Questions: Modern Japanese Literature
In Oe's The Catch and Banana's Lizard, themes of trauma and salvation are addressed in both tales. Both short stories grab the reader's attention immediately, and both short stories are fast-paced as they explore themes of salvation and redemption in different ways.
In The Catch, the protagonist, a small Japanese boy who lives in a small rural village during World War II, befriends a prisoner-of-war, an African-American soldier. Throughout the story, their relationship gradually develops into a kind of trusting friendship. The story is told through the eyes of the boy whose nickname is "Frog". As the story progresses, the soldier is released from his bear-trap by "Frog" and is eventually let loose to play among the village children in a nearby spring .
During the narrative, the boy mentions the sight of the black soldier's "beautiful penis" . He seems to be a boy who, among other boys in the village, is on the verge of puberty. During the short story, he mentions many moments where he feels ashamed and humiliated -- even belittled. He is a boy who is not yet a man, a boy who is ashamed of still being a child.
Near the end of the story, the black soldier takes the boy hostage but the boy's father succeeds in killing the soldier. In the process, he breaks and mangles his son's hand . The boy recovers consciousness after two days. The boy mentions that he no longer felt like a boy; after the life-threatening incident, he felt like a man . Surely, the event was traumatic for "Frog" but it also represented a rite of passage. He became an unwilling actor in a war. He also came to know what the adults knew, the sight of death. At the end of the story, he became familiar with sudden death as The Clerk from the nearby town suffered an accident and was also killed . The story paints a picture of a boy who becomes a man by virtue of the trauma he experienced.
Yet, the boy also experienced salvation as a result of his traumatic experiences being held hostage and witnessing the deaths of two men. Never again would he see things through the eyes of innocence -- and ignorance. He became an adult and now was ready to participate in the adult affairs of the village. He even avoided the other children who surrounded the body of Clerk, further identifying himself with men .
Oe handled "Frog's" transformation from boyhood to manhood as being very traumatic but he was also saved and redeemed by his traumatic experiences. First, he survived the traumas but will be scarred for life both psychologically and physically. Secondly, he became an adult who was no longer naive and childish. Lastly, "Frog's" salvation represented his rite of passage into manhood and responsibility.
Banana's Lizard portrays different types of trauma for its narrator and Lizard, his lover. In Lizard, both the narrator (Lizard's lover) and Lizard suffered serious childhood traumas. The narrator witnessed his mother being raped by his uncle -- his real father, while Lizard put a curse on the man who attempted to murder her mother. Lizard's trauma seems more like self-sacrifice and she is pained by guilt from "succeeding" at praying for her mother's assailant.
However, both the narrator and Lizard find ways to "save" themselves from functional impairment during their adulthood. They each cope with their traumas very differently. For example, the male narrator's profession is as a doctor who treats mentally-ill patients while Lizard has discovered her gifts as a natural healer and acupuncturist, a person who can tell when complete strangers on the streets are near death by merely looking at them. She discovered those gifts as a child when she saved her mother's life after she was nearly mortally wounded.
While the narrator seems to accept his limitations as a doctor who treats mental illnesses, Lizard ascribes great powers of healing -- and destruction -- to herself . She seems to be burdened by the guilt of possessing such extraordinary gifts. She is able to heal but she is also able to destroy people. Her destructive impulses surely originated in her traumatic childhood. Even her grief evolved into a vendetta against the man who tried to kill her mother.
Nevertheless, both Lizard and her lover are saved by their gifts. They are spared a lifetime of grief and hatred towards others because of the trauma they experienced during their childhoods. Arguably, they would not have become the compassionate people they are in the story had it not been for the traumas they survived. They have, in effect, saved themselves, by developing special coping skills. Lizard's lover treats the mentally-ill as a doctor while Lizard herself attributes her healing powers to the miraculous recovery her mother made after the stabbing .
Yet, Lizard differs from her lover insofar as she thinks she is going to hell for praying for the death by train of her mother's attacker . It causes her guilt but the guilt propels her forward. She even thinks she is going to hell for "causing" the man to die. In fact, she welcomes hell so that she can continue to heal the souls who need it the most -- sinners such as herself .
