Ichiyō Higuchi’s first work “Flowers at Dusk” (闇桜?) was published in 1892 in Tōsui Narakai’s magazine Musashino. Danly discusses at length in the first part of the book that some of the subject matter Higuchi draws from was from Narakai’s own style of fiction, such as “ninjōbon, ‘books of human sentiment,’ or nakibon, ‘crying books’ as they were sometimes disparagingly called, which told of unrequited love between beautiful young virgins and irresolute and irresistible ‘love-boys’ (iro-otoko)” (Danly, p.64) This story falls into that melodramatic tradition. “Flowers at Dusk” is essentially a short story about a young girl who seemingly dies from lovesickness for her childhood friend and neighbor. But in Higuchi’s hands, this is handled in a truly skillful style and is far more tolerable than expected. It is also rather startling to read now, particularly given Danly’s characterization of Higuchi’s infatuation with Narakai and her early death.
The story is about two neighboring families, the Sonodas who have a university-bound son named Ryōnosuke, and the Nakamuras who have a sixteen-year-old daughter they dote on named Chiyo. The main conflict in the story is that Chiyo is growing to womanhood and is uncertain that Ryōnosuke has noticed she is no longer a child. They are clearly close, but Chiyo has noticed her feelings toward Ryōnosuke are changing, which confuses and frightens her. She feels she can’t tell him, but it’s eating her up until finally she falls ill. When he comes to see Chiyo, he realizes she her attachment to him is more than friendship, but the story ends with the implication she dies with no way for him to stop her decline. This thin plot is executed in three short scenes. Here is a link for the story in the original Japanese:
Her next story in the collection is “A Snowy Day” (雪の日),which was published in 1893 in the magazine Bungakkai. It is very short, only a few pages, and according to Danly was inspired by a moment with Tōsui Narakai. It has one scene and opens with beautiful imagery. As with the first story, the theme is a child transitioning to womanhood, just beginning to be aware of the differences between men and women. Here is a particularly good passage:
My parents named me Tama – Jewel – as if I would remain some precious, flawless gem. What ignominy I have brought upon my name! How could they have guessed that I would end up as worthless as a shard of tile? I have fallen like rubbish into the stream and have drifted into tainted waters. I was too young to know better. Love was my mistake, and the go-between, a snowy day. (Danly, p. 174)
The scandal it expresses is that of a young woman’s friendship with a man twice her age. Rumors of love grip the village, but her aunt is adamant that the man in question is an unknown outsider of uncertain status who would never be welcome in their family as her husband. Her protests that the relationship is innocent and proper make no impression, and she begins to wonder about her own feelings. The ending completes the frame set by the opening paragraphs, showing a woman who looks back with regret on her choice of running away and marrying for love. Here is a link for the story in the original Japanese:
The final story we will look at this time is “The Sound of the Koto” (琴の音), which was published in 1893, probably in the magazine Bungakkai though Danly isn’t specific on where. He considers this a sample of Higuchi’s “waif literature” influenced by some of the characters in The Tale of Genji (Danly, p.79). The story is split into two very effective parts.
The opening is melodramatic and not as strong as those of the first two stories. The main character this time is a 14-year-old boy. Both this story and “A Snowy Day” show how status and social position were more important than love, duty or age. The boy’s mother must abandon her toddler son and husband at the request of her family so her family would not be tainted by her husband’s misfortune. The abandoned husband then turns to alcoholism in his despair over the fate of his son and dies a few years later after a drinking party, leaving the boy orphaned very young. The boy becomes hardened to the world, a petty criminal with an out-sized reputation. He contemplates suicide. This is the first scene.
In the second scene, the focus shifts from the boy to a 19-year-old woman playing the koto at night, which the boy overhears. The descriptions here are really strong, such as the following passage:
…And to whom, one might ask, had this woman pledged her fidelity, living in this solitary nest? Music was her only master. She was nineteen; one wondered how many years she had already devoted to perfecting the gentle tones and shadings of her melodies….It was as if the Mountain Princess herself guided the woman’s hands over the strings, the way the pine breeze blows across the threadlike branches of the willow tree. The look of serenity upon her face as she would play was almost dreamy. She was oblivious to the wind, the rain, the sound of the roaring thunder. (Danly, p. 180)
Through her playing, the boy finds the strength to go on with his difficult life. Here is a link for the story in the original Japanese:
Next time, we’ll look at three more of Higuchi’s stories, which grow longer and more complicated as she gains experience as a writer.