There’s an unsettling moment in Sasaki Kuni‘s novel, Bonjinden (The Life of a Mediocrity、1929-30). Sasaki (1883-1964) was a celebrated humor writer, as well as a translator of Mark Twain, Cervantes, and others. I’m not aware of any English translations of his work. When I read earlier this year that Kondansha had brought out a bunkobon (pocketbook) edition of Bonjinden, I picked up a copy.
The hook with which the novel begins is that, although we have countless biographies of great men, we have few of mediocrities. In a mode somewhat reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse, the first-person narrator launches into an account of his schooldays, first off in the provinces where he suffers abuse from classmates for the sin of being the headmaster’s son, and then at Meiji Gakuen, a Christian mission school in Tokyo. We follow the misadventures of our anti-hero and his chums, including their crises of faith–but it’s all played for laughs. References to actual historical events allow us to place the story at around the time of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5.
The unsettling moment comes near the end. The hero is teaching at a school way out in the provinces where there is an elderly teacher who happens to bear the same family name as he–a telling detail. To avoid confusion, their colleagues call the protagonist “Young Kawahara” and his senior colleague “Old Kawahara.” Old Kawahara is a former soldier, a veteran of the internal warfare that erupted at the time of the Meiji Restoration. His junior colleagues at the school joke about his main claim to fame as a warrior: his heroic capture of the enemy commander’s leg.
Young Kawahara has heard his colleagues talk about this. One evening, he goes to visit Old Kawahara at his home and nudges him into telling his war stories. Old Kawahara obliges and relates how he came across the corpse of the enemy general on the battlefield. Somebody else had already taken the head, so he lopped off the leg. It’s a gruesome image, but the scene is played for laughs.
But then things get serious. Old Kawahara’s face grows dark, and he starts to tell of another battlefield incident, one that he’s never previously recounted for his colleagues. He was on patrol duty one night near Aizu, enforcing a curfew, when a beautiful young woman appeared in front of him. One of his fellow soldiers yelled out to Old Kawahara to cut her down. He tried to let the woman escape. But just as the woman turned to run away, his comrades saw what was happening and yelled out that he was a coward. In a moment of panic, Old Kawahara slashed out with his sword across the woman’s back. He later learned that it was all a misunderstanding, that the woman was an innocent bystander.
As she fell to the ground, the woman glanced back at Old Kawahara with a vengeful look that has haunted him his whole life. Decades later, he still has nightmares about the woman he killed. She was about twenty, Old Kawahara tells Young Kawahara. He’s certain that she is the reason both his own sons died at the age of twenty: she placed a curse on him so that none of the children in his family would live beyond the age of twenty.
It’s a chilling scene, unlike anything that has come before it in the novel. But soon the narrative shifts back into a comic mode. Old Kawahara has one child left, an unmarried girl who will soon turn twenty. He begs Young Kawahara to marry her immediately so that by the time she turns twenty, she will no longer be his daughter (her name will be shifted from the family registry of Old Kawahara to that of Young Kawahara) and hence will escape the curse. The whole story seems to have been a set up to trick Young Kawahara into marrying the daughter. In fact, Young Kawahara is only too willing to do so, and so the narrative reaches a happy ending.
In other words, this horrific story of traumatic war memories is used as a comic device. I can’t help but wonder how this sequence struck its original readers back in 1930. There were earlier fictional works in Japan that depicted the horrors of war, but almost always the violent scenes in them depict Japanese soldiers as the victims rather than the perpetrators of atrocities. By the late 1930s, and especially after 1945, we started to get many novels that depicted ugly battlefield incidents, including those committed by Japanese troops–but I can’t think of a work that puts such a scene to use for comic effect.
I suppose it makes a difference that the war depicted in Bonjinden is a civil war rather than a foreign war. But I still can’t quite get my mind around the way the scene is used in the novel. Did this sequence disturb readers in 1930 Japan, or did they simply fly past it without a second thought? Was the scene warning them about horrors to come, or was it preparing readers to laugh them off?