Saturday, January 10, 2009

Masks by Fumiko Enchi

This is the third and final book I'll be blogging about for this great Japanese Literature Challenge. Thanks again to Bellezza for organizing this! I've gotten some great ideas for future reads here.

Fumiko Enchi
(1905-86) was and is still considered one of the most important female writers of Japan. As the daughter of one of Japan's most pre-eminent scholars and a sickly child educated at home, she was widely read and incredibly learned - the latter of which is quite obvious in Masks, which manages to be both a fantastic story and a sort of treatise combining literary criticism, mythology, and history.

Enchi's reputation is, in my view, well deserved for Masks is a really, really good book. Enchi was clearly influenced by Junichiro Tanizaki at his best (i.e., not Naomi) but her authorial voice was entirely her own too. I loved the way she was able to blur the lines between physical and intellectual obsessions and passions. Many writers see these as antithetical but Enchi really explored the disturbing things that can occur when research into mythology, spirit possession, and Noh theatre get mixed up with physical lust and emotional desire.

And the writing was fantastic. Thank all good things for talented translators.

Central to the book's look at the complicated relationships between the widow Yasuko, her mother-in-law Mieko and Yasuko's two suitors Ibuki and Mikame is the ethereal magic of the masks used in Noh drama. The masks are made with static impressions but the way actors position their heads and pose their bodies appear to change the masks' expressions according to the needs of the plays performed.

Mieko is deeply interested in Noh masks and she is both directly and obliquely compared to an actor manipulating a mask to establish certain "dramatic" ends known entirely only to her.

When it was finally revealed what her ends were, I was both incredibly disturbed and somewhat disappointed; I'm not certain how to reconcile such contradictory feelings. But my confusion over the book's conclusion is minor. Masks is an absolutely beautiful book and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

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