Sweet child of Meiji
You might be familiar with Akutagawa Ryūnosuke because of Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 movie “Rashōmon,” which is based off of two of his novellas. Or perhaps you’ve read about the increasing number of female authors who have recently received the Akutagawa Prize and went on to acquire some degree of international fame in translation (such as Risa Wataya, Hitomi Kanehara, Akiko Itoyama, Mieko Kawakami, Hiroko Oyamada, Tomoka Shibasaki, Yukiko Motoya, and Sayaka Murata — all winners from the last two decades).
Such “afterlives” aside, during his rather short actual life Akutagawa (1892–1927) wrote over 150 short stories, his genre of choice; many of them are based on existing materials or reinterpret well-known events. One such story is “The Ball” (1919), which refocuses Pierre Loti’s “A Ball in Edo” through the eyes of a young participant in the dancing fête at the Rokumeikan. From among the Japanese women that Loti had treated dismissively and in bulk, Akutagawa singles one out: Akiko, 17 years of age at the time of the ball in 1886, so almost as old as Japan’s Meiji period (which had started in 1868, with the Restoration of the imperial power). The first character in her name is a further hint at this symbolic connection: 明治＝Meiji (enlightened rule), 明子=Akiko (child of light).
Loti’s story was first translated into English as early as the 1890s, and also had two Japanese translations at the time Akutagawa wrote his own version. Interestingly, both translations took quite a few liberties when rendering Loti’s piece in Japanese: the first, by Iida Kiken (1892), was more like a parody, using the original as a pretext to criticise the over-Westernisation of Japan; the second, Takase Toshirō’s version (1914), was again something of an adaptation, with many fragments omitted to protect the sensibilities of the Japanese readers. Akutagawa likely read the latter, along with an English version, before embarking on the re-write from Akiko’s point of view.
Akiko’s story is told by a third person narrator who follows her very closely, almost never revealing anything she wouldn’t be aware of. We thus find out that she knows how to carry herself at the ball — how to speak French, how to dance polkas and mazurkas, how to gracefully eat ice cream with a teaspoon. The foreign officer she dances with is smitten, complimenting her beauty (rivaling that of the German women Akiko finds beautiful) and assuring her that she would fit right in at any ball in the world “because balls are the same everywhere.” This is, of course, a 180 degree turn from Loti’s description of the Rokumeikan ball (the building, the decorations, the participants’ dresses) as second-rate, provincial, and nothing but a “disguise.” Akiko on the other hand is authentic in her curiosity, naivete, and “unusual sensibility,” and so is her experience of the new environment and her interaction with the Frenchman.
Akutagawa’s piece ends with an episode taking place exactly 50 years after the Meiji Restoration, in Taishō 7 (1918). Akiko, “now elderly Madame H,” is returning from Kamakura when, on the train, she meets “a young novelist with whom she was slightly acquainted,” and ends up recounting to him her memories of the Rokumeikan ball, and her encounter with a French naval officer. The excited young novelist then asks: “It was Loti, wasn’t it? Pierre Loti, who wrote ‘Madame Chrysantheme,’ wasn’t it?” In response, Mme H. just murmurs: “No, his name wasn’t Loti. It was Julien Viaud,” reclaiming her right to be a “real” person, telling her own “real” story, instead of a supporting and collective (one of those “Misses Arimaska, or Kounitchiwa, or Karakamoko”) character in a man’s autobiographical essay. In the end, Akiko’s/ Mme H’s story does end up told by another man, presumably the young novelist; in spite of this irony, I guess the intention counts: at least Akiko/ Meiji’s honour, if not her voice, has been restored.
I’ve used this pair of texts in class to discuss perceptions and how they change “the truth;” one of the activities I’ve had students do is re-write the events from another perspective: Akiko’s father; the rikshaw drivers; the waiter who almost falls over at some point; the Chinese delegates — or even Akiko herself, in her own voice. I’ve read many interesting pieces as a result, and I think it’s time I write my own, too (in a future post, ofc!)
*the quotations from “The Ball” are from the English translation by Glenn W. Shaw, included in Tales Grotesque and Curious (Hokuseido Press, 1930) — in itself an intriguing collection, given the very early date of its publication and the stories included therein.