‘Masks’ by Fumiko Enchi (Review)

Today’s post looks at another of my January in Japan finds at the university library (as can be seen from the unfortunate placing of the bar code…).  As always, I’m a little light on female writers, and this is a book, and an author, I’ve been meaning to get to for some time.  Be careful, though – in this one, the writer’s main theme seems to be that women are not always to be trusted.  Consider yourselves forewarned…

*****
Fumiko Enchi’s Masks (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) begins in Kyoto, where Tsuneo Ibuki and Toyoki Mikame, two university lecturers from Tokyo, meet by chance in a café.  The two friends are in town for conferences, but as luck would have it, they are about to see something very special.  Meeting up with Ibuki’s student, Yasuko, and her mother-in-law, Mieko Toganō, the men are privileged to visit the home of a master of the Nō play, a Japanese art form which uses masks to display characters and emotions.

The masks the group are allowed to view then act as leitmotifs for the story: the ‘Ryō no Onna’, or spirit woman; the ‘Masugami’, or frenzied young woman; and the ‘Fukai’, or deep, middle-aged woman.  Each comes to be associated with one of the female characters, and while the masks may seem rather fixed and one-dimensional, in fact they are incredible works of art, allowing the knowledgeable onlooker to discern shades of emotion.  What’s more, they display while concealing – and the men in the story are to find out that the women in their lives are quite adept at using their masks in affairs of the heart…

Masks is a short novel, but it’s a superb examination of the way people manipulate and are manipulated in turn.  The action is mainly seen through the eyes of the two men, but it’s clear from the start that it’s the women who hold all the cards in this game.  With Yasuko’s husband having died in an avalanche, the young woman is a tempting prize for Ibuki and Mikame; the problem is that this prize will come at a cost (and has some hidden conditions…).

One of the issues is that there is a tight connection between Yasuko and Mieko.  The two professors are aware of the link, but have differing views as to who holds the power in the relationship.  Ibuki, while attracted to Yasuko, senses something amiss:

“She made the appeal prettily, her head tilted to one side, but to Ibuki her soft smile was repugnant, seeming to reveal within her an unconscious hint of the harlot.”
pp.15/6 (Tuttle Press, 1984)

However, Mikame, less inclined to analyse, has a different view:

“…but to him Mieko resembled less an outsize drawing of a beautiful woman than a slightly vulgar background of some sort – a heavy, ornate tapestry or a large blossoming tree – against which Yasuko’s youth and charm showed off to heightened advantage.” (p.17)

Of course, both of these images are mere masks, and finding out what lies beneath is set to be a difficult and costly experience.

As much as we experience events through the men, the key figure in the novel is Mieko.  She’s an attractive middle-aged widow, a poet living with her daughter-in-law and a daughter who has only recently returned to the family.  Like the other main characters, she has an interest in the depiction of spirit possession in literature and folklore, and the chance discovery of an essay she wrote decades ago provides an insight into her character.

In her piece, she focuses on the Rokujō Lady, one of the many lovers the main character has in The Tale of Genji, and while this woman is considered a minor character, for Mieko she is much more important.  The Rokujō Lady attacks other characters unconsciously through her spirit, and while many despise her for this, Mieko sees something very different, a powerful woman, too strong for the men around her.  Mmm – I wonder if that has a relevance in Enchi’s novel…

Another interesting focus in the novel is on relationships in Japanese society, with the way marriages, courtships and extra-marital affairs are handled being very different to what we (in the West) might expect.  As Ibuki gets closer to Yasuko, his wife becomes suspicious, but the way she reacts (and Ibuki’s reaction to her reaction) is slightly alien.  Mikame’s calm acceptance of the way matters unfold is also puzzling – the very idea of what a marriage is (as shown by Mieko’s husband’s ‘traditions’…) is completely different to the Christian norm.

Masks is a novel that unfolds elegantly, with an excellent plot which is gradually revealed.  The men are pawns in a game, that much is clear from an early stage – we’re just not quite sure what the game is and who the main player is:

“You and I are accomplices, aren’t we, in a dreadful crime – a crime that only women could commit.” (p.126)

Yasuko’s comment to Mieko towards the end of the novel may give you a hint of what is to come, but only a hint.  This is a very subtle game 😉

Although I’ve read some of Enchi’s work before (in the form of short stories), this is the first longer piece I’ve tried, and I found it excellent.  There’s great command of the characters, with a focus on dialogue and the psychological development of the mian figures, and the writer’s knowledge of Japanese literary culture comes through in the way classic stories are used in the text to foreshadow later events (it comes as no surprise to learn that Enchi translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese).  Praise must go, of course, to Winters Carpenter, who has created an excellent English-language text, a credit to Enchi’s story.  In particular, the dialogue and thought are rendered superbly, an area which can often let a translation down.

Masks is a short novel, but it’s a very good one by a writer who certainly knows her craft.  It’s a warning of the perils of human relationships and an examination of woman as both comfort and danger.  As Mieko concludes in her essay:

“Just as there is an archetype of woman as the object of man’s eternal love, so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions.  The Rokujō lady is an embodiment of this archetype.” (p.37)

Perhaps she’s right – but I can think of another one…

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