Study Guide: Sakaguchi Ango “The Idiot” (1946)
Original: “Hakuchi”「白痴」(1946). Click here to read in the original.
Translation: “The Idiot” (tr. George Saito 1962; included in Modern Japanese Stories: An Anthology (ed. Ivan Morris)
Sakaguchi Ango 坂口安吾 (1906-1955): Novelist. Born in Niigata, Sakaguchi was one of a group of young Japanese writers to rise to prominence in the years immediately following Japan’s defeat in World War Two. In 1946 he wrote his most famous essay, titled “Darakuron” (“On Decadence”), which examined the role of bushidō during the war. Click here for Aozora Bunko texts.
1. Describe point of view, focalization point, tone, interior monologue, and the various literary techniques used (some consciously modernist and experimental). Are there any flashbacks (analepsis) or flashforwards (prolepsis)? Or is the story told chronologically? What I-novel elements do you detect? Explain.
2. Discuss the setting (i.e., the people, their environment, their state of living, moral condition, and historical circumstances) as described in the first few pages. Is the war the main cause for the people’s “fallen” condition? Or something else? Why do you think Sakaguchi goes into such detail in these opening pages, before the main plotline begins?
3. Who are the so-called buraiha (libertine) writers? What are the characteristics of this group? Donald Keene describes their writings as “sometimes farcical” and “sometimes nihilistic.” What is “farcical” or “nihilistic” about Sakaguchi’s story? How does the theme of daraku (fallen-ness, moral or social degradation) appear in this story? Explain.
4. Numerous binary oppositions appear in this work. Make a list of them. In each binary, which opposite has a positive valence and which has a negative valence? (For example: positive “individual” versus negative “the herd”; or, positive nikutai versus negative kokutai.) Explain.
5. Sakaguchi studied Eastern/Indian philosophy while an undergraduate at Tōyō University in the 1920s. Buddhist elements/ideas frequently appear in his works. Can you identity any such elements/ideas in this work? Explain. (Hint: nothingness, emptiness, “absolute solitude,” attachment, etc.).
6. Discuss Izawa (his job, worldview, view of self, view of others, circumstances, daily concerns, his view of art, his attitude toward the war, etc.).
7. Discuss the “feeble-minded” woman. What metaphors/similes are used to describe her? Is she a symbol for something? If so, what?
8. Sakaguchi’s description of the 1945 Tokyo firebombings is one of the best descriptions of urban aerial bombardment in all modern literature. Donald Keene has said there are “few comparable accounts of what it meant both physically and spiritually to live through the bombing of Tokyo in 1945” (Keene 1999, 1078). Discuss the firebombing scene, its effects, and Izawa’s response to it. What literary techniques are used to convey the experience?
9. Discuss the ending. Why does Sakaguchi refer to the “destructiveness of war” as a “gigantic love” which “would pass impartial judgment upon everything”? What do you think will happen to Izawa and the woman after the war ends? Write a short sequel to the story.