In conclusion, Banana's Lizard portrays two very different people who have, in a sense, "saved themselves" by discovering their healing abilities. While Lizard's powers (according to her) are almost supernatural, the narrator (her lover's) powers are more exemplary of a specific coping strategy. By treating others for their emotional trauma, he is also healing himself. As Lizard heals others, she is still unable to heal herself but, nevertheless, healing others keeps her afloat in a dangerous world. Ultimately, their salvation from a death like everyone else's is due to their compassion for others .
In Higuchi's Growing Up and Soseki's Kokoro, there are a number of similarities as well as differences in both the definition and function of family. Both short stories offer insights into the dynamics of the "contemporary" Japanese family which still retains significant core elements of traditional Japanese family dynamics and customs.
For example, both stories portray family life at some level. Both define family in different ways yet there are similarities. In both Growing Up and Kokoro, family shapes the future and expectations for adulthood are high in Japanese culture. In both stories, children are expected to show respect to their elders. Elders also demand contribution in terms of work from a very early age. More importantly, children internalize these expectations and feel guilty or accomplished based on how well they fulfill their parents' wishes. In both stories, children are expected to grow up quickly and carry on the family tradition and the family mantle.
For example, in Growing Up, Midori wants to follow the footsteps of her older sister, , who has moved to Tokyo. Nabu, Shota, Chokichi, and many other characters begin working early and contributing to the family income as well. Things are relatively the same in Kokoro, except the protagonist-narrator is raised in a more traditional family setting where the fathers have high expectations of their sons to find a suitable career and contribute to the reputation of the family.
While staking one's claim, following the wishes of parents for their futures, and bringing a sense of pride to the family is important in Growing Up, there is an obvious absence of adult male role models -- and even adult female role models-- in this short story. It even appears that
the one oft-mentioned role model, the Buddhist priest, may have deflowered Midori near the end of the story. Nobu's gift of the narcissus to Midori was highly symbolic of the loss of her virginity as well as the loss of Nobu to a life as a monk . Whereas the children in Kokoro come from a more bourgeois background, the traditional family unit in Growing Up has appeared to somewhat disintegrate as many of the children live as little more than street ragamuffins, making their own decision and suffering -- as they usually do -- from the consequences. The boys are portrayed as street "toughs" who are involved in youth gangs while there is evidence that the females portrayed by Higuchi are much more sophisticated and worldly for their young ages.
The family structure in Kokoro is more closely-knit and the parents -- ever-present -- push and prod their children into professions that require university degrees. While the father is dying, he makes his wishes known to his younger son, the narrator in the story. His mother also expresses concern over what her son will do with his future. The mother said: "As a matter of fact, I can't help thinking of how much a comfort it would be to your father if you found a job" . The narrator's parents are over-bearing while, in contrast, the parents in Growing Up are on the sidelines of their children's lives. They are not over-bearing but their presence is barely felt as their children amble through their lives, making decisions about their future on a trial-and-error basis. It is much more difficult for them to survive as they are, in general, from lower class families.
Another interesting aspect of family dynamics in Growing Up is that the actual family of the short story was defined as the interactions of the vagabond children and their interwoven struggles. For example, all of the boys are in a street gang with the exception of Nobu who enters the priesthood. All of the children in the story know each other better and interact with each other more than they interact with their parents. Their apprehensiveness, anxieties, and shame are more closely related to their "family ties" with their peers as opposed to their parents. In Kokoro, it is observed that family bonds are more closely (and traditionally) defined as the children's relationships with their parents. Their sense of duty to their parents is stronger than their sense of duty to their peers and siblings. In Growing Up, family functions are overtly dysfunctional, especially among the competing males. Nevertheless, there is a sense that all of the children have a profound respect for each other and value each other's company.
Despite the differences in definition and function of family in both Growing Up and Kokoro, there are more similarities and grounds for comparison. While their socioeconomic statuses are very different, both the children in Growing Up as well as the nearly-grown children in Kokoro make adult choices, choices which they feel are irreversible. They have internalized the expectations of their peers (the "family" in Growing Up) as well as the expectations of both parents in Kokoro. The children in both stories are plagued with uncertainties about their futures and think too much about what other people may think of them. Despite the different networks in both stories, the families are nonetheless very similar. They are furtive children with the same motives, that is, to be accepted by the ones whom they are closest to, whether that be their peers or their parents. The reader senses that the adult pressures that both sets of children face are very real and very burdensome.
