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Virtual Violence

The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa

by Yasunari Kawabata, translated from the Japanese by Alisa Freedman, with a foreword and afterword by Donald Richie and illustrations by Ota Saburo
University of California Press, 231 pp., $50.00; $17.95 (paper)


Asakusa, in 1929, had seen better days. Asakusa usually has. That is the elegiac charm of this district in the east of Tokyo, flanking the Sumida River, the scene of the newly translated novel by Kawabata Yasunari, written in the late 1920s. Since the late seventeenth century, a warren of streets just north of Asakusa, named Yoshiwara, had been a licensed brothel area, whose denizens, ranging from famous courtesans to cheap prostitutes, catered to townsmen, but also to samurai, who sometimes found it necessary to disguise their identities by wearing elaborate hats.1 Asakusa itself really came into its own as a hub of pleasure in the 1840s. By the late nineteenth century the grounds of Asakusa Park, with its lovely ponds and miniature gardens, and its Senso temple dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, were given over to all manner of entertainments: a Kabuki theater, jugglers, geisha houses, circus acts, photography booths, dancers, comic storytellers, performing monkeys, bars, restaurants, and archery stalls where young women were reputed to have offered a variety of services.

Asakusa’s wildest days are said to have been in the 1910s, after the Russo-Japanese War, when Russian girls, performing gypsy numbers in dance revues, known as “operas,” added an exotic tang to the Sixth District, where most of the theaters were. The main attraction was to show off women’s legs. Reviews featuring young women performing swordfights were designed for this purpose also. Some of the opera houses actually provided the real thing. An Italian named G.V. Rossi was brought over from London to stage operas at the grandly named Imperial Theater, only to find a scarcity of singers. In his production of The Magic Flute, the same singer had to play both Pamina and the Queen of the Night, with a stand-in on hand when the two had to appear in the same scene.2

The first movie houses in Japan also were in Asakusa, as was Tokyo’s first “skyscraper,” the Twelve-Story Tower, or Ryounkaku. Soon the silent movies, accompanied by splendid storytellers known as benshi, were even more popular than music halls or theater, and Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Bow became the stars of Asakusa. As is usually true of entertainment districts, even the best of them, Asakusa was marked by an ephemeral quality, by a sense of the fleetingness of all pleasure, which was perhaps part of its allure. But Asakusa, in the twentieth century, really did live on the edge; the entire quarter was almost totally destroyed twice: first in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which hit just as people were cooking their lunches, and incinerated the mostly wooden houses in a horrific firestorm; and again in the spring of 1945, when American B-29 bombers demolished much of the city and all of Asakusa, causing the deaths of between 60,000 and 70,000 people in a couple of nights.

After the 1923 earthquake, the famous park was a charred wasteland, the Twelve-Story Tower no more than a ruined stump, and the opera palaces were rubble. Only the Kannon temple survived. It was thought by some that the statue of a famous Kabuki actor striking a heroic pose had held off the approaching flames. (The temple did not survive the American bombs, however, and had to be reconstructed.) And yet, fleeting as its pleasures may have been, Asakusa could not stay down for long. The movie houses and opera halls were rebuilt, and the park, with its pickpockets, prostitutes, Kannon worshipers, dandies, and juvenile delinquents, sprang back to life. In 1929, the Casino Folies was opened, located on the second floor of an aquarium, next to an entomological museum, or Bug House, which had somehow survived the devastation of 1923.

The Casino Folies, named after the Folies Bergère in Paris, was not especially wild, although it was rumored—apparently without any basis in truth—that the dancing girls, sometimes in blond wigs, dropped their drawers on Friday evenings. But it spawned not only talented entertainers, some of whom later became movie stars, but great comedians too. The most famous was Enoken, who appears in Kurosawa’s 1945 film They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail. Everything that was raffish and fresh about Asakusa between the wars was exemplified by the Casino Folies, a symbol of the Japanese jazz age of “modern boys” (mobos) and modern girls (mogas). The cultural slogan of the time was ero, guro, nansensu, “erotic, grotesque, nonsense.” Kawabata Yasunari was one of the writers whose early work was infused by this spirit, and it was his book that made the Folies famous. He hung around Asakusa for three years, wandering the streets, talking to dancers and young gangsters, but mostly just walking and looking, and reported on what he saw in his extraordinary modernist novel, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, first published in 1930.

The novel is not so much about developing characters as about expressing a new sensibility, a new way of seeing and describing atmosphere: quick, fragmented, cutting from one scene to another, like editing a film, or assembling a collage, with a mixture of reportage, advertising slogans, lyrics from popular songs, fantasies, and historical anecdotes and legends. There is much ero, guro, nansensu there, related in the chatty tone of a congenial flaneur, telling stories about this place or that, and who did what where, while trolling the streets for new sensations. This fragmentary way of storytelling owes a great deal to European expressionism, or “Caligarism,” after the German movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. However, as Edward Seidensticker, quoted in Donald Richie’s excellent foreword, points out, it also owes much to Edo period stories.

