Monday, October 03, 2005

Books: "The Pornographers", by NOZAKA Akiyuki

You may recall that last week I took a walk down to Honmoku-hara 16 cho-me, with the express purpose of locating the Naka Ward branch of the Yokohama City Library. Locate the library I did (at last), and upon procuring a library card, I checked out six books. Three were by Western authors, and three were translations of Japanese literary works.

I want to get into the habit of recording my thoughts about books shortly after reading them, and I cannot think of a better place to do this than in my blog, where said observations will be archived for posterity, and may prove useful the people who read my blog as well, in their own quests to find worthwhile reading.

So here is the first of hopefully many entries in the Books series: NOZAKA Akiyuki's "The Pornographers" (野坂昭如著 エロ事師たち). Before discussing the book itself, let me explain the conventions I have employed above. Japanese names are written (as some of you no doubt know) with the family name first and the given name second. Because this is at odds with the Western convention, the Japanese have taken to writing their family name in all capital letters when using the Roman alphabet, so that everyone is sure exactly which name is which. Also, I have defied the MLA / Chicago style guidelines when it comes to representing the title of the book, since my medium is HTML, and links tend to be underlined on web pages. Thus, many people writing for the web use quotes to signify the title of a work, whether that work be a movie, song, book, poem, article, etc. Finally, I have written the author's name (first, which those who can read Japanese will know by the 著 character after the name, as this marks the author in Japanese writing) and book title in the original Japanese.

At this point, it would probably be good to point out that the book deals with pornography and the men who partake of it. While the book itself is certainly not erotica (it is quite satirical and farcical), the more staid readers of my blog may want to give both the book and my remarks about it a miss. You have been warned; if you read on beyond this point and are consequently offended, I disavow all responsibility!

OK, now on to the book itself. The main character, who goes by the nickname Subuyan, is a natural salesman and entrepreneur, who lost both of his parents in The War ("The War", in Japanese literature, always means World War II--other wars are called by name, for example the Sino-Japanese War of 1900 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5). From a meager shack in his hometown, he started harvesting salt from seawater and selling it as a preservative to fishermen, and then moved on to selling fish. From this trade, he made enough money to move up to Osaka, where he, a young man of 20, set up shop as a wheeler-dealer. Finally, he took a sales job with a cash register firm, and then, from there, started selling pornographic pictures, using his sales job as the perfect cover.

Pornography, as it turned out, was our hero's true calling, and by the time the main action of the book takes place (the mid-1906s), he had branched out into re-selling "blue" movies (illegal pornographic films depicting sex explicitly), sex toys, penis enlargers, and entertaining businessmen with fictional tales of his own erotic adventures. He had also found a partner in crime, Banteki, an audio-visual geek who had wired his own apartment building to catch couples in flagrante delicto on audio tape, which he and Subuyan use to create soundtracks for silent blue movies.

It is Banteki who first suggests the idea of the two pornographers making their own blue movies, which serves as the catalyst for the rest of the action in the book, a series of schemes and adventures, each more outlandish than the last. Along the way they enlist the help of several other eccentric chaps: Cocky (no, this has nothing to do with his endowment), who lives in a shack and keeps pet cockroaches in match-boxes; Hack, a pornographic writer who has fallen on hard times since the bottom fell out of the porn book market; Paul, a slick young businessman who has been given the shaft (figuratively) by a perverted doctor who makes his own porno films, starring himself and nurses from his clinic; and Kabo, a naive and simple young man who Subuyan meets while doing a ten-day stint in jail, suspected of distributing pornography.

Subuyan, while leading his motley crew in various pornographic enterprises, becomes quite overcome by delusions of grandeur, coming to consider himself the ultimate humanist, giving his clients a reason to lead their otherwise empty existances. Banteki, on the other hand, really relishes his role as the director of Subuyan's films, and he becomes more and more the artiste. This ultimately creates a conflict between him and Subuyan, as the latter grows bored with more conventional pornography and starts looking for the perfect expression of eroticism. He settles on the orgy as his magnum eros (if you will), and after an imperfect first try, he pulls off a crowning triumph with his second effort (note that he does not participate in these orgies, they are purely for the benefit of humanity as represented by his clients and a hand-picked selection of women) and expires happily several days thereafter.

That is the plot in a nutshell, and it is certainly an engaging one. Coupled (pardon a pun or two, please) with the author's wickedly satirical style, matter-of-fact and measured as it presents a farce beyond belief, the book is utterly compelling. In fact, I finished the 300-page novel the same day I started it.

In addition to being a ripping good yarn, the book serves as an indictment of several more serious establishments, namely postwar Japan, the glorification of capitalism, and delusional humanism. I leave providing evidence of this as an exercise to the reader, as this is my blog, and I paid my dues in various English Literature classes back at the good old College of William and Mary, and I intend not to write critical essays for fun.

My final word on this book? Thumbs up! It is tremendous fun to read, and it might leave you with a bit to think about, if you choose to reflect on it.


Matthew said...

There is a great film version of `The Pornographers` (人類学入門) by Imamura Shohei, one of the finest Japanese filmmakers. If you liked the book, you should check out the film. Also, have you seen the animated `Grave of the Fireflies` (ホタルの墓)? Nozaka wrote the original novel and it is semi-autobiographical.

Josh Glover said...

I actually found out about the book by reading Donald Ritchie's "100 Years of Japanese Film" (to which I am sure you wrote the foreword :-P). It mentioned the Imamura film, and when I noticed the book in the library, I thought, "why not?" From the description of the movie in Richie's book, it looks like Imamura and his scriptwriter took some plot liberties, but the spirit of the film is largely the same. I will have to see if the local Tsutaya carries the film.

This reminds me how remiss I have been on Japanese film in general. I have never seen even one film by Ozu or Mizuguchi Kenji! This will be rectified! :)

Matthew said...

There were some plot liberties taken with the film (same with other Imamura novel-to-film adaptations like `Black Rain`). That is not a bad thing, however. The film is different in some ways and it is always good to see another take on the material.

For Ozu, start with `Tokyo Story` and for Mizoguchi either `Ugetsu` or `Sisters of the Gion`. Tsutaya is hit and miss, but a load of Ozu films have come out on DVD lately so they are a sure bet.