Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 209
Masks is a novel by Fumiko Enchi that begins in Kyoto, Japan, when two men, Ibuki and Mikame, meet by chance in a café. Both are university instructors, and both have come from Tokyo to attend conferences. When they meet with a student named Yasuko, however, they find themselves in...
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Masks is a novel by Fumiko Enchi that begins in Kyoto, Japan, when two men, Ibuki and Mikame, meet by chance in a café. Both are university instructors, and both have come from Tokyo to attend conferences. When they meet with a student named Yasuko, however, they find themselves in the midst of complex relationships and faced with the task of interpreting hidden meanings and learning life lessons revealed in the form of a Japanese drama known as the Nō play.
The Nō play relies on the use of masks to convey the characters’ emotions. Ryō no Onna is the mask that represents the spirit woman, the Masugami represents the young woman, and the Fukai represents the middle-aged woman. Each mask is magnificently crafted, complex, and expressive, and the men learn that the women behind the masks are capable of using them to reveal subtle shades of emotion as well as to hide them. A mask is a symbol of deception; it conceals the truth and acts as a façade. Thus, Enchi use the idea of masks to convey the complexity and deception of women’s emotions. Ibuki and Mikame are left to decipher those emotions, as they enter into relationships with women who are alluring but duplicitous.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1951
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 uses it as an excuse for the twins’ early separation. Akio is brought up in lavish surroundings; Harumé in poverty. Significantly, she is reared near the Shrine in the Fields, an ancient purification site to which women retired before becoming priestesses and the location of Genji and the Rokuj lady’s last meeting. Only after Akio’s death is Harumé brought to live with her mother.
Representing a masculine ideal because of her beauty, sensuality, pliancy, and vacancy, Harumé becomes the perfect agent for Mieko’s revenge. This mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty, for while Mieko ordinarily ignores her daughter, she nevertheless identifies with her on their deepest common level, their womanhood. It is Mieko who washes by hand Harumé’s stained garments during her menstrual cycle. Otherwise, she masks her deep love in coldness, a coldness she needs in order to achieve her ends. Mieko’s calculated use of Harumé, her determination that Harumé should carry her pregnancy to term despite medical warnings, indicates the strength of her resolve. Her spirit literally inhabits Harumé’s body; Harumé, when pregnant, begins to look like her mother. Harumé’s death as a result of heart failure signifies Mieko’s failure to love.
Mieko’s warmest moments are lavished upon Yasuko, who is awed—indeed mesmerized—by her powerful mother-in-law. Throughout the novel, Yasuko sees herself and acts as Mieko’s medium, disavowing any will of her own. Claiming to fear Mieko, Yasuko nevertheless clings to her. Their erotic and mystifying relationship causes male characters to speculate on who is in control. While Mieko’s power seems subtle to others, however, to Yasuko it is a “heavy load that weighed upon her,” leading to “a foul and terrifying blackness.” So strong is Mieko’s karma that it overcomes Yasuko’s resistance, and in the end, Yasuko willingly participates in Mieko’s plot, referring to it as a “woman’s crime” which means more to her than “the love of any man.”
Their crime is the conscious manipulation of men, manipulation inspired by centuries of oppression and perfected through example. Mieko teaches Yasuko what she has learned both firsthand and vicariously, through literature. Mieko’s early fascination with and sympathetic analysis of the Rokuj lady reflect her need for a paradigm, another woman whose strong spirit has refused to submit to men. Thus Mieko’s interest in spirit possession and shamanism—an interest she encourages in Yasuko—is not simply an attempt to cling to the past; it reflects her continuing interest in feminine power. From the Rokuj lady, Mieko has learned that power cannot be suppressed, despite the severe restrictions placed on women. Power simply becomes indirect. Masking develops as women’s best means of protection. Their authority is expressed through others; their reality remains enigmatic.
Representing a culture so different from Western experience, Masks might present some problems for Western readers. One soon discovers that all of the characters are unreliable to some extent; they all lie. Since Yasuko lies about Harumé, does she also lie about Mieko? Also, if Yasuko, a relatively sympathetic character, lies, how can one expect honest revelation from Mieko, whose motives are cloaked in silence? Truth may be discovered in Enchi’s web of deceit, but the reader must put forth a concerted effort. Male characters in Masks are equally difficult to accept. Although both Ibuki and Mikamé claim to love Yasuko, they exhibit only the thinnest regard for her. Mikamé is especially detached as a bemused suitor who courts and proposes to Yasuko while suspecting her affair with Ibuki. Indeed, Mikamé’s presence as Ibuki’s foil seems forced. Furthermore, Enchi’s characters are difficult to like because they seem to have no redeeming characteristics. They can engage in the most self-serving acts imaginable with no apparent regard for their victims, who themselves fail to inspire sympathy. If, in the end, it is granted that Enchi’s aim is not to evoke pity, she may be accused of analytic coldness.
Another difficulty for the Western reader resides in the novel’s revenge theme. Mieko’s obsession with an injury thirty years in the past and her heartless sacrifice of Harumé may strike one as being farfetched. Moreover, Enchi’s depiction of revenge as the fundamentally romantic catalyst in the story may not seem entirely convincing. The problem is caused by the contradiction between the emotional nature of revenge and the analytic approach of the book. Without a substantial background in Japanese culture, the reader is bound to snag on this paradox.
Finally, readers may become frustrated with Enchi’s refusal to categorize neatly her characters or even explain their complexity. Instead, she offers the mask metaphor as the answer to Mieko’s motivation. Without some knowledge of what the mask suggests, readers will miss the wealth of this novel. Indeed, the novel’s indirection seems to pose the major difficulty, but it also offers the greatest rewards, for if the reader succeeds in reassembling the novel, rearranging its time scheme and placing characters in their proper perspectives, Masks assumes the virtues of an intense psychological mystery.
In other words, in concept and execution, Masks certainly compels interest. Its most significant factors are its indirection, its refined understatement, and its apparent simplicity. Enchi’s characters, for example, carry implicit information. Mieko, presented largely through glimpses, rumors, her article on the Rokuj lady, and other characters’ speculations about her, is rarely seen. She appears on only a few occasions, most of which are formal and thus artificial. Nevertheless, she dominates this novel with her power and mystery. Yasuko is equally elusive, drawn with a few swift strokes suggesting more than meets the eye. At the same time, Enchi builds her novel on layers of history and art, reducing them to a few suggestive lines. Always, she entwines the characters and their culture with the greatest elegance. As a result, she succeeds in indicating the convergence of past and present, the timeless quality of her theme.
Given the radical nature of Masks, Enchi’s calculated indirection is cunning, if not wise. This novel is ultimately an aggressive assertion of feminine power, a description of how Japanese women (and their sisters elsewhere) have managed to survive—even prevail—despite stringent cultural measures preventing their autonomy. Only one male character in Masks comes to recognize this, Ibuki’s rival Mikamé. During their final discussion of Yasuko and Mieko, he remarks, “A man may try as hard as he likes, but he’ll never know what schemes a woman may be slowly and quietly carrying out behind his back. . . . Even the sadistic misogyny of Buddha and Christ was nothing but an attempt to gain the better of a vastly superior opponent.”
Carpenter’s translation, then, is both rewarding and timely. Masks reveals the feminist urge in a different context, expressed by a different kind of victim. Enchi’s novel also discloses facets of Japanese culture unsuspected by many Western readers, thus enriching the Western reader’s appreciation of Japanese art. Finally, this novel introduces Western readers to a highly original, important writer whose suggestive artistry makes one hope for more translations of her work.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51
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