Saturday, July 6, 2013

Reading Shintaro Ishihara's Season of the Sun

Last year a story in The Japan Times asked "Is Shintaro Ishihara The Most Dangerous Man in Japan?"

Ishihara is a far-right Japanese politician, first elected to the House of Representatives in 1968, who has at various points in his parliamentary career held the posts of Director-General of the Environment Agency and Minister of Transport. He resigned his seat in 1995 (interestingly, just after the attack on the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, with which he has reportedly been associated), but was elected Governor of Tokyo in 1999, and held that job until 2012, when he was returned to the House of Representatives.

During his time in politics Ishihara has been notorious for his long record of making inflammatory, ultranationalist statements, such as calling the Rape of Nanking a fiction, defending the colonization of Korea, and branding the 2011 earthquake and tsunami "punishment from heaven" for the nation's "egoism."1 He helped to provoke the recent row between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands with his proposal that the Tokyo Governorate buy the islands. He is also a hard-line culture warrior who has heaped endless racist abuse on immigrants and foreigners of all kinds, and on the country's pop culture and its fans, claiming that otaku have "warped DNA."

It was consequently a great surprise to find that Ishihara was not just a celebrated novelist (we don't often see those in politics in the States), but that he had been a prominent figure in the country's postwar youth culture, at once symbol and influence after publishing the novel Taiyo no Kisetsu--Season of the Sun in English. My curiosity piqued, I hunted down a translation, which took some doing because the book was published in the English-speaking world as Season of Violence, and is collected with two other stories by Ishihara ("The Punishment Room," "The Yacht and the Boy").

The three of them combined come to about a hundred and fifty pages in length--Ishihara's novel in fact just a novelette according to the usual standard.2

Season of the Sun (I will use the usual, literal translation of the title) is the story of a college athlete named Tatsuya who divides his time between boxing, petty criminality and the pursuit of sex, which he finds about as often and easily as James Bond once did. His relationship with Eiko proves more complex, however. A young woman who has been similarly cavalier and similarly callous toward her lovers, she proves a greater than usual challenge for Tatsuya. However, after the two end up having sex on his boat, and each realized they are in love with the other, Eiko softens toward Tatsuya--while Tatsuya becomes increasingly sadistic. This hits its low point in his "selling" Eiko to his brother for five thousand yen (about a hundred and twenty-five dollars in today's terms)--taking the money to walk away so that his brother can try to seduce her. Eiko, however, is uninterested in Tatsuya's brother, pays him back his money, and keeps after Tatsuya, even as he sells her again and again. By that point it is apparent that she is pregnant with his child, and Eiko informs Tatsuya of the fact. He rejects her and the baby, which drives Eiko to get an abortion, during which she dies--after which Tatsuya sees in her death the loss of "his favorite toy," and Eiko's "supreme challenge" to him.

This story of bed-hopping, Porky's-style humor (the "shoji screen scene" anticipates that film's most famous gag by a generation), girlfriend-selling and abortion was, we are given to understand, taboo-breaking at the time, but to say that it is a substantial piece of fiction would be something else altogether.3 Ishihara's characters never convince on the level of personal psychology. And the connection between his characters' behavior and the larger societal context on which Ishihara so clearly wishes to comment is even more problematic. Instead of revealing that relationship through the personal histories and inner lives of his characters (if only through the straightforward telling to which writers must often resort), he merely insists on the existence of that connection in the frequent passages in which he stops telling the story and instead tells the reader what to make of it--an unintentional but still palpable admission of inability to properly support, explain or even just depict those things to which he refers. (Thus does it go with such things as his telling the reader that Eiko's promiscuity is a response to her earlier loss of beloved male acquaintances.)

And so in the end Season of the Sun is not a deep and incisive work of literature about the struggles of youth in the confusing post-war world in which so much appeared discredited, but a sensationalistic melodrama cashing in on the 1950s-era hysteria about "out-of-control kids" that was pervasive across the industrialized world at that time, complete with a tragic ending fitting perfectly into the "often licentious but always Puritanical" mold of popular entertainment.4 The sort of thing that, far from illuminating its issue, frightens parents, sets the tongues of the stupider "moralists" wagging, and excites real-life adolescents precisely because they lead much more circumscribed lives than the hype claims.5

In all that, Ishihara the novelist seems to be of a piece with Ishihara the politician, a shallow, muddled thinker and professional provocateur who got ahead by pushing people's buttons, especially the buttons of the sort of people who respond to the eternal lament of "THESE KIDZ TODAY!"6 He got so far ahead, in fact, that he ended up a figure of international standing whose words have geopolitical consequences--and the world is worse off for it.

1. For the real story of who was at fault in that disaster, I suggest you check out Greg Palast's Vulture's Picnic (reviewed here).
2. The bibliographical data is as follows: Ishihara, Shintaro, Season of Violence, trans. John G. Mills, Toshie Takahama, Ken Tremayne (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., 1966).
3. Indeed, it seems that many contemporary Japanese critics did not regard Ishihara's self-styled "novels of ideas" as literature.
4. The 1966 Charles E. Tuttle edition certainly played up the sensationalist aspect of the works. The translation of "Season of the Sun" as "Season of Violence" aside, the tagline on the book's cover reads "Prize-winning stories of Japan's infamous SUN TRIBE--teen-agers who reject the morals of the past in favor of women, money and violence!", and the translators' introduction begins with the sentence "The stories in this collection of translated works are, in a word, shocking" as it goes on to explain just how representative the volume's contents supposedly are of the lives of Japanese youth.
5. As film critic Michael Raine notes, that "frustrated young people" identified with Ishihara's characters took "quite a feat of imagination" on their part, "considering that Japanese youth were paid one-tenth what their American counterparts were and could only dream of nightclubs, motorboats, and villas by the sea." Likewise, they could only dream of the wildly implausible autonomy and leisure enjoyed by Tatsuya and company (parents, like all other authority figures, are either coddling or absent, and no student ever seems to study or go to class, while beating up people who anger them without any repercussions--even dad getting a sock in the gut and letting it go).
6. The irony, of course, is the extent to which Ishihara has gone on contributing to that culture, not only with his sensationalist fiction, but its various spin-offs. All by itself Season of the Sun made him a success across the media spectrum, with a 1956 film version, two television versions (a 1986 episode in the anthology Animated Classics of Japanese Literature and 2002 live-action miniseries), and even a 2011 video game (of the eroge genre). He may abuse the otaku, but clearly is happy to take their money.

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