‘In the Shade of Spring Leaves’ by Ichiyō Higuchi (Review)

In my previous post, I looked at In the Shade of Spring Leaves, Robert Lyons Danly’s biography of the Meiji writer Ichiyō Higuchi, but as I mentioned at the time, there’s far more to the book than just the story of the author’s life.  Danly also selected nine stories from throughout the writer’s career and presented them in his own translations.  There was no space to look at the fiction in that post, but today it’s time to examine these stories – and find out why Higuchi is still revered more than a century after her death.

Higuchi’s career was sadly brief, spanning just over four years between her first publications in 1892 and her death in 1896, and In the Shade of Spring Leaves brings together a number of pieces representing both the ‘early’ (1892-1894) and ‘late’ (1895-1896) periods of her work.  Danly’s translations attempt to capture both the vibrancy of her imagery and the complexity of her writing, and he also goes to great lengths to annotate the stories for the novice reader.  This is necessary not only because of the unfamiliarity of the time and setting, but also due to the density of classical allusions.  When I tell you that the first, seven-page story, ‘Flowers at Dusk’, has more than four pages of notes, you’ll see what I mean.

The first few pieces come from Higuchi’s early career, and are simple sketches, marked more by poignancy and atmosphere than any real plot development.  ‘Flowers at Dusk’ is a touching look at unrequited love, in which a young girl withers away when she feels her affections will never be reciprocated, while in ‘A Snowy Day’, a woman looks back at a crucial turning point in her life, reminded of the fateful day by the snow falling lightly outside.  Even slighter is ‘The Sound of the Koto’, which has a homeless youth given the strength to go on with his life after hearing the melancholy sound of a koto instrument on a dark night.

This melancholy style, largely a result of Higuchi’s Heian influences, runs throughout the collection, and the first longer piece has these echoes in its plotting, too.  ‘Encounters on a Dark Night’ begins with a description of a run-down house where a beautiful woman lives in seclusion from the world (when we learn that she has been deserted by a lover, it’s hard not to be reminded of a certain Japanese classic…).  After a young man is injured in an accident outside the house, the woman takes him in, but what appears to be developing into a traditional love story is to take a different direction:

The notion that life can be lived without rancor or regret is an illusion only love leads us to believe.  How frightening is the mind of a woman with a broken heart!
‘Encounters on a Dark Night’, p.196 (Norton, 1992)

You see, the scorned woman harbours plans of revenge, and there’ll be more than one twist before this tale comes to a close.

The young man in this story is just one representative of the writer’s cast of unfortunates, with several of the selected pieces focusing on the contrast between rich and poor.  ‘On the Last Day of the Year’ sees a hard-working maid thwarted in her request to borrow money from her employers after the visit of the wasteful eldest son, who has his own plans for the money.  Meanwhile, in ‘Separate Ways’, a poor young man is left disillusioned after a woman who has shown him kindness moves on, putting comfort above principles in an attempt to improve her life.

Of course, in a patriarchal age, Higuchi’s eye is also drawn to the plight of women, and one story examining this issue is ‘The Thirteenth Night’.  Here, a woman married to a wealthy politician returns to her parents’ home, compelled to run away from her brutal rich husband:

“You know, for the first six months or so after we were married, he was always at my side, doing everything he could for me.  But as soon as Tarō was born – it’s frightening how much a man can change!  After that, I felt as if I’d been thrown into a dark valley, and I haven’t seen the sunlight since.”
‘The Thirteenth Night’, p.245

Although her parents are shocked and sympathetic, their advice is for her to return and endure for a little longer.  You see, if she leaves, the chances of her seeing her son again are very low…

Of course, it’s the stories set in the pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara that Higuchi is best known for.  The main character in ‘Troubled Waters’ is the beautiful geisha Oriki, who can’t help confessing her woes to a handsome customer.  Her former lover Genshichi has abandoned her to marry another woman, leaving her empty inside.  Little does she know that he’s also regretting his decision, unable to move on.  Both are sinking fast, and given the sombre tone of the piece, it’s unsurprising that it all comes to a tragic climax.

However, the longest, and best, of Higuchi’s stories is ‘Child’s Play’ (also translated by Edward Seidensticker as ‘Growing Up’ in the Modern Japanese Literature anthology).  This one follows a group of children growing up in and around the Yoshiwara red-light district, with a focus on three characters in particular: Nobuyuki, the priest’s son; Shōta, a younger boy living with his grandmother, a wealthy moneylender; and Midori, a young beauty whose sister is a geisha.  The story focuses on the experiences of these younger residents of the quarter, describing their youthful rivalries, hopeful romances and, above all, their dashed hopes.

The story is entertaining enough in itself, but the beauty of the piece lies more in the setting.  Higuchi has an eye for the sights and sounds of Yoshiwara (I suspect she was a major influence on Nagai Kafai), and much of the charm of the story comes from our guided tour of the area.  In Midori’s company, we happily absorb the atmosphere of the quarter:

Midori had no notion of what price Ōmaki might have paid to reign supreme in her profession.  To her it was all a game.  She knew about the charms and tricks the girls would use.  Simpering to summon men they longed for, like mice grabbing cheese.  Tapping on the lattice when they made a wish.  She knew the secret signals they would use to give their guests a parting pat.  She had mastered the special language of the quarter, and she didn’t feel the least embarrassed when she used it.
‘Child’s Play’, p.271

However, this childish innocence won’t last forever.  The story actually portrays the end of childhood, as Midori and Nobuyuki realise that they must leave their youthful ways behind.  The passing of time reveals how the real world works, and it’s a sobering discovery…

In the Shade of Spring Leaves is an enjoyable set of stories, with a couple of excellent pieces among them.  If you consider them in conjunction with the biography that made up the first half of the book, it all makes for a superb addition to any J-Lit library.  There’s very little of Higuchi’s work available elsewhere in English, even in anthologies (I’ve only seen two stories, both included here, one in the same translation).  So, if you’re interested in finding out more about one of Japan’s foremost modern storytellers, you know where to go 🙂

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