A World Turned Upside Down, or Rakuten’s Elliptical Ambivalence

In the spirit of translative promiscuity, letting no one way of doing things become an ossified norm, I thought this week I might make use of a selection of translated single page manga from Rakuten’s oeuvre to illustrate an argument in that way that used to be my weekly habit not so long ago.

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Volume 9 of Rakuten’s Zenshū or “complete works,” which, irony of ironies, cannot be said to be complete in any useful sense of that word, takes as its theme the “hundred phases of women’s ero guro,” meaning the erotic grotesque nonsense that was the primary aesthetic of Japanese modernism.  Given what goes by ero guro nowadays, the manga of Maruo Suehiro, for instance, one might find the occasional naked female figure or absurd story of an axe-wielding niece to be rather tame by comparison, but in the context of a period in Japanese history when obscenity was strictly monitored and censorship of sexually explicit material was much more pervasive, such “oddities” might be on the tamer side but still well within what might be considered sexy or strange.  Add to that how Rakuten rarely engages with this aesthetic without a healthy dose of irony or satire, and you have something that requires time and no small amount of squinting to recognize as what it proclaims itself to be.

Lest we forget, this was a historical period in which certain issues of the literary journal Myōjō were officially censored, solely because they contained images of nude female figures, and self-righteous prudes would insist on covering nude statues.  In one particularly salient Tokyo Puck [comic] from 1909 titled (in English) “Public Morals Censor” depicts one rather small nude figure in a newspaper blown up in the censor’s imagination to occupy the entire page.  The caption reads, “[y]ou publish the least bit of naked figure picture [sic] and he pounces on you.  He is a scourage [sic] to a publication like Puck.”  The implicit charge is one commonly leveled against puritans of every cast, that their obsession with obscenity stems directly from the censors’ own prurient predilections.

In this context, even Rakuten’s modest sally into the world of “obscenity” would be considered quite progressive.  Well… maybe it would be.  It’s hard to tell with Rakuten just where he falls, if anywhere, on a liberal/conservative spectrum.  After all, the “liberal” sexual mores of the Edo period were only ever really accorded to men, and the pleasure quarters of Edo and Kyoto were at best complicit in and at worst at the beck and call of a patriarchal order that quite literally confined women to their homes and only ever allowed women of respectable mien out with an escort.  For the poor and underclasses, the situation was somewhat better in that regard, but in the precariat of medieval Japan, girls were generally sold into or simply given up to sex work by families who, for whatever reason, regarded them as undesirable.  But Rakuten is also not your classic conservative hypocrite, advocating conservative mores in public while indulging his liberated whims in private.  His ethic-as-aesthetic could best be characterized as ambivalent.

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Zenshū vol. 9 p. 102

I have argued before that Rakuten, in general, does not try to resolve what otherwise might be considered contradictory claims regarding modern Japanese femininity.  In the same breath, or page rather, he can both ridicule and valorize two types of women that popular discourse regards as anathema to each other.  There is reason to see that hard and fast distinction as concealing an ambivalence or gross overlap that Rakuten wishes to expose.  After all, Yosano Akiko was capable of writing into her poetry an open and expressive sensuality that got her in hot water with the censorious prudes and do so in the context of her own, strictly monogamous and matronly sexual existence, a fact which drew no small degree of side eye from contemporary feminists.  Part of what makes even a brief snippet of text, as with the Rakuten [comic] above, so difficult to translate is the need to keep open this variety of seemingly contradictory implications without erasing the most basic, “surface” sense of what is being said.

In the title to “Woman Obsessed with Appearances” (Kyoei ni torawaretaru onna), this ambivalence manifests in no less than two places.  Kyoei could be rendered more simply as “vanity” or, to literally capture the meaning of the kanji 虚栄, as “vainglory,” but would miss the implications of the word as lying in a mismatch between perception and reality.  Also, it’s hard to capture in English or even modern Japanese the inherent ambivalence in the classical verbal affix -taru, which can be used to indicate either a progressive or perfective tense.  The nominal figure modified by this verb, “woman,” could either be “already entirely seized with vanity” (perfective) or “in the process of being seized with vanity” (progressive).  It is also not clear who is meant to be the woman “seized,” since there are at least two female figures in this piece who could qualify as the onna.  To be sure, the natural response would be to look to the figure in the foreground for her vainglorious obsession, but the caption instructs us to look past easy conceits and reorient our perceptions by turning the image upside down.

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The rather cryptic ending, which we might render more literally as “thoughts/feelings are not something that passes beyond the center,” also spreads implications out in several directions.  Nakaba ni sugiru (“passes the center”) reconstructs a common expression, nakaba-sugi, that means something like “in the latter half.”  Thoughts lie not in the latter half, as another alternative rendering might go, because the words on the page that express the [comic’s] only “thoughts” do not, in terms of layout, pass into the bottom, the “latter” half of the page.  One might object, then, to my parsing the caption into two halves and doing in translation what the original explicitly says cannot be the case.  This is, I should note, a willful contradiction of my own invention meant to draw attention to a further enigma that this odd final claim engenders.

