Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Masks is a complex novel dealing with the interrelations among a group of people in intellectual Japanese society in the 1950's.

The male protagonists are Tsuneo Ibuki, a professor, and his friend Toyoki Mikame, a doctor. Both men are in love with Yasuko Togano, a young widow whose husband Akio...

(The entire section contains 1499 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your subscription to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Start your Subscription

Masks is a complex novel dealing with the interrelations among a group of people in intellectual Japanese society in the 1950's.

The male protagonists are Tsuneo Ibuki, a professor, and his friend Toyoki Mikame, a doctor. Both men are in love with Yasuko Togano, a young widow whose husband Akio was killed by a snow avalanche on Mt. Fuji. Behind Yasuko stands the dominating presence of Akio's mother, Mieko. As the story progresses we learn that Akio had a twin sister, Harume, who is mentally challenged and has been kept in seclusion. We also find out that Akio and Harume were not the children of Mieko's husband but of another man who died at the front in World War II.

Mieko is an expert on the Heian period of Japanese history (794 to 1185 CE), on the subject of the masks used in Noh (a type of classical Japanese musical theatre), and on the literary work The Tale of Genji. A paper she has written on the characters in Genji forms a kind of focal point of the novel, since it expresses Mieko's fascination with the issue of spirit possession, specifically that exercised on others by the Lady Rojuko in the Genji story. Mieko herself begins to manipulate the male characters in Masks, encouraging both Ibuki and Mikame to pursue their interest in Yasuko, and in effect taking possession of their will, or attempting to do so. She seems to favor Mikame as the suitor for her daughter-in-law, but encourages Yasuko to lead Ibuki on. During a tryst between Yasuko and Ibuki, Mieko perpetrates a ruse in which Harume, the mentally challenged daughter, is substituted for Yasuko in the middle of the night. Ibuki unknowingly makes love to Harume and impregnates her. Mieko thus achieves her goal of perpetuating her family line, though doing this through manipulation and deception.

Though outwardly Masks deals with elements of Japanese literature and history and the attempt by a modern woman to recreate them, so to speak, in her own life, the subtext of the novel involves gender issues and the changing status of women in twentieth-century Japan and in the world overall. Mieko is a woman who was dealt with unfairly by her husband, who openly lived with another woman as his mistress. She had no recourse to justice in the rigid patriarchal society prior to the war, and in some sense her use, much later in life, of both her daughter-in-law and her daughter to control men is an attempt to vindicate herself. But, as the title indicates, each of the characters is wearing a kind of mask in unconsciously carrying out wishes that are external to them, imposed upon them from the outside. The novel as a whole is an intense meditation on the roles people play and the way destiny and the desires of others cause us to act in ways we ourselves don't fully understand.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015

Masks opens with the chance encounter of Tsuneo Ibuki, a specialist in Heian period Japanese literature, and his friend Toyoki Mikamé in a coffee shop in Kyoto’s main train station. Mikamé is a physician who holds a doctoral degree in psychology, and he is on his way back to Tokyo from Osaka, where he attended a medical convention. Ibuki is in Kyoto to deliver special lectures at a university, and he is in the coffee shop waiting for Mieko Togan and her daughter-in-law Yasuko. They have invited him to join them in calling at the home of the famous No performer Yorihito Yakushiji. The actor’s daughter is studying the writing of poetry under Mieko, and Yakushiji has invited the Togan ladies to inspect the ancient costumes and masks in his collection. Ibuki asks Mikamé, who knows both women, to join the group.

Both Mikamé and Ibuki are in love with Yasuko Togan. Four years after the death of her husband in an avalanche on Mount Fuji, Yasuko still lives in the home of her mother-in-law. Akio Togan was Ibuki’s younger colleague; as a scholar, he was interested in the phenomenon of spirit possession as it is revealed in the literature of the Heian period. With Mieko’s encouragement, Yasuko has continued Akio’s research, attending Ibuki’s classes and bringing into the Togan home people such as Mikamé, whose interest in Japanese folklore complements her study of spirit possession. Central to a particular kind of No play is the motif of the vengeful spirit or ghost, often in the form of a beautiful woman. The visit to the Yakushiji collection suggests the relevance of these elements to the Togan family’s story.

