Fumiko Enchi Essay - Critical Essays

Enchi, Fumiko


Fumiko Enchi 1905–

Japanese novelist, short story writer, and dramatist.

Enchi is a significant contemporary Japanese novelist. Her fiction is characterized by subtle symbolism, precise use of language, and explorations of human psychology, specifically the complexities of female psychology. A scholar of classical Japanese literature, Enchi translated into modern Japanese the eleventh-century narrative The Tale of Genji and enriches her own fiction with allusions to classical works.

Enchi began her career as a playwright while in her twenties. She soon started to write fiction but did not become famous until the 1950s. Her best-known novel, Onnazaka (1957; The Waiting Years), which was awarded the Japanese Noma Literary Prize, and her novel Onna-men (1958?; Masks), are her only works to have been translated into English.

In probing the psychology of women, Enchi's fiction often touches on such subjects as repression, adultery, seduction, and eroticism. The Waiting Years concerns a nineteenth-century wife who must obey her husband's order to recruit a mistress for him. Though humiliated, the woman displays no emotion until she vents her anger in an outburst while on her deathbed. The novel explores the effects of her lifelong repression. Masks also exposes hidden dissatisfactions in human relationships. Like The Waiting Years, Masks revolves around an unspoken, insidious power struggle, but in this case the conflict occurs between a woman and her daughter-in-law. Both of Enchi's novels have been praised for their development of complex relationships and intricate characterizations.

Anne M. Burk

[The Waiting Years] is, in a sense, shocking, despite the fact that there are no explicit sex scenes and no coarse language. It is set in the Meiji period. A wealthy government official sends his wife to Tokyo to bring him back a mistress. The wife obeys because a woman always obeys her husband, no matter how much obedience may debase her. The result is an incredibly selfish man pitted against a woman with much bitterness walled up inside her icy exterior. The husband's further extramarital affairs (including one with his son's wife) deepen the gulf and turn their marriage into a contest of wills. In the end, everyone loses. The situation may not seem believable—yet how different is it from the role many women accept and live unquestioningly?

Anne M. Burk, in a review of "The Waiting Years," in Library Journal, Vol. 97, No. 7, April 1, 1972, p. 1345.

Charles G. Blewitt

[The Waiting Years] is a positively beautiful yet depressing novel about the personal and cultural suppression of Japanese women after the turn of the century…. [It] is written with painstakingly heart-rending prose. Enchi creates a timeless mood of sadness and suppression. The Waiting Years literally bleeds….

There are so many worthwhile things in The Waiting Years! For one thing, it was enlightening to understand and, thanks to Enchi, feel the sad state of affairs of the concubine. Sociologically speaking, the "Upstairs … Downstairs" view of upper middle class Japanese Society with many of the same contradictions and incongruities as our own society was well worth examining. Yet, it was Enchi's prose which made this book such a "tearful" joy.

Charles G. Blewitt, in a review of "The Waiting Years," in Best Sellers, Vol. 41, No. 2, May, 1981, p. 45.

Emiko Sakurai

The choice of the English title The Waiting Years in place of the original Onnazaka, the name of the long ascending road to the heroine's hilltop estate, is interesting. The sensitive and subtle author would not have used these words that so starkly define the oppressed wife's existence. She preferred the symbolism of the arduous path to describe her life….

[The Waiting Years] is certainly one of the greatest works of the [Japanese] postwar era, subtle, sensitive, insightful and moving. The characters are palpably presented, and the unaffected prose resonates with carefully chosen images and sounds…. The Waiting Years is an outstanding addition to the canon of Japanese literature in English translation.

Emiko Sakurai, in a review of "The Waiting Years," in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, p. 728.

Kirkus Reviews

Subtle, challenging work from one of Japan's most respected (and oldest) female novelist/scholars: though [Masks] is quite short, a Western reader may feel at sea through much of it—what with learned references to Nō drama masks or an included-in-full essay written by one of the characters about female shamanism as a theme in The Tale of Genji. But, for the patient reader, the story will gradually become clear and powerful—as a tale of women's capacity for blackest revenge. Togano Meiko, a poet and mother of the recently killed Akio (and of Akio's retarded twin sister, Harume), toys with the emotional leash of Akio's young widow, Yasuko. Two potential suitors, Ibuki (who's married) and Mikame (single), vie for her—but Meiko orchestrates their affections to the point of manipulation. Finally, then, there'll be an intricate, hidden maneuver by which Yasuko becomes only the stand-in for the idiot Harume—who will be impregnated by one of the men in order that Meiko can have, by proxy, the child she always wanted most: Akio's. And it is Meiko's absolute amorality of revenge that Enchi makes so startling here, giving subtle tints to the explicit shamanism theme: "Just as there is an archetype of woman as object of man's eternal love," reads part of Meiko's essay, "so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadows of his own evil actions." Fiction of feminine psychology/mythology, almost imperceptively woven—in a difficult but echoing pattern that is light-years away from the cruder approaches of writers like Angela Carter.

A review of "Masks," in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LI, No. 4, February 15, 1983, p. 196.

Publishers Weekly

A stunning and subtle tale of women and envy, ["Masks"] follows the convoluted life of Togano Meiko, now a sophisticated mature woman in her 50s. Years ago Meiko, unhappily married, had a lover. She bore him twins, a daughter and a son. Now her husband, her lover and her son are dead, and her life revolves around her widowed daughter-in-law, Yasuko, and her retarded daughter, Harume. Meiko's plan, a bizarre manipulation of the two women in her household, is exquisitely plotted and engineered, the product of a mind and heart embittered by loss. Fumiko Enchi writes of betrayal and sensuality, of the psychology of women, with astonishing insight and great beauty. Her allusions to the masks of No plays and to the classic "The Tale of the Genji," the brilliant way she layers and interweaves the ancient, the more recent past and the present are haunting and rich.

A review of "Masks," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 223, No. 9, March 4, 1983, p. 86.

George Kearns

[Masks] is an intense short novel set about a decade after the war. Enchi's characters are secularized, partly-Westernized intellectuals who maintain an antiquarian interest in traditional Japanese culture and amuse themselves by studying spirit-possession at a Madame Sosostris level of table-rapping. (The medium at a séance speaks in French.) In fact, their interest in spirit-possession and Nō masks is fairly unconvincing: they seem obliged to pursue their interests so that material will be at hand for the author's cloudy, ominous symbolism. Masks is faintly interesting for its glimpses of Japanese life in a post-MacArthur era of ball-point pens, Old Parr scotch, and private detectives who spy on...

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