‘Eight Dogs or Hakkenden: Part One – An Ill-Considered Jest’ by Kyokutei Bakin (Review)

Contemporary J-Lit, as can be seen in a recent post, is very keen on using cats to entertain and attract readers.  That wasn’t always the case, though, and my latest review goes in a different direction, providing a canine slant on 19th-century Japanese literature.  Today’s choice is a classic that somehow had never previously made it into English, but there are several reasons for the surprising delay.  For one thing, it’s not the simplest of works, and (as I’ll explain) there’s the small matter of its being very, very long…

Eight Dogs or Hakkenden (or Nansō Satomi hakkenden, to give the novel its full title) is the undisputed Magnum opus of Tokugawa-era writer Kyokutei Bakin.  It’s a sweeping, epic novel released over the course of decades (1814 to 1842) and if translated in full into English, it would come to well over two-thousand pages altogether.  When you also consider the challenges posed by the language, with the text encompassing a range of genres and a multitude of literary allusions, it’s little surprise that publishers (and translators) have been reluctant to take on the challenge.  However, translator Glynne Walley has picked up the gauntlet, planning to produce a complete English-language version of the work, and the first step along that path, Part One: An Ill-Considered Jest (review copy courtesy of Cornell University Press), covers the first fourteen chapters of the novel.  It’s an excellent introduction to Bakin’s semi-fictional world, and a right rollicking read to boot 🙂

The story begins in 1441, during the Muromachi Period, where we arrive in time to see the fall of the castle of Yūki.  As the last defenders prepare to meet their fate, the youthful Yoshizane Suemoto is ordered by his father to escape, accompanied only by two hardy retainers.  After strenuous protests (after all, honourable defeats are often welcomed in Japanese culture…), Yoshizane is eventually carried off, and after several adventures, he and his companions reach the province of Awa, where new trials await.

This is where the bulk of An Ill-Considered Jest takes place.  What ensues is a political and military struggle in a province of four districts, with several crafty lords jockeying for power.  Yoshizane soon shows his rivals that cream always rises to the top, but despite his formidable prowess, and the help of his men, it’s a dog that he turns to when his rule seems under threat, little realising what it will eventually cost him…

The first part of Hakkenden is great fun, and a joy for anyone who delights in the classic Japanese war stories such as The Tale of the Heike or The Taiheiki.  However, the novel is actually loosely based on the Chinese classic, The Water Margin, and the text is peppered with allusions to classic Chinese stories and poems.  As a result, Bakin deliberately uses antiquated style in places, and Walley does his best to retain that mood in English.  This means that there’s an occasional trial of authenticity versus comfort for the reader, but on the whole it’s very well done and gives the text a special feel.

The key figure in An Ill-Considered Jest is, of course, that of Yoshizane.  We ride with him the waves of his early struggles in Awa, and then his stunning success, but the pivotal moment of the book comes when he is betrayed years later by the other lords of the province.  With things looking grim, our hero takes a moment to play with his dog, Yatsufusa, letting slip his wish that someone would bring him his enemy’s head:

“Aha!” Yoshizane laughed.  “Indeed, Princess Fuse loves you as much as I do – no wonder you want her.  When you have accomplished this, then, you shall marry her.”  Yatsufusa bent his forelegs as if in obeisance and keened.  The dog’s voice struck Yoshizane as sad, and his merriment left him.  “Stuff and nonsense, and worse.  This is no time for idle jests,” he said to himself, and went back inside.
p.173 (Cornell University Press, 2021)

An idle jest indeed, but what will he do if his canine friend manages to carry out the deed?  As you can tell from the title of the book, this is a story that’s just as much about dogs as people.

Yes, Hakkenden is unlikely to be a book that follows real life faithfully, with a slight mystical air pervading this first part.  There’s a miracle cure for a diseased retainer, the frequent appearances of an avatar of an ancient holy man, magical prayer beads and the bitter curse of a woman condemned to death:

“And Yoshizane – your deeds hardly bear speaking of!  Your tongue would not rest once it had bidden mercy – overcome by Takayoshi’s persuasions, making a plaything of a person’s life, you are a foolish commander, not at all like what I had heard.  Kill me if you will!  I shall lead your descendants along the way of beasts – I shall make them dogs of the passions of this world!” (p.131)

The woman may soon meet her fate, but her evil presence will linger, and is destined to affect future events.

As the story slowly develops, and Yoshizane’s daughter, Princess Fuse, grows up, there’s a sense of inevitability about it all.  The various ideas come together at their own pace, and while the word ‘cliffhanger’ may be a later coining, the idea was certainly around in Bakin’s day.  Several of the published sections here end on a dramatic note, and Bakin was definitely a writer who knew how to keep his readers’ interest.

In fact, it’s not just the story itself that will interest those interested in Japanese literature.  Other interesting features of this edition include additions from the original serialisation, such as black-and-white woodcuts with famous scenes from the story, prefaces before each volume and even adverts for medicine from the writer’s own shop!  These extras provide some fascinating insights – take, for example, this comment from the preface to the second volume:

What has come thus far is but the beginning, and I am not yet certain as to our Eight Warriors; however, to forestall assaults from the booksellers, I have blindly gone ahead and prepared pictures for sections my manuscript has not yet reached – sections whose plotline I have not even invented yet. (p.223)

It’s interesting to see that even in the early nineteenth century, the pressure of publishers and looming deadlines is something writers knew only too well.

As mentioned above, Bakin’s novel is a truly epic work, and perhaps the best indication of the enormous narrative scope of Hakkenden is the fact that the eight dogs of the title are only introduced at the end of this first part, and even then it’s a fairly fleeting appearance.  An Ill-Considered Jest runs to almost 300 pages, yet it’s merely a prologue, a clearing of the throat before the real action begins.  Some readers may be put off by that thought, but for anyone who tries, and enjoys, this first of a planned ten books, there’s a promise of great pleasure to come in future years.

Of course, that all depends on Walley and Cornell, and I certainly have my fingers crossed.  Hakkenden has all the hallmarks of a wonderful addition to the stock of Japanese literature available in English, and while it may take a while for the whole novel to be translated and published, I’m sure it will be worth the wait.  Having said that, though, I wouldn’t like to wait *too* long – here’s hoping it doesn’t take twenty-eight years for the full adventures of the doggy warriors to appear 😉


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