Kawabata's Snow Country and Murakami's Thailand make extensive use of the "exotic other" in their storytelling techniques. Their usage is very similar in many ways, yet it differs in many ways as well.
In Snow Country, Shimamura's view of the young girl is through a "strange mirror" . He states that he viewed the girl as if through a dream. In Thailand, when Satsuki is picked up by a blue Mercedes limousine, she stated that it looked like "an object form another world, as if it had dropped fully formed from someone's fantasies" .
Both Shimamura and Satsuki seem to inhabit different worlds form other people. However, Shimamura's world is almost exclusively dream-like with respect to Yoko whereas Satsuki mostly has moments of lucidity. While in the limousine, when she was talking to the driver, she lost herself in a dream-like state of reminiscence about her past, before her father died . In Thailand, Satsuki often falls into strange, dream-like reveries.
But, it is Satsuki's descriptions of Nimit and others which are "exoticized". She is very impressed by Nimit and describes everything about him and Thailand, in general, with awe and wonder. Nimit is a very exotic character who, as a chauffeur-guide, is the only one to drive a Mercedes.
More than anyone else, she "exoticizes" the old woman who predicts her dream. The old woman is described very colorfully but is also described as very solemn, especially with regards to her prediction about Satsuki's dream of the snake. In fact, the old woman is foretelling her death. At the end of the story, she asks to fall asleep so that the dream will come. It is unclear whether the dream is a symbol for her death from an airplane crash.
Although there are many differences between Satsuki and Shimamura, they both live in worlds in which it is unclear where their dreams stop and reality begins. Shimamura is unclear about the boundaries of his reality. Kawabata states that Shimamura "but beyond that he saw her as somehow unreal, like the woman's face in that evening mirror" . Likewise, Satsumi is unclear about the reality of her life. It is as if her days are spent dreaming or even fantasizing. Either way, Satsumi's refusal to acknowledge her death has caused her to live in a world inhabited by strange dreams.
Shimamura tends to view the exotic other in the shape of female love interests. He describes them, highly-detailed, as being dream-like. His obsession with the Geisha girl is an example of how his tastes in women are exotic. Satsuki's love interest, however, stirs up feelings of anger and resentment in her as she aborted his baby. She even hopes that he was killed in a recent earthquake.
When Komako is speaking to Shimamura, the narrative is thus: "She raised her left hand a little and ran off. Her retreating figure was drawn up into the mountain. The Milky Way spread its skirts to be broken by the waves of the mountain, and, fanning out again in all its brilliant vastness higher in the sky, it left the mountain in a deeper darkness" . Again, the "exotic other" appears to Shimamura as the Milky Way itself. Preceding this, the narrative states: "In
the faint light that left no shadows on the earth, Komako's face floated up like an old mask. It was strange that even in the mask there should be the scent of the woman. He looked up, and again the Milky Way came" .
Until the very end, when Yoko jumps from the flaming building to her death, Shimamura sees the other as exotic. His vision of Yoko's spasms as she lay dying are both dream-like and more than real. The narrative flows thusly: "Even before the spasm passed, Shimamura was looking at the face and the kimono, an arrow figure against a red ground. Yoko had fallen face up. The skirt of her kimono was pulled just over one knee. There was but that slight movement in her leg after she struck the earth" . To Shimamura, the entire event appears as a dream sequence, an "exotic other".
While Shimamura experiences the opposite sex as exotic, Satsumi perceives the man from her past as anything but exotic. She perceives him as the cause of the transformation into stone that her body and heart have undergone.
In both stories, whether the main characters are dreaming or not, death is the ultimate "exotic other" that they must face. Shimamura views it as a dream when he sees Yoko get killed while Satsumi falls asleep before she dies, although the ending of the story remains a mystery regarding her fate.
In conclusion, while both Kawabata's Snow Country and Murakami's Thailand focus sharply on the theme of the "exotic other" in their respective tales, their characters "exoticize" them other in greatly different manners. However, both central characters of the stories, Shimamura and Satsumi, experience death as something "other", as something unreal, as the "exotic other". Both of the main characters have love interests yet it is Shimamura who "exoticizes" his lovers while Satsumi exoticizes her locale, her interactions with strangers, and mostly, her own death.