During the train ride from Kyoto to Tokyo, Yasuko confesses to Ibuki that she would like to escape Mieko Togan’s control. It is not the fact that her mother-in-law depends on her help in editing a poetry magazine or that she actively encourages her to continue Akio’s research into the phenomenon of spirit possession that bothers Yasuko. Perhaps without knowing it, Mieko is throwing Yasuko at Mikamé and Ibuki, and at the same time she encourages Yasuko’s emotional dependence on herself. Ibuki and Mikamé have already discussed the emotional relationship of the Togan ladies, using for the purpose of comparison the example of a seance that both men had attended with Yasuko some time before the meeting in Kyoto. If Yasuko is the medium, the two men agree, Mieko is the spirit who inhabits her body and speaks through it.

Yasuko suggests that the two men are right when she reminds Ibuki of the fact that Mikamé and he, earlier in the summer, encountered in the garden of Mieko’s Tokyo home a mysterious, beautiful woman. The two were part of a group invited to the Togan residence, a remnant of the large estate the family had occupied before World War II, to view fireflies in the moonlit garden. The mysterious woman, who disappeared when they approached her in the garden, was Akio’s twin sister, Harume. Supposedly kicked in the head by her male sibling while they were in the womb, Harume is severely retarded. Sent to the home of Mieko’s parents as an infant (the Togan family subscribing to the Japanese superstition that twins are unlucky), Harume returned to Mieko’s house only after Akio’s death. Even then, her presence and identity remained a secret. Harume’s childlike mind and woman’s body make her a medium through whom Mieko can, and does, act as well. Indeed, she uses both Harume and Yasuko to work out the final step in an elaborate revenge upon the memory of her dead husband.

Akio and Harume are not the children of Mieko Togan’s husband. They are the offspring of a man she took as a lover, and who died in the Sino-Japanese War after failing to persuade Mieko to leave Togan and bring the children to him. Mieko had taken this lover in response to the fact that when she came to the Togan household as a bride of nineteen, her husband’s mistress Aguri was installed in the house as a maid. Aguri was a village girl from the district in Niigata prefecture, in which the Togan family had large agricultural holdings. She had come to young Togan’s bed, as generations of peasant girls had come into those of earlier Togan males, to provide him with the services required by an upper-class gentleman. Pregnant twice, she had consented to Togan’s orders that she abort both children. When the young bride Mieko had become pregnant, Aguri became jealous and planted a nail in a strategic spot on a flight of stairs, catching Mieko’s kimono and causing her to fall and lose her first child. Aware of the fact that Aguri was Togan’s mistress, Mieko’s parents opposed her decision to remain in her husband’s house. She went back, however, on the condition that Aguri be sent away, and she extracted the further revenge of giving Togan children that were not his and of concealing the fact from him through the remainder of his life.

When Akio died in the accident on Mount Fuji, having been married a year but failing to father a child of his own, Mieko felt thwarted again in her revenge upon her husband. She encouraged Yasuko’s involvement with Mikamé and Ibuki. When her daughter-in-law took Ibuki as a lover, Mieko condoned the relationship in order to persuade Yasuko to cooperate in the plan to pass Harume off as Yasuko and thereby obtain a child who had Akio’s blood and that of Mieko’s own lover in his veins. As an accomplice in this plot, endangering the life of the childlike Harume in the process, Yasuko was drawn into a bond of complicity with Mieko so strong that she would never be able, despite her engagement to Mikamé, to leave the Togan house. She has come to want this child as fiercely as Mieko does.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Masks Study Guide

Subscribe Now