Kyoji Shirai: Shinsen-gumi

Heibonsha: the first volume of the complete set of public romacnes (Kyoji Shirai)

The current available version of Shinsen-gumi published by Kodansha.

Let me introduce today another great work of Kyoji Shirai, namely “Shinsen-gumi”.
Shinsen-gumi was serialized from 1924 through 1925 on a weekly magazine “Sunday Mainichi”. Sunday Mainichi was published by Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd as the first weekly magazine in Japan. As the name shows, the magazine was first published as a Sunday issue of Mainichi newspaper. Since the distinction between normal newspaper and this weekly magazine was not clear for many readers, the number of prints remained stagnant in the early stage. The publisher then tried to make the contents of this weekly magazine clearly different from daily newspapers and it placed Kyoji’s new romance on the top of the magazine. It was a kind of gamble for the publisher, but very interesting stories of Kyoji’s novel attracted many new readers and the financial status of the magazine was thoroughly stabilized.
Another important topic related to this romance is that it was put in the first volume of the Heibonsha’s complete set of public romances, to which Kyoji committed himself very much. The fact that 330 thousands copies were sold for the first volume brought a big success to this set.
Shinsen-gumi was a group of Samurai warriors who guarded Kyoto under the authority of the Tokugawa Shogun regime from around 1863 through 1867. Many members of Shinsen-gumi took rather violent and brutal ways to guard Kyoto and killed many pro-Imperialists by their Japanese swords. Shinsen-gumi was one of the most favored topics for many novelists of public romance at that time.
Kyoji, however, did not write an usual story related to Shinsen-gumi. The story of the romance was mostly of battles between three different schools of spinning tops. Spinning tops were not only toys for kids but also a genre of street performance in Japan. A school of spinning tops here means combination of street performers and meister-level artisans. The first battle was between Orinosuke of Tajimaryu school and Monbee of Kinmonryu school. In this battle, two beautiful ladies were the prize of the battle, and the lady of the lost side had to be gifted to a foreign merchant. The second battle was between Orinosuke and Inosuke of Fushimiryu in Kyoto. In the second battle, both participants tried to get the heart of a lady.
These battels of spinning tops described in this romance were technically very deep and enthusiastic. For example, the both sides selected very special types of wood for their tops and the battle started from guessing which type of wood the counterpart selected. Orinosuke used one very special wood growing on the Nokogiri-yama mountain in Chiba, while Monbee selected one growing on Ontake mountain in Nagano. The Monbee’s top could generate strange wind while it spins trying to weaken the rotation of the counterpart’s top. The Orinosuke’s top, however, was not affected by the wind from the Monbee’s top, since he used a special wood growing on Nokogiri-yama mountain. (It means that Monbee failed to presume the type of wood used for the Orinosuke’s top). This kind of “professional” battles between two craft-persons attracted the then readers much and made them excited.
On the contrary to the battles of tops, Shinsen-gumi plays only in the background of the stories. Orinosuke witnessed the famous Ikedaya incident in which Shisen-gumi killed many famous pro-Imperialists. Kyoji developed a new way of fights between appearing characters in a romance other than sword battles (Chambara). This can be compared to the fact that he adopted a battle by debates in Fuji ni tatsu Kage.
The impression of this romance to the readers was tremendous and people requested Kyoji to write another romance of this type and it distressed Kyoji later for a long period, since he was thinking that he was always trying to change his styles and did not want to stay at the same stage.

Bangaku no Issho (The life of Bangaku) by Kyoji Shirai

Let me introduce today one of the most impressive novels of Kyoji Shirai: Bangaku no Issho (The life of Bangaku, “盤嶽の一生”). This novel is a collection of short stories featuring Bangaku that Kyoji wrote for several magazines from 1932 to 1935.

As the title shows, this novel describes the life of Bangaku Ajigawa (“阿地川盤嶽”), a lone wolf Samurai worrier, who loves rightness and always try to find it and is eventually betrayed. He was born in Bushu (the curent Saitama-Tokyo-Kanagawa area) and lost his father at 12 years old and his mother at 14. After the death of his parents, he was raised by his uncle, but because the daughter of his uncle (namely his cousin) disliked him much, he left his uncle’s house when he became an adult. Since his skill of swordplay reached the expert level when he was 26 years old, his master gave him a noted sword named Heki Mitsuhira (“日置光平”) .

As I wrote in my introduction of Kyoji Shirai’s life, Kyoji inherited the sense of justice from his father who was a policeman when he was born. Bangaku can be considered to be an alter ego of Kyoji. All Christians know the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” (Mattew 5.6, KJV). Bangaku is truly one of those who do hunger and thirst after righteousness. If he were a Christian, he might have been filled, but he was not.

