Sunday, October 27, 2013

Japan: "Masks" by Fumiko Enchi

This powerful work (synposis here) blends the psychological drama of Nō theatre, with a feminine twist on sexual dynamics both within and outside of marriage. In the latter, this work deliberately skews the classic Tales of Genji, which tells of the romances of an emperor's son. [Tales was written in the 11th century by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu and is extensively reviewed in many places.]

Published first in 1958 in Japan, Masks tackles themes of family ties, revenge, and spirit possession. The four central characters share an interest spirit possession, as it is understood within Japanese history and culture.

When reading Masks, it helped immensely to have previously read Tales and to have some passing knowledge of spirit possession. The two men in Masks believe that the younger woman, Yasuko, is at least in part in posessed by her mother-in-law, Mieko.  The male characters even speculate that the two women, both widows, are lovers, to try to explain the peculiar closeness of their daily lives and actions. In our 21st-century American terms, we might consider their relationship one of co-dependency.

While I had knowledge of Tales and some acquaintance with spirit possession, specific masks of Nō were something new for me. Three mask names are chapter headings: Ryo nō onna, or a ghost woman; Masugami, or "a young woman in a state of frenzy," and Fugai, with sunken cheeks and blackened teeth. Ms. Enchi writes of Fugai, "The name can be either of written two ways: 'deep well' or 'deep woman.' It's used in roles depicting middle-aged women, especially mothers."  The image below is, I think, Fugai.

Yasuko says of Mieko, " seems to me she must be one of the last women who lives that way still--like the masks--with her deepest energies turned inward." (p 26)  A bit later in the text, