. Provide a brief definition/description of each.
2. In the short story “Tsuina” (Night Thoughts) by Mori Ōgai, the narrator is prompted to pick up his pen and write down his thoughts after encountering a single word: shinkiraku 新喜楽 (new pleasures). The word itself functions as “opening on an unknown place” and “an unknown world.” It might be said that the “black mantle” and the “wild cherry tree” play a similar role in this story. Discuss their respective roles.
3. Consider the opening passage. Is “the way” a metaphor for something? If so, what? How is it described? Where does it lead? Where does it begin? (Note: the opening line of neo-Confucian scholar Ogyū Sorai’s The Bendō begins with the same line: “Though the way is difficult to comprehend …”)
4. Discuss how reality and fantasy, sanity and madness, wakefulness and dreams/reverie interact in the work. In what ways is the border between these binaries blurred? What grounds Watashi to reality? What prompts him to pursue the fantastic/the unknown?
5. Describe Watashi’s character traits, his circumstances, his occupation, etc. Is he an example of a fūrabō 風羅坊 (see term #7)?
6. Discuss Kyōko’s role in the story. Do we ever get a clear view/depiction of her? If not, why not? Is she a symbol for something?
7. Describe the narrative style. Where is the narrator (both temporally and spatially) in relation to the events he is describing? How does his occupation (painter) influence the method and content of his narrative?
8. Describe the role of the boy Zentarō. Why does Watashi see his own face when he looks at him up close?
9. Discuss the ending. What do you think happens to Watashi after confronting his rival Zensaku?