Repeated stories of Bangaku that he expects righteousness and he is finally betrayed and disappointed are funny but sad at the same time. For example, when he was living in a slum of the Edo city, he sympathized with miserable workers of a match factory. Since he had some scientific knowledge, he tried to construct an automated machine of match production in order to reduce the heavy work of the workers. When the machine was completed, however, the owner of the factory fired many workers because he can save them by the power of the machine. If we see another example, Bangaku tried once a fortune-telling play by throwing some unglazed dishes (fortune is judged by how dishes broke) because he thought that such thing can be completely coincidental and no human malicious intention is included. The truth was, however, the fortune-teller was preparing several patterns of broken dishes in advance and was selecting the results according to the economical status of the customer.

Bangaku gradually lost any expectation for adults and started to hope for young people. But some young guys betrayed him bitterly and then he started to hope for children, or finally for babies. All his trials were not satisfactory at all.

These stories had not been finished. IMHO, the author, Kyoji, could not find out an appropriate end for these stories, or he might have thought that Bangaku, a kind of dreamer, should wander in the limbo between expectation and disappointment eternally.

This novel was picturized twice and made to a series of TV drama also twice.
The first movie was taken by Sadao Yamanaka in 1933. Sadao Yamanaka was a gifted movie director but died as a soldier in China at the age just 29. While Kyoji Shirai was not satisfied with most movies based on his stories, he evaluated the talent of Sadao Yamanaka very highly. Although the film itself was lost by war, there was a legendary scene in the movie where some thieves of watermelon (Bangaku was having his eyes on a watermelon field in the night) act like rugby players passing a watermelon from one to another. Kon Ichikawa, a Japanese movie director who picturized the first Tokyo Olympic in 1964, watched this movie of Bangaku when he was a child, and he scripted for the TV drama of Bangaku broadcasted in 2002. Bangaku was played by Koji Yakusho (“役所広司”).

Public romance in Japan (7) – Kyoji Shirai’s “Fuji ni tatsu kage”

Let me introduce today Kyoji Shirai’s best romance, “Fuji ni tatsu kage” (“富士に立つ影”, a shadow standing on Mr. Fuji). This romance is not only his best work, but also a big milestone in the history of public romance, or even in all Japanese literature, I should say. The three greatest works in public romance are, “Dai Bosatsu Touge”, “Musashi” (“宮本武蔵”) of Eiji Yoshikawa (“”吉川英治”), and this work.

This romance was serialized in the newspaper “Hochi” (“報知新聞”) from July 1924 through July 1927, for more than 1,000 times. (Novels serialized in newspapers are still popular in Japan, but the average period of continuance is just around a half year.) There are ten volumes (also chapters) in Japanese paper book style, as you can see in the photo. The names of ten parts are, 1. Susono-hen (Chapter of the plain at the foot of Mt. Fuji), 2. Edo-hen (Chapter of Edo city), 3. Shujinko-hen (Chapter of the central character), 4. Shinto-hen (Chapter of a new battle), 5. Shinkyoku-hen (Chapter of Divine Comedy), 6. Kirai-hen (Chapter of coming back to Mt. Fuji), 7. Unmei-hen (Chapter of destiny), 8. Sondai-hen (Chapter of grandsons’ generation), 9. Bakumatsu-hen (Chapter of the end of Edo period), and 10. Meiji-hen (Chapter of Meiji period). The romance was sold for more than 3 million copies.

Let me introduce now basic story of this romance. To make a long story (literally) short, this romance describes 68 years’ (1805 – 1873) battles between two families of castle builders, during three generations, namely fathers, sons, and grandsons. The author said that he described “war and peace” based on humanity. The story starts when Tokugawa shogunal government planned to build a new castle in the plain at the foot of Mt. Fuji for the training of their subordinate soldiers in western style. The government summoned two engineers, namely Kikutaro Sato (“佐藤菊太郎”), as a representative of Sanshi-ryu (“賛四流”) school of castle building, and Hakuten Kumaki (“熊木伯典”), as one of Sekishin-ryu (“赤針流”), another dominant school of castle building. The government tries to determine the chief designer of the new castle by the competition between two schools. Until this work, most public romance used fighting by Japanese swords (Chambara) to solve the conflict between two parties. This work, however, adopted debates between two engineers, which was, and still is, a brand-new style. Kikutaro is a young, talented, and honest guy. Hakuten, an older guy, on the other hand, plays very dirty. Most readers expected the victory of Kikutaro, a white-hat, but the author betrays the readers’ expectation, which is very rare in public romance.

