‘Ukigumo’ (‘The Drifting Cloud’) by Shimei Futabatei & Marleigh Ryan (Review)

I’ve been interested in Japanese literature for a while now, but I feel that the interest may have got a little stronger over the past couple of years.  This has left me wondering if there is a line between interest and obsession – at what point does your harmless pastime start to become a little too serious?

All of which coincidentally brings me to today’s book, a 1960s translation of (and commentary on) a nineteenth-century Japanese novel, one which is extremely difficult to find, meaning I had to buy it second-hand and have it shipped from the US. I suspect that if there is a line, it may just have been crossed…

Ukigumo (The Drifting Cloud) by Shimei Futabatei, translated by Marleigh Ryan, is often described as the first modern Japanese novel.  The hero of the piece is Bunzo Utsumi, a civil servant living with his uncle’s family in Tokyo while saving up money to establish his own house with his mother.  While his aunt, Omasa, is not overly keen on Bunzo, his uncle intends to marry off his daughter, Osei, to her young relative, and the young couple are slowly working their way towards an understanding.

That is, until Bunzo unexpectedly loses his job, a victim of office politics.  Now his aunt is free to convey her displeasure (especially as his uncle is almost permanently away on business), and her attitude is bound to rub off on Osei.  Enter, at this point, Noboru Honda, a former colleague of Bunzo’s who has managed to keep his job.  In fact, thanks mainly to his sycophantic attentions to his boss, he has even managed to get a raise – and now he is turning his attentions towards Osei…

If Bunzo could only pull himself together, he would easily be able to master the situation.  Sadly, he is the very model of indecision, brooding over his unjust treatment in his room, while Honda works his charms on both Omasa and Osei.  Although Bunzo is a much better person than any of the people surrounding him, he is repeatedly humiliated – what’s more, rather than admitting defeat and moving out, he stays in his room, hoping that Osei will change her mind.

By the end of novel, he has burnt most of his bridges, with none of the other main characters willing to talk to him.  Yet still, as the story comes to its conclusion, Bunzo harbours hopes of a reconciliation and reinstatement to his old position.  At which point, the average reader may well decide that he deserves everything he gets…

Ukigumo is an interesting story, but it’s not amazing by modern standards (and some people argue that it was never really finished…), so you might think I regret buying it.  Nothing could be further from the truth – this was a great buy.  Why?  Because the actual novel is accompanied by Marleigh Ryan’s extensive 200-page commentary, which contains an extended biography, background information about Meiji-era Japan and the creation of Ukigumo.  Wait, come back – that’s a good thing…

In what is suspiciously reminiscent of a PhD thesis, Ryan introduces the reader to Futabatei, but also to his friend Shoyo Tsubouchi, a minor novelist who became a much bigger name in the field of literary theory.  Tsubouchi was one of the first Japanese theorists to champion foreign styles of writing, demanding that Japanese writers pay far more attention to characterisation than had previously been the case.  His ideas greatly influenced Futabatei, who ended up writing the style of novel Tsubouchi himself was unable to manage.

Tsubouchi was also responsible for starting Futabatei off on a career in literary translation.  The young writer had studied Russian at university and was the first to translate certain classic stories into Japanese, including many by Turgenev.  This double career as writer and translator (a situation copied by later Japanese writers – including a certain Haruki Murakami…) enabled Futabatei to draw on these Russian realist influences, especially the idea of the ‘superfluous hero’, when he came to write Ukigumo.  And his translation work would also help him with another rather tricky problem…

…you see, for me one of the most fascinating aspects of the commentary was Futabatei’s struggle to create a variety of language which would suit the style of literature he was hoping to write.  Up to this time, Japanese had a very formal Chinese-influenced writing style which was totally unsuitable for modern literature; however, the only other option was the spoken language, which, as well as being considered unworthy of literature, was divided into mutually unintelligible dialects.  In order to drag the Japanese novel out of the middle ages, and create something which measured up to the Russian works he loved, not only did Futabatei have to persuade readers to accept characterisation over a sensational plot, but he also had to codify a new style of literary language.  Now that is a tough ask.

Once you understand the issues the writer faced in creating Ukigumo, its importance in modern Japanese literature becomes a little more understandable.  By itself, the novel is merely a pleasant read.  However, when combined with Ryan’s excellent supplement (and the fascinating footnotes), it becomes a whole lot more, fully deserving of the title bestowed upon it.

While I’m very happy that I decided to buy this book, an excellent addition to my burgeoning J-Lit library, I’m not sure it’s for everyone.  Before you start trawling through second-hand book sites, perhaps you should first ask yourself which side of the metaphorical line you’re on.  I suspect that Ukigumo is for those of you who are already a lost cause as far as J-Lit is concerned 😉

8 thoughts on “‘Ukigumo’ (‘The Drifting Cloud’) by Shimei Futabatei & Marleigh Ryan (Review)

  1. “already a lost cause” = “genuinely interested” But literary history is I fear a specialized pursuit. I read the book a few years ago and came to similar conclusions.

    The picture of the young Meiji writers caught in this amazing influx of literature and ideas, mostly Russian and French, and trying to figure out what to do with it all, now that is interesting.


  2. *grin* I am not so far gone on J-Lit but honestly, as a very niche reader sometimes I can understand why you bought this one. I must admit, the footnotes and accompanying material do actually sound more interesting to me than the story. I know, I'm a heathen. 🙂


  3. Not sure that the novel itself would appeal but that commentary I would definitely read. As to obsession how about reading the biography of a 17th century Japanese master swordsman & writer of The book of 5 rings because if that qualifies I'll join you in that room with the other addicts confessing.


  4. Tom – Funnily enough, I stumbled across your post yesterday after commenting on your Austrian (non-)challenge piece 🙂 My background is in linguistics, and the combination of translation studies, literary theory and linguistic development had me captivated. I agree about the early Meiji period – if I ever get the chance I'd love to read more about this time (a sort of Wild West era for Japanese intellectuals!).


  5. Alex – Oh, the commentary is definitely better than the story 😉 However, once you've read what Ryan has to say, you begin to appreciate the novel more…


  6. I m not so far gone either Tony ,but do like the odd older translations from round the world always hand to see where the modern writing developed I think ,all the best stu


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