The very things that make The Blade of the Courtesans deeply immersive and engrossing are also what make it frustrating. Here we have a novel of historical Japan written by a native Japanese, one who has obviously taken the time to immerse himself in the material to a degree previously unheard of. The shame of it is that Blade is only half of a great book.
For years now best-selling Western authors have been taking stabs at telling stories in historical Japan or some analogue thereof — I.J. Parker, Lian Hearn, Laura Joh Rowland — but there weren’t a great many popular Japanese authors in translation to give us an idea of where all this came from. Keiichiro Ryu’s Blade grabbed my attention for that reason: like The Kouga Ninja Scrolls before it, here was a chance to see what the “real thing” was like. Doubly fascinating since Ryu had a terribly short career as a novelist — only five years — before an untimely death.
Blade is set in Yoshiwara, the courtesans’ quarters in the Japanese capitol of Edo in the 1600s. The whole notion of the “floating world” being a civilization unto itself has been explored quite a few times before — The Sea is Watching comes to mind as one example — but Blade takes the idea quite literally. The book details how Yoshiwara is in many ways a world unto itself, both because of the circumstances of its creation and the people who end up there.
Into this self-contained world comes Seiichiro, a student of the fabled Musashi Miyamoto. As if that wasn’t enough of a reason for him to be a hero-by-default, he’s also the illegitimate son of the now-retired Emperor, and his very existence threatens the balance of power between various factions (read: ninja) that compete behind the scenes. Seiichiro’s been sent there to set things into motion, and maybe set things a-right — even if he himself can’t see what needs to be done.
The first half of Blade is the best, where Seiichiro lands in trouble, then gets taken under the wing of an elder, Gensai, and taught firsthand how things work in Yoshiwara. Among his initiations: some time with one of the best courtesans in the whole of the country, Takao. There is an extended series of scenes where the two of them grow enamored of each other without speaking a word (and seal the affirmation in bed, as you might expect). It’s probably the best part of the book — it evokes not only the customs of the period but both of their passions, and it sets us up for even greater things to come.
Alas, everything after that crucial halfway mark is astonishingly aimless. Instead of using the relationship between Takao and Seiichiro as fuel for the story, we’re treated to just about everything else under the sun. Too many historical digressions that go on for pages at a time to explain what amounts to a proportionately small slice of the plot. Too many scenes where Seiichiro listens while Gensai tells him what’s what — a sure sign that the story has been constructed in entirely the wrong way. (At one point we’re treated to a series of historical flashbacks through Seiichiro’s unconscious, unleashed courtesy of a priestess who uses sex as a divining medium, no less.) And while the last few pages are touching in the right ways, they’re not enough to make up for everything that isn’t.
Part of the problem is that Ryu’s chosen storytelling technique — which involves interlarding great dollops of history and politics between small slivers of action and characterization — brings the story to an almost complete halt time and again. It’s frustrating, since so much of what’s brought up this way could easily have been cut down to a couple of chapters. Some of this material is evocative — I like the idea of being immersed in the setting though this kind of multifaceted approach — but as deployed here, it’s terribly clunky storytelling. It has the unfortunate side effect of removing us from all the goings-on, making us feel like spectators — or, worse, an audience at a lecture — instead of participants.
As I write this, behind me on the shelf is one of the single best examples of popular historical fiction from Japan, Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi. Despite it being nearly a thousand pages of very small type, I have read it twice now. It races along without ever feeling rushed, and its evocation of its period is transparent: there’s never a sense that the author needs to stop and digress about history so that we won’t feel left behind. The whole of Musashi is as good as the very best parts of Blade, which only makes me lament all the more how much better this could have been. What this book needed was an editor with as much ruthlessness for his job as Ryu’s voracious appetite for period history.