Ukigumo Futabatei Shimei

Shimei Futabatei, “Ukigumo” Japan’s First Modern Novel: Ukigumo of Futabatei Shimei. Marleigh Grayer Ryan, editor and translator. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Plot: Centers predominately on a young government employee Bunzo, who is in love with his cousin Osei.  He’s just been laid off from his government job.  His hopes to marry Osei are disrupted by this. Instead of confessing his love or finding a new job, he is reduced to inactivity and an inability to express himself to anyone.  Noboru, a ‘friend’ of Bunzo who is his emotional and intellectual opposite, steps up his pursuing of Osei, in some ways displacing Bunzo from both his job and his hoped for life.  Bunzo is an awkward, rigid, idealistic intellectual who has trouble navigating social niceties and doesn’t believe in doing things like flattering his boss in order to keep his job.  Noboru is a conniving charmer whose words and actions are never entirely straightforward.  Even when he is making advances on Osei it is not clear if he is doing so as a joke or not.  Just as there is a Bunzo/Noboru dichotomy, there is also an Osei/Omasa (her mother) pairing.  Osei is very much a young woman educated in the Meiji period, who studies English and Chinese, who reads serious novels and tracts on the state.  She often maintains that she desires forthrightness and emotional honesty.  Her mother, on the other hand, is emotional and snappish, often chastising Osei and Bunzo and getting into fights with them.  She has ideas about what a young woman should be like that don’t conform to the new ideals, and are about getting her daughter a proper husband and the like.  We are occasionally allowed access to the thoughts of each person, although it is Bunzo’s perspective that dominates the story.  Bunzo, after alienating everyone, including Osei, retreates into his room but doesn’t leave the family house because he wants to help Osei evade Noboru and the attractions of surface entertainment.  During this time Noboru becomes much more aggressive in pursuing Osei, although she never exactly says yes to his advances she flirts with him a great deal.  Until one night she seems to truly be confronted with the idea of marrying him, and seemingly rejects it (though it is not clear – she has an emotional outburst of laughter and rolling around on her bed, but that’s it).  She stops going to her English classes and takes up knitting.  The book ends with a switch back to Bunzo’s perspective as her behavior towards him thaws a little bit, and he makes the decision he is going to lay his heart before her (this will be the third time he’s made that decision over the course of the novel). That’s it.

Themes/Considerations/Recurring motifs: This is categorized as some as the first modern Japanese novel because it uses a genbun ichi style writing (that was at the time considered to be more like speech than the standard forms of the novel up to that point).  However, there are a number of issues with this classification, including the fact that much of the iconography Shimei draws on is from Chinese and classical Japanese.  In describing one of Bunzo and Osei’s earlier encounters Shimei references Kokinshu, Manyoshu,  Tale of Genji, and uses language that is reminiscent of Basho’s poetry.  In describing Osei he draws comparisons to famous women throughout the history of Japan, including Komachi (from Ono no Komachi, 9th century poetess).  In the latter chapters Bunzo quotes from the Analects and deploys other traditional phrasing.  It is not entirely clear who stands for what – if Osei and Noboru are meant to be “modern” while Omasa and Bunzo are more “traditional” since all of them in some ways are attempting to negotiate their time period.  It is clear that Bunzo’s inability to be straightforward about his feeling, and his haughtiness, are both character flaws that reduce him to a jobless, loveless (although his mother still belives in him, though she is only present in letters she sends him) state.  However Noboru is described as fairly despicable too – he is terribly obsequious to his boss when he and the women meet him going flower watching (he literally forgets about Omasa and Osei while speaking with his boss and his boss’ family), Bunzo’s commentary on him suggests he is untrustworthy and that his affections are inconstant, and that he puts on a very pleasing front but once one gets to know him, one cools towards him.  Not a good model to follow.  Osei at first seems like she will be a model for a new woman who perhaps even has learned she doesn’t need men (as she constantly protests she doesn’t want to marry), but as the novel goes on it appears her dedication to a subject has to do less with her sustained interest and more that she is attracted to and molded by those around her.  Thus why she switches to knitting and can give up the intellectual pursuits that so charmed Bunzo.  Omasa seems to be a constant only insofar as she is constantly annoyed at Bunzo and likes Noboru, but her relationship with her daughter changes from a fairly antagonistic one to one where they reassure each other and she is lenient with her (again seems Shimei’s commentary on education breaking up families).  There is an interiority here that is stressed – that the impulses of the characters do not always match up with their actions.  Although it has been inscribed as a marker of this novel’s modern-ness (and presumed that the interiority is taken from Shimei’s fascination with Russian novels, of which he translated a number of), this is not the only novel written during this time that displays something of this sort.  It is also not the only novel that was written in genbun ichi, though it has become the most famous one.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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