The positioning of my translated bit is key to understanding the work I mean for it to do.  Consider how easy it is to overlook the couple walking away in the background, and yet they appear to represent the object of the foregrounded woman’s “obsession” by way of her gaze.  I placed the text where I did, because it makes it appear as if the woman of the “reflected illusion” is staring at it just as the woman of the upper half appears to be staring at the distant couple.  The point is to, by way of the translated text, create a more explicit kind of symmetry that the Japanese only implies by way of enforced reorientation, a symmetry which challenges any easy assumptions about who or what is the illusion reflected “below” or even who is the object of the caption’s commands.  By reorienting the image, the illusion could just as easily be the couple as the woman among the water lilies in the original orientation of the page.  What this [comic] performs is a kind of necessary conceptual disconnect nevertheless bound through a single, reversible body.  This then hopefully explains my somewhat interpolated wording: thoughts cannot “get past” because they cannot overcome their obsession but they also cannot get past the middle in terms of the page’s layout.  Though “connected” these women and their surface obsessions never quite link up.

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ibid., p. 17

The disconnect between liberal and conservative mores in a single “body” is arguably easier to see, though somewhat less interesting, in Rakuten’s “Model Disposition.”  The nude model at center right embodies something like the liberated sexuality in a conservative milieu that I identify in Yosano Akiko above, though as an object of ridicule rather than scorn directed from either end of the political spectrum.  I would argue that what she depicts is something altogether different from the poet.  Rakuten, as an imperfect but good enough speaker of English, certainly would have been aware of the double entendre in the word moderu (“model” transliterated), both as a model whose disposition the art students might sketch but also model in that she serves as something of a representative type, in this case of a certain ambivalence regarding sexual modesty.  Her ambivalence also lies in the way Rakuten never quite tells us how we ought to regard her.  She is presented as a curiosity about whom he sets the terms of inquiry–“isn’t it odd how the very woman who would let herself be sketched in the nude…”–without ever bringing the matter to a close.

As I noted previously in discussing Ippei’s fascination with and representation of women, the “new woman” was an object of nigh anthropological interest in Japanese public discourse of the early 20th century.  The late Miriam Silverberg has written the definitive book on this fascination, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, so I won’t try to explain the phenomenon at any great length, except to say that Rakuten weds this broader societal interest to a [comic] aesthetic that at once represents the Zeitgeist but also picks at its edges.  What are hard and fast distinctions in that public discourse become, in Rakuten’s work, a mere jumping off point for more multifaceted considerations of what Japanese society was becoming in light of what it had been and in many ways still was.  It is entirely possible that it was Rakuten’s implicit recognition of the numerous vectors one might venture upon that led him to limiting his [comic] expressions to setting the terms of discussion rather than making assertions.

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Of course, ridicule bears with it a certain weak assertion, that one ought not take the world or oneself too seriously, an assertion that, taken to an extreme, might come off as rank, unrelenting cynicism.  But I don’t believe Rakuten to be a cynic; the stakes are simply not that high in his work.  What we see in his representations of women are not the strident send ups of politicians and risible bourgeois stereotypes of much of his other work–in fact, one could argue that men get it much worse in his manga than women do.  Nevertheless, in his women, we see how a Japanese society still undergoing the process of modernization compels them to be much more and sometimes a little less than the conservative ideal of “good wives and mothers.”  Their faults are typically minor foibles set against the backdrop of otherwise noble sentiments.

Which is to say, Rakuten may want you to chuckle at these women, but he does not seem to want us to despise or scorn them.  Rakuten was never shy about venting his editorial whims on the pages of Tokyo Puck, yet women’s education, a matter of great controversy at the time, was never denounced therein.  The closest he comes to such a critique is to suggest that the educated woman might neglect her domestic duties, a suggestion whose modicum of force is immediately undercut by holding up the excessively doting housewife to equal ridicule.  Moreover, class concerns are never absent from Rakuten’s work, and the pressures on working women to provide for their families would certain temper any critique of hypocrisy concerning a teacher who lectures young girls as to the dangers of neglecting her domestic duties all the while making her own husband pick up the slack at home.

It might be tempting to read this last example as anti-feminist, but again I feel the need to draw your attention to how the [comic] implicates rather than says outright.  It literally ends with an ellipsis and a question mark.  Rakuten’s ambivalence is elliptical, then, as I say in the title to today’s post, because it functions as a kind of wide spread trailing off just when we get to the denouement.  It is all context without resolution: whereas the new women cannot see past her own obsession with appearances nor overcome her feigned modesty nor recognize how the object of her education is the subject of her apprehension… and then nothing.  No “be it resolved” or “therefore,” which means the implications say as much about ourselves as readers of these texts as they do about Rakuten’s cultural politics.  If you see in the bottom half of the [comic] above a woman who needs to get herself back to the kitchen, then it may just mean you’re a sexist asshole.  But if you also see a woman overwhelmed by a topsy turvy world whose numerous demands pull her in too many directions at once, then you may just be starting to see what Rakuten is driving at…

But only starting to…

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