Kawabata himself professed to hate his early experiment in modernist fiction and quickly went on to develop a very different, more classical style, but he still made an important contribution to the Japanese Roaring Twenties. Besides the novel, he also wrote the film script for Kinugasa Teinosuke’s expressionist masterpiece, A Page of Madness (1926). One of the most remarkable things about The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa is that it was serialized in a mainstream newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun, which is, as Donald Richie says, as though Ulysses had been picked up by the London Times. This testifies to the high-mindedness of the Japanese press—almost unthinkable in our age of Murdoch—but also to the willingness of the Japanese public to accept avant-garde literature in a popular newspaper; it probably helped that the avant-garde expressionism was mixed with accounts of Asakusa’s low life.

Mixing high and low is of course part of modernism. Like many artists in the 1920s, Kawabata was interested in detective fiction and Caligarism is often marked by a fascination with violent crime. The use of slang and the references to popular culture of the time must have made The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa extremely difficult to translate, and Alisa Freedman has done an superb job, even though the full flavor of the original can never be fully reproduced.

The narrator/flaneur introduces the reader to various characters, low-life types like Umekichi, who skins stray cats to sell their pelts, and his girlfriend Yumiko, who poisons an older lover on a riverboat by kissing him with arsenic, and Haruko, dressed in gold crepe, and Tangerine Oshin, “the heroine of every bad girl worth the name,” who had “done” 150 men by the time she was sixteen. These are the people who drift into the Scarlet Gang. But there are others, more of the guro than the ero variety: the man in the Asakusa fairground with a mouth in his belly, smoking through his stomach; or the female tramps who dress like men; or the children who clean public toilets because they love modern concrete. The narrator is only interested, he writes, in “lowly women.” The lowest kind of prostitutes are the teenagers, known as gokaiya, who sleep with rag-pickers and bums. Tangerine Oshin was one of them.

In true modernist fashion, it is never clear to what extent these people are meant to be real, or pure figments of the narrator’s imagination. In fact, the narrator is the first to point out the fictional quality of his story. Artifice is the point. Yumiko, after disappearing from the story for a long stretch, returns near the end of the novel as a hair oil seller. Selling oil, in Japanese, means fibbing, making up a story. Yumiko and the narrator discuss how the story should go on. The writer compares his story to a boat, like the boat on which Yumiko entertained her lover before murdering him, meandering, without a plotted course. This is where traditional Japanese storytelling meets modernism. Both share this quality.

None of the characters in Kawabata’s novel has the depth of such modernist antiheroes as Franz Biberkopf in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or Joyce’s Bloom. Compared to them Yumiko and the others are flimsy as rice paper. It is in conveying atmosphere that Kawabata, like so many Japanese literary flaneurs, excels. Here is the first sentence of Chapter Four:

While she did her Spanish number (and I did not make this up—this is a true story), I clearly saw that the dancer on stage carried on her biceps needle marks from a recent injection, though a small piece of adhesive tape had been stuck on top. In the grounds of the Sensåøo Temple at around two in the morning, sixteen or seventeen wild dogs let out a terrific howl as they all rush after a single cat. That’s what Asakusa is all about. You come to sniff out the scent of a crime.

Or this, about a character the writer is thinking of including in his story:

Another one I would add, a truly sad foreigner, was the leader of the water circus troupe that came from America that year. Someone put up a hundred-foot ladder on the burnt-out ruins of the Azuma Theater, and the troupe leader jumped from the top into a small pond. There was a large woman who jumped from fifty feet like a seagull, and she really did look like one, too. Beautiful.

Casual, quickly noted in passing, a little sexy, absurd: ero, guro, nansensu. This spirit was all but snuffed out by the late 1930s, when militarism suppressed everything frivolous and pleasurable. And then the bombs finished Asakusa off entirely. Materially at least. For once again, vitality would not be denied. Donald Richie, as a young American with the Allied occupation, met Kawabata in Asakusa in 1947. Neither spoke the other’s language. They climbed up the old Subway Tower building and surveyed the wreckage. Richie writes in his afterword:

This had been Asakusa. Around the great temple of the Kannon, now a blackened, empty square, had grown…places where, I had read, the all-girl opera sang and kicked, where the tattooed gamblers met and bet, where trained dogs walked on their hind legs and Japan’s fattest lady sat in state.

Now, two years after all this had gone up in flames…the empty squares were again turning into lanes as tents, reed lean-tos, a few frame buildings began appearing. Girls in wedgies were sitting in front of new tearooms, but I saw no sign of the world’s fattest lady. Perhaps she had bubbled away in the fire.

  1. 1

    The Yoshiwara still exists in name, though it has been sadly reduced to a few streets of tawdry massage parlors, knows as “soaplands,” after the Turkish embassy protested against their earlier designation as Torukos, or Turkish baths.

  2. 2

    For a loving description of those days, see Edward Seidensticker, Low City, High City (Harvard University Press, 1991).

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