Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

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Sant Kyden, also known in the West by his artist’s name of Kitao Masanobu, followed his early successes in print designing and fiction by concentrating his attention on the latter. He was the most versatile and gifted of the popular Edo (modern Tokyo) writers. In addition to the picture books and fanciful didactic yomihon reading books to which he turned under the pressure of Tokugawa censorship, he wrote many excellent sharebon (books of wit), sophisticated sketches of manners in the Yoshiwara and other pleasure quarters. Though these were limited in subject matter, their realistic dialogue technique greatly influenced the two leading kinds of realistic Edo fiction of the nineteenth century. This tendency toward realism is evident in Lightning.

Using the central themes of rivalry for succession to a great feudal house and the triumph of good over evil, right over wrong, Kyden took his materials from traditional Kabuki plays and wrote Lightning with stage production in mind. The scenes change rapidly, and the plot is complicated by the appearance of a large number of secondary characters who disrupt the unity of the story. The principal theme thus tends to move away from the succession intrigues to a depiction of the feudal loyalty of a secondary character, Sasara Sampachir. That this novel was soon produced on the Kabuki stage was a matter of course, and it was staged under various titles. The first was in Osaka in 1808, and then in Edo in 1809. As a novel, the work constitutes a unit in itself, but Kyden wrote a sequel, the Honch sui-bodai zenden, which was published in 1809. This later work, making greater use of syllabic meter, has little connection with the original and is thin in plot, but it carries the reader on through the author’s sheer writing ability.

Like many of Kyden’s works, Lightning is written in a vigorous, popular style, simple and direct, and often melodramatic in plot. Because of the skillful handling of action and the true-to-life emotions of the characters, the novel was very well received in Japan. A somber history of vengeance, the novel abounds in violence, suicides, torture, combat, and rapid shifts of plot. It reads often like an early nineteenth century European Romantic novel, filled with gothic horrors and boiling emotions, but, at the same time, a lusty quality and a certain vigorous humor raise the book to a greater level of realism. Kyden was considered one of the leaders in Japan in the development of the realistic school of fiction.

Although the plot is at times confusing, owing partly to the large number of characters, a vigor of style and narrative drive carries the action steadily forward. The minor characters tend to be stylized, boldly sketched figures, but the principal characters are much more realistically portrayed. Lightning possesses an almost cinematic sweep and power of movement, and the Western reader should not become sidetracked by attempting to follow every minute plot thread; the novel’s romantic vision of feudal life in Japan is rendered in an exciting, enjoyable style.