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The Floating World in Japanese Fiction Review

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There is a deep, simple, fascinating beauty in the works of Characters of Worldly Young Men by Ejima Kiseki,, and The Woman Who Spent Her Life in Love by Ihara Saikaku. The literature of Japan has a stunning ability to, despite, or perhaps because of its simplicity, to express eloquently the simple, matter of fact nature of life. It has an appeal to it which isn’t but, not plain, but rather concise, direct, striking in how it eschews frills and prefers to go to the heart of the matter. Of course, Japanese literature is read through the barrier of translation and with a language, which has so much subtlety; nuance, and multiple meanings, a translator is of the upmost importance to the resultant text.

Just as striking, and not necessarily for the better, is the difference between the writers on Japanese literature Donald Kleene, author of World Within Walls, and this book, the Floating World in Japanese Fiction by Howard Hibbett. It is perhaps unfair to compare Fiction of the Japanese Floating World to World Within Walls, since Donald Kleene is an incredible craftsman, who does the feat of incorporating together literary analysis and the literature itself. Howard Hibbett by contrast has far more difficulty with this, and his beginning introduction-cum-historical overview is confusing and little related to the rest of the text. It wanders and lacks focus on the main subjects of the book, the two stories of The Woman Who Spent her Life in Love and Characters of Wordly Young Men. The organization, with the historical section preceeding the stories, does it no favors, as one rapidly forgets the historical features. It would have been far better to incorporate analysis into the chapters directly, or to have the historical analysis of Japanese literature afterwards. As it stands, the book is neither fish nor fowl: the stories it has are extracts with some chapters removed. While it lacks the historical depth and elegance of World Within Walls, it does have some overview of the material development of literature and novels, as well as the Ukiyo spirit of the time - its willingness to just exist, to be, the interest in luxuries and money, without too much thinking of what lies ahead, or the meaning of the Floating World itself, so distinctly Japanese with its multiple layers of meaning and undertones, so that it means both new, fashionable, à la mode - and yet also impermanent, with touches of sadness at its fleeting nature.

An illustration from a contemporary Japanese book

An illustration from a contemporary Japanese book


The stories themselves are are a fascinating and intriguing portrait on Japan during the 17th and 18th centuries. The characters especially in Characters of Worldly Young Men, are more in the way of types and novel individuals rather than portraits, due to their short length in part and partly due to the style of Japanese literature and character style of the epoch. But they are wonderfully amusing and vibrant: stories such as the dissolute son who engaged in wrestling, the son who feigns his suicide to get money from his father, a son who was fascinated and succeeds in becoming a samurai despite being from a humble background. It in the historical sense provides a brilliant look at the values and concerns of the time: most notable is the belief in declining morals, the fall of youth moral standards, and the rise of money as a determining force in life - in contrast to the aristocratic, noble, blood-based hierarchical ideals embraced formally by Japan. Ejima Kiseki is fascinating in how he plays at the fault lines between Japanese ideals and the actual nature of society: a formally prospective text, it seems far more a parody of the world, amusingly showing stereotypes and cut outs of Japanese individuals.

Women did not write the books and so inherently The Woman Who Spent Her Life in Love is a book by a man about prostitutes and courtesans, but its portrayal of the fall of the female character as she descends from the status of a high courtesan to a lowly street walker. But it is hard to resist a grin as along the way she seduces her master, or a twinge of sadness as she recounts her 8 abortions - helping to reveal Japanese sentiments on children and abortion. Similarly, the portrayal of brothel life, with the comic interactions between customers and the girls, is a wonderful portrait. Its growing focus on life of all classes of society strikes as a common theme of literature across the early modern world, from Europe to East Asia, and it makes the book a brilliant source on Japanese culture and society.

But the question remains - why settle for The Floating World when it lacks the full version of both stories and with its unsatisfactory debut? It makes for a mediocre addition to other works, neither fish now fowl as a historical secondary source, nor a full story collection. It has some great stories within, but these would be better read in their full, in their own books, rather than as part of this one.

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