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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.