The next story I want to look at is “Encounters on a Dark Night” (暗夜), which was published in 1894 as a gothic-themed take on Higuchi’s “waif literature” that “explores her own rancor toward the business partners who swindled her father” (Danly, p. 82). The story is split into 12 scenes. Higuchi’s writing begins with the familiar melodramatic touches of gesaku and Heian tropes, but she really gets dark and gritty with the cynicism and brutal cruelty her characters must face. This is surprising, perhaps, coming from such a young woman as Higuchi.
A child is born out of wedlock, and while the wealthy father is unaccountable, the mother dies after birth, so her father raises the child. This child, 20-year-old main character Naojirō Takagi, can’t find work because of the bad impression he makes. For example, when he gets hired as a gardener, he gets on the bad side of police for refusing the sexual overtures of the matrons of those households. Naojirō comes to live in the “eerie,” rundown house of Matsukawa, a man who had been at the center of the community’s malicious rumors, when he is run over by a rickshaw in the street just outside of it. The beautiful young mistress of the house, 25-year-old Oran, and her two elderly servants take him in. Halfway through the story, we see Higuchi’s romantic, dramatic turn of mind shine through with her protagonist’s groggy sickbed perceptions of Oran, who is nursing him back to health:
…The boy did nothing but sleep. He could remember little of what happened during this time, save the goddess whom he had seen on the first night, appearing at his pillow to attend him….When she held him in her gentle arms, it was like being born again in heaven. Would he wake to find that he had only dreamt of feeling like a butterfly among the flowers?
“Take my hand when you are lonely,” he heard her say. “Rest your head in my lap when the world is cruel to you….The tears you hide from others you need not conceal from me – my sleeve will dry them all. I shall never hold you in contempt as others have, and, even if your character is flawed, I shall never despise you for your weaknesses. If there are secrets troubling you, offenses in the past that still torment you, tell me of them. It will cleanse your heart and make you feel better.
“I shall always be beside you….I am your water; I shall quench your thirst. When sleet and snow are falling, let me be your fur robe on cold winter nights. We were never meant to be apart. Who cares what the world has to say?…”
The voice echoed in his head. Who was she? For these gentle words of hers he was ready to bow down before her. (Danly, pp. 188-9)
Clearly, romantic themes left undeveloped in “The Sound of the Koto” now appear full flower before Higuchi returns to doubt and gloom. It’s such an ardent passage, but it marks the highest, most positive point of the story.
The story actually centers on the tragic suicide of Oran’s father, who turns out to be the maligned Matsukawa we hear about at the beginning. Oran’s cynicism and pain turns out to be as strong as Naojirō, though this is not apparent at first. Its root is a broken promise of marriage made by her father’s questionable business partner, Namizaki, who was a very prominent man. In her heart, Oran’s doubt and hatred take over.
Meanwhile, Naojirō figures out who hit him on the night he came to Oran’s house, and he runs to Oran to confess his love for her and his despair at life. At this point, the cynicism and intimacy of both characters come together to bring about a shocking request from Oran: kill Namizaki. But what a strange turn of events when perhaps happiness together was within their grasp if they could see their way out of their private hells and their need for revenge. In the end, the fate of the main characters remains uncertain.
The second story we will look at this time is “On the Last Day of the Year” (大つごもり), published in 1894. It is presented in two sections. This story is about a servant woman, Omine, who is sent on a new domestic job with a family with six children. It is unusual in its focus on her family warmth rather than her work hardships. The descriptions are vivid and realistically depict the drudgery of such work, and like many of Higuchi’s story reflect strong bitterness and cynicism toward life’s hardships.
Eighteen-year-old Omine works for the unpleasant Yamamura family of Tokyo who couldn’t keep any servant girl for any time in their employ, but Omine must persevere no matter how much she hates it since her only relative, an uncle, became too ill to work. An unexpected outing with the Yamamuras allows her to visit her uncle’s family in the poor district. This completes the first section.
Section two turns to the inner workings of the Yamamura household, particularly the situation of oldest son Ishinosuke whose position as heir was being reconsidered in favor of a younger sister because of his dissolute lifestyle. Ishinosuke is not going along quietly with this plan. In the midst of the household’s struggle with its heir at the New Year’s holiday, Omine asks for an extra two yen to help with her uncle. As with Oran in “Encounters on a Dark Night,” an evil plan forms in Omine’s mind when Mrs. Yamamura refuses to give her the money. Where Oran contemplated a revenge murder, Omine contemplates thievery. However, as in the earlier story, the women’s crimes lead to surprising and ambiguous endings.
Here is the link on that story in the original Japanese:
The final story we will review at this time is “Troubled Waters” (にごりえ), published in 1895. The story is told in 8 parts, and unlike the previous stories we have examined, it jumps into dialogue from the beginning instead of merely describing the situation. The main characters of this story are Otaka and Oriki, twenty-something courtesans from Kikunoi house in the Yoshiwara district. Oriki was the youngest, most popular courtesan in the house.
The story is a string of scenes showing Oriki in various contexts as well as Oriki’s former customer that she cannot forget, Genshichi, who is now too poor to visit Oriki and spends time with his bitter wife and young son. Oriki can’t forget him, and Higuchi gives an incredible characterization of her inner turmoil and the public perception of courtesans:
White demons, someone had dubbed them. And, in fact, there was an air of the nether reaches to it all. Even those who appeared guileless were ready to drive a man into a pool of blood, or chase a debt-laden customer up the side of a mountain of needles. If they enticed men with their soft voices, they could also sound as shrill as a pheasant being swallowed by a snake….
In the trade, one did not look for honest women. One girl in a hundred shed tears of true love for a man….
Oriki of the Kikunoi was another girl unlikely to be mistaken for a demon. There were reasons why she had fallen into the stream, where she now spent her days telling lies and bantering with men who came to call. Love, compassion – in her world, these were things as flimsy as a sheet of mulberry paper, about as steady as the flickering of a firefly. Here, people were not apt to be moved by another’s tears. A man could kill himself over a woman, and the lady would mutter, “What a pity,” and look the other way. There were times, of course, when a woman felt truly sad or frightened. Afraid to let emotions show, she would fling herself down in a room upstairs and sob quietly to herself. So it was with Oriki. She kept her problems to herself. Others considered her strong and independent. They did not perceive that she was as vulnerable as a spider’s web. Touch it, and it disintegrates. (Danly, pp. 230–1).
The story develops into a gruesome love suicide, though why it goes there instead of the couple just running away together is never explained. Sometimes as a Westerner, it is a bit difficult to understand how death and despair trumps a potential for happiness even in less than ideal situations that seems possible in some of these stories.
Here is the link on that story in the original Japanese:
Next time, we will finish the last three stories in the book and talk a little more about Ichiyō Higuchi’s diary.