Masuji Ibuse is not one of Japan’s better known writers in the West, which is another way of saying that a country’s greatest literary treasures often remain too long undiscovered and underappreciated from the outside. He was responsible for one novel which has achieved some modicum of domestic fame, Black Rain—no, not the source for the wretched Michael Douglas thriller, but it did inspire a movie of the same name courtesy of Shohei Imamura—an angry indictment not only of the use of atomic weapons but Japan’s largely unspoken stigmatization of its victims for decades after the fact. I read Black Rain shortly after seeing the film, and what struck me most about it was the same thing that makes the two novellas that comprise Waves stand out: Ibuse’s amazing command of life’s detail and local color. He knew more about Japan in particular than many people would ever forget, and that was something I wanted to catalyze a bit of if I could.
Waves is an example—two examples, really—of Ibuse’s equally capable command of historical detail. The two stories within, “Waves” and “Isle-on-the-Billows”, take place during entirely different periods in Japan’s history (the 1180s and the 1700s, respectively), but both are so rich and immediate they feel like the author lived through both times and was simply reporting back about what he’d seen. In a land with as solid a connection to its own past through the centuries as Japan, this isn’t unexpected, but Ibuse embodies it and expresses it better than almost any other modern writer from Japan I’ve read yet. That he did not live through these things, but instead depended on research and native folklore (and his own imagination) to create them is faintly astonishing.
“Waves” is set during the by-now-legendary clash of the Heike and Genji clans at the tail end of the decadent and corrupt Heian period. Written in the form of a diary kept by a young Heike court noble, Tomoakira, who is pressed into fighting, it begins with he and his company beating a hasty retreat from the besieged capital and ends with him having achieved better prowess in battle than he might have imagined—and also achieving a kind of casual indifference to the “beauty and sadness” he cherished so much when he was only a few months younger. Early on, when he and his men are bivouacked near the ruins of a household, he cheerfully knocks pears out of a tree for the sake of a young girl he’s trying to impress; later, the whole sentimental episode has been reduced to the level of an afterimage in his mind, while the ebb and flow of the war (one which the Heike will lose) has come to the fore. The abrupt ending is somewhat inconclusive, but it’s not hard to see what conclusions Ibuse wants us to draw from it: here is a man who has become sacrificed to war in more ways than one, as many do.
The details of not only battle, but the details, period, are all summoned in simple and direct language that brings exactly the right images to mind. We learn of fishing line made from the tails of dead horses, of the motley fighting gear worn by the warrior monks (one of whom is Tomoakira’s comrade-in-arms), of details that ought to have been lost to time but which are all alive here. Despite being a short novel, nothing is lacking. I keep thinking how a Western author would have been tempted to “open things up”, to make the story more involved and to front-load it with a richness of language that would have read well but would have been ultimately unconvincing. These are the words of a man at war, rushing from one place to another and only being able to set down what there is time to remember and what words there are to put them in. To expand them would be a mistake.
Terseness is something we often reject without realizing it isn’t the same as laziness. I’ve come across more than one Western writer trying to evoke Japan, but not by evoking such spare and unforced simplicity; they instead try to be exotic or florid in what proves to be a Western mode, and it doesn’t work. Japanese is a naturally compact language, which probably explains why the Japanese writers I’ve read who have florid, expansive styles—Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe both come to mind—have had to fight a bit against that natural terseness through a show of vigor, which Is doubly difficult.
“Isle-on-the-Billows” is an even more exotic slice of history, from the 18th century—a character study of a bird-catcher who’s been shipped off to a prison island for violating the newly-minted “Law of Compassion for Fellow Creatures.” The killing of most animals—including animals normally cultivated for game—has been forbidden under pain of sundry punishments, and Wabisuke is now doing time for supplying contraband fowl and game to wealthy nobles willing to pay heftily for the privilege of dining on newly-taboo animal flesh. This law was no fictional invention: it really was adopted by the Shogunate for a time, inspired by a sincere but wholly misguided literalist reading of Buddhist doctrine. Ibuse’s obvious disgust with it and its destruction of many people’s livelihoods is an extrapolation of his larger disgust with (and distrust for) the authoritarian side of Japan that he experienced the very worst of when he fought in WWII.
Most of the story is concerned with the mechanical details of Wabisuke’s bird-hunting—themselves fascinating—and his relationships with two other female inmates, country girls with interesting and sharply-defined personalities. In fact, they’re so interesting to follow, I was disappointed when Ibuse chose to end the story on a disturbingly abrupt note—right when things could have just been getting really interesting. There really should have been more than this, and Ibuse’s rather curt way of exiting his story (which seems almost vengeful and petty, really) comes close to dispelling the native interest he builds for it. Also, because of its abruptness and structure, “Isle” is actually not as concerned with the ins and outs of island-prison life in that time period, although if you’re curious about such things you can see a fairly detailed depiction of it in Takashi Miike’s Sabu (itself an adaptation of a Shugoro Yamamoto novel, he being another heavily under-translated Japanese author).
The drawbacks don’t really work against the book fatally enough for it to be truly problematic, though. If anything, the biggest problem with Waves is its availability. It was offered through Kodanasha’s Japan’s Modern Writers imprint in 1986 (and then in paperback in 1993), but it is currently only available secondhand along with most of Ibuse’s other translated works. But if you’re interested in one of the ways Japan’s past is best evoked by one of her own writers, Ibuse’s works in general (and Waves in particular) are well worth your time.