(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

The author of a highly praised modern translation of The Tale of Genji in addition to many novels and short stories, Fumiko Enchi is perhaps Japan’s most renowned woman author, although she is relatively unknown outside her country. Now, with Juliet Winters Carpenter’s admirable translation of Masks (published in Japan in 1958 as Omna-men), English-speaking audiences will at last have an opportunity to assess the artistry of Enchi’s fiction. They will discover that she is a dramatic, sensual, demanding, and rewarding author; that contemporary Eastern fiction has many unexpected correspondences with Western fiction; and that feminism has long been an issue in Japanese literature.

Like most Japanese art, Masks draws upon a rich, enduring tradition. Figuring most prominently are The Tale of Genji, an early eleventh century novel focusing on the civilized splendors of court life and the amorous adventures of Prince Genji, and No dramas, symbolic dramas developed during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries noted for their use of masks. Fumiko Enchi employs especially one episode from The Tale of Genji, concerning the fading love of Genji for the Rokuj lady, whose inability to surrender her spirit drives him from her. Later, her possessive jealousy compels her to murder Genji’s wife. The murder, however, is not committed by Rokuj’s person but by her evil spirit. The Rokuj lady’s violent passion struck a responsive chord in No dramatists, whose artistic aim was to depict some primary human relation or emotion such as maternal grief for a dead child, the anguish of unrequited love, or the inability of a ghost to leave the scene of its sin. In the No tradition, where characters are the embodiments of ideas and where men always act women’s roles, only female spirits wear masks. Hence, Enchi’s title refers to those masks and their emotional power. Using these and other complex cultural and aesthetic allusions, Enchi skillfully creates a dramatic portrait of a woman who, thwarted by custom and betrayed by love, exacts a cruel revenge upon apparently innocent characters.

Thirty years before the action of Masks begins, nineteen-year-old Mieko marries into the old and powerful Togan family. Generations of Togan men have enjoyed the custom of maintaining a mistress along with their wives, and Mieko’s husband Masatsugu quietly continues this practice. Out of consideration for Mieko, however, he orders his mistress Aguri to have two abortions. Outraged, Aguri repays her lover by arranging for the pregnant Mieko to fall down a flight of stairs. Her miscarriage and subsequent illness create bitterness, bitterness Mieko learns to mask. Her immediate revenge is to take a lover and give his children the Togan family name. Mieko’s anger is more complex, however, than she realizes. Years later, when her only son, Akio, is killed in a fall from Mount Fuji, her passion returns.

Masks focuses on Mieko’s manipulation of those around her to replace Akio. Her possessive nature refuses to relinquish its hold on her dead lover and his son or the injustices of the past and their contemporary versions. Central to her plan is Yasuko, Akio’s lovely widow, whose pliant fragility makes her tempting bait in this sexual drama. Desired by several men, Yasuko seems most attracted to Tsuneo Ibuki, a Japanese literature professor and former colleague of Akio. His interest in spirit possession, his education, intelligence, and passion for Yasuko favor his love suit, but in Mieko’s mind, Ibuki’s detriments make him even more suitable.

Married and a father, Ibuki, like many Japanese men, feels justified in having his affair with Yasuko. After all, history supports his actions. When told the story of Masatsugu’s infidelity, Ibuki defends him, citing custom and male susceptibility. Even worse, Ibuki is contemptuous of women. He lies to his wife and withholds earnings to support his love affair. He dislikes outspoken women, finding them perversely unattractive, and he characterizes feminine rationality as “ridiculous.” Attracted by Yasuko’s delicacy, he nevertheless thinks her qualities “whorish.” Thus, in selecting Ibuki as her dupe, Mieko seeks revenge for generations of egotistical masculine domination.

Ultimately, Mieko wants a baby having her lover’s and Akio’s blood. With Yasuko’s collusion, Harumé, Akio’s twin sister, is substituted as Ibuki’s sexual partner. Enchi deliberately emphasizes feminist revenge through the figure of Harumé. A victim of male domination while in the womb, Harumé has suffered brain damage by pressure from her brother’s feet. His abuse of her continues through their infancy, his violence so extreme that the family...

(The entire section is 1951 words.)

Masks Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Kearns, George. “World Well Lost,” in The Hudson Review. XXXVI (1983), pp. 551-552.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 15, 1983, p. 839.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 6, 1983, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, March 4, 1983, p. 86.

San Francisco Review of Books. VII, May, 1983, p. 263.

Updike, John. “As Others See Us,” in The New Yorker. LIX (January 2, 1984), pp. 88-89.