(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Life of an Amorous Man is an episodic account of the life of a seventeenth century Japanese adventurer who explores the pleasures of the flesh. It follows the wanderings of Yonosuke (Man of the World) from his childhood, when he reveals at age seven a gift “for sensual things,” through his profligate, unregenerate youth and comfortable, sophisticated, even celebrated, manhood to his final voyage in search of the legendary “isle of Nogo.” The driving passion of Yonosuke’s life is the pursuit of sensual pleasure, which he finds primarily, but not exclusively, in the company of tayu, the courtesans in entertainment houses who were the prototypes of geishas. The book details Yonosuke’s liaisons with countless women as he pursues some sort of final sensual fulfillment on trips back and forth across the island of Japan, through the gutters of this primitive world and into its most stately pleasure domes. The Life of an Amorous Man is a remarkable document not for its depiction of a man driven by the pursuit of pleasure but for its revelation of the lives of the common people during the early years of the Tokugawa period and, particularly, for its vivid portraits of women.

The novel is divided into two parts, each of which chronicles roughly half of Yonosuke’s life. His extreme sensitivity to “sensual nuances or suggestions” is in part a matter of heritage, for his father was a man of considerable wealth who spent many years pursuing “the charms of beautiful women and the pleasures of wine,” and his mother was a celebrated courtesan before her marriage. Yonosuke writes love notes, courts women and girls, and forms definite opinions about the inseparability of proper etiquette and pleasure even before he reaches puberty. He makes his transition to manhood in the arms of a youth bound into service as a male whore, and soon Yonosuke is receiving advice from an elderly confidant about seduction and the management of illicit affairs. From this point forward, the novel consists of one brief chapter after another dealing with Yonosuke’s encounters with women or men of the “gay world,” a polite name for the world of harlots, courtesans, innkeepers, entertainers, and pleasure houses. His father tolerates his philandering as long as Yonosuke makes some effort to keep one foot in the respectable world of business. Yet, “profligate and intractable, he [becomes]an unregenerate playboy” whose governing thought is: “Tomorrow will be tomorrow, so why not spend the evening as if this were my last night upon earth?” By the time he is nineteen, Yonosuke is disowned by his father and is physically exhausted and debilitated by constant dissipation.

For a while, he repents his dissolute ways and becomes a monk, but after a superficial questioning and dismissal of the “promised hereafter,” he sells the “coral beads of his rosary” and turns again to “the life of the flesh.” He supports himself in a variety of ways, from being the “business master” of young, itinerant homosexual whores to selling “whalebone ear scratchers” to working as a wandering...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)