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 minstrel. Yonosuke is self-conscious enough to see an “image of himself in [the faces of cheap, itinerant entertainers], in their cheap parasitical way of living,...in the few tricks they performed for one night’s pleasure in a harlot’s arms.” Yet, in spite of self-knowledge, poverty, and misery, the lure of amorous women never fails to attract him.
Yonosuke becomes a connoisseur of the gay world and is befriended by wealthy men who appreciate his worldliness and sophistication. Although he is poor, Yonosuke is offended by courtesans who have no “subtlety, no graciousness.” His travels...
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take him from one city to another, and soon he can distinguish among the strengths, the weaknesses, and the styles of the courtesans of Kyoto, Edo, Osaka, or Inarimachi. He seduces village maidens, city wives, nuns, Shinto oracles, mothers, hardened whores, and refined courtesans; he is driven by a restless desire to experience more women, more sophistication, more pleasure.
Although he serves some time in prison for the attempted rape of a married woman and begins to be troubled by bad dreams about women he has abused in some way, Yonosuke remains as committed as ever to the pursuit of pleasure. Because he is now acknowledged as a “much traveled expert on promiscuous women,” Yonosuke is taken into service by a number of the idle rich, who use him “to recommend new sources of pleasure.” After a few more years, haunted by his dreams and feeling a bit jaded by his life of dissipation, Yonosuke resolves to become an ascetic and embarks on a pilgrimage to a holy hermit. Yet his resolve lasts only until he receives news that his father has died and left him a great fortune. Immediately, he reverts to his “old sensual philosophy” and dedicates his wealth “to all the lovely courtesans of this country.”
While the first part of The Life of an Amorous Man details Yonosuke’s experiences in the dark alleys and poorer quarters of the gay world, the second part charts the wanderings of the now-wealthy libertine through the brightly lit and gorgeously adorned upper reaches of the same world. Yonosuke’s first adventure as a respectable citizen is marriage. He courts, wins, buys, and then marries a renowned hostess, Yoshino. Soon, Yonosuke begins to wander from the “home-fire hibachi,” for in his opinion, “domestic bliss is at best routine...[and] the spirit is restless, lured by recurrent visions of fresh adventures.” Yonosuke embarks on a campaign of “fresh adventures” that for any but the wealthiest and most decadent of men would be merely “visions,” the stuff of fantasy. For example, he travels to Murotsu, where the courtesans are said to be “superior to any that flourished in olden times.” There he asks for and receives the eighty most highly praised women of the city, selects the seven most refined and beautiful, and then finally chooses one to entertain him. In appreciation of her charms and services, he buys her freedom and sends her home.
Yonosuke begins to focus his attention on only the most renowned of courtesans. He has interesting, challenging, and pleasurable encounters with the finest and most beautiful hostesses of every major city: Washu, gentle Kindayu, and “Hatsune, the nightingale,” of Osaka; Yoshida, “the rising star,” “the peerless Takao,” and Komurasaki, “the hardest of all courtesans to see,” of Edo; Yoshizaki and Takahashi, “the one courtesan whom all men admired,” of Kyoto; and Kaory, the leading courtesan of Kambayashi. He becomes the most celebrated patron of Japan’s gay world.
Age brings few changes to Yonosuke. He does, however, decide to “propitiate the gods, for one can never tell”; consequently, he showers the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines with money and gives money to those who are less fortunate than himself, “especially those within the periphery of his pleasure-seeking world.” He even prepares an elaborate gift for the courtesans of distant Nagasaki—a gift so extravagant that it becomes the centerpiece of a museum devoted to the fashion and beauty of the gay world:44 huge full-robed dolls: 17 likenessess of noted Kyoto courtesans, 8 of Edo, and 19 of Osaka.... Almost everyone in Nagasaki came to see and sigh over these wondrous things of beauty. They satisfied, even if vicariously, the secret yearning of every normal man.
Rather than waiting for death to come to him, Yonosuke embarks on one final, daring, doomed adventure. He has a lovely and luxurious ship built stocked with delicacies, and he sails beyond the horizon with a few old companions in search of a mythical island inhabited solely by beautiful and refined women.