The actual hero of this romance appears at first only from the chapter three. The hero, Kimitaro Kumami (“熊木公太郎”) is the son of Hakuten, a quite evil guy. The son, however, is completely different from his father. He is quite honest, decent, always trying to protect the weak, and at the same time a little bit foolish. A critic compared him with Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot”. Both of them are, so to say, holy idiots. This character is quite new and different from the cruel, nihilistic character of “Ryunosuke Tsukue” in “Dai Bosatsu Touge”. This hero brought the romance into a big success, because many readers really loved the character of Kimitaro. In parallel to Kimitaro, Heinosuke Sato (“佐藤兵之助”), the son of Kikutaro, is described as a very smart, bureaucratic type, but rather cruel guy. This is quite a surprising twist that the good side and the evil side turn over in the second generation.

One English teacher at Eigox told me when I introduced this romance to him that this romance sounds similar as Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, which also describes the battles between two families, namely between the Atreides and the Harkonnens. In Dune, however, the Harkonnes are always described as the evil side. In Fuji ni tatsu kage, we cannot simply say that one side is good and the other is bad, and do not know until the end of the story how the battles between two families are settled. There is also a “Romeo and Juliet” type affair between the two families, which makes the story more complex and attractive. In such viewpoints, this romance goes far beyond the realm of usual public romance. Kyoji Shirai aimed at such a high-level literature even the genre was classified as public romance, which was usually considered as vulgar literature.

It is absolutely impossible to describe all charm of this romance here. I strongly hope that this novel will be translated into English for foreign readers someday.

Public romance in Japan (6) — The life of Kyoji Shirai and his works (2)

Kyoji Shirai in 1970, when he was still serializing “Priester Tenkai” in a Buddhism magazine, at age 80.

In 1925, he organized a party of public romance writers called “Niju-ichi-nichi-kai”, as I introduced in my fourth article. Soon after that, he collaborated with Heibonsha (“平凡社”), a publisher which was famous for the publication of an encyclopedia, in planning a new complete set of public romance dubbed “Gendai Taishu Bungaku Zenshu” (“現代大衆文学全集”, a complete set of modern popular literature), which was finally published in 40 volumes. (Later another 20 volumes were added, so the total volumes were 60.) The first issue (the volume one) was Kyoji’s “Shinsen-gumi” (“新撰組”), and around 330 thousand copies were sold. This contributed to the success of the set and appealed at the same time popularity of public romance. (At that time, since the sales profit of the first volume was used to publish the following volumes, the success of the first volume was quite important.) The royalties of this publication helped many public romance novelists economically. Among them, especially, Rampo Edogawa is alleged that he could build a new house by the reward of this set.
In 1935, Kan Kikuchi (“菊池寛”), the president of Bungei Shunju-sha (“文芸春秋社”), set up a literary award for public romance, named “Naoki prize” (“直木賞”) and Kyoji became one of the first judges and had continued that role until 1942.
Some of his other important works before the end of World War II were “Sokoku wa izuko he” (“祖国は何処へ”), which was his second quite long story, “Sango Jutaro” (“珊瑚重太郎”), or “Bangaku no issho” (“盤嶽の一生”, the life of Bangaku). The last one was picturized by Sadao Yamanaka (“山中貞雄”), who is famous for his last film Humanity and Paper balloon (“人情紙風船”), in 1933. Although the film was unfortunately lost by the war, Kon Ichikawa (“市川崑”), another famous movie director in Japan who picturized the first Tokyo Olympic, watched this movie and was very impressed when he was a kid, and he directed the TV drama of this novel in 2002.
The period after World War II was not a good time for Kyoji. For one thing, public romance was much damaged by the policy of GHQ (General Headquarters of the Allied Forces), which occupied Japan from 1945 through 1952, to prohibit expression to praise traditional morals in Japan, alleging that such morals fueled the Japanese ante bellum militarism. Secondary, people required simpler, much vulgarer novels which handle mostly sex-related matters after the end of the war. Not to mention Kyoji, most of other novelists of public romance suffered as well from these circumstances. They had to wait the revival of public romance in 1960’s. Kyoji, however, under such unfavorable conditions, has never stopped to release his novels. In 1970, when he was 80 years old, he was still serializing “Kokui Saisho Tenkai Sojo” (“黒衣宰相 天海僧正”, Priester Tenkai, a chancellor with black attire) in a Buddhism magazine named “Dai horin” (“大法輪”). Examples of his other important works after the war are, “Kirigakure Emaki” (“霧隠繪巻”), “Yukimaro Ippon Gatana” (“雪麿一本刀”), or “Kuni wo aisu saredo Onna mo” (“国を愛すされど女も”), etc.
Kyoji died in1980, at age 90 at his daughter’s home in Ibaraki prefecture.
None of his works has been ever translated into foreign languages, regretfully to say. Around in 1928, however, Yale University in the USA contacted Kyoji asking to allow it the right of an English translation of “Fuji ni tatsu kage”. The university asked Kyoji to offer a digest version at around 40% length and he accepted that condition. He could not offer a digest version because of his busyness and the translation was not done accordingly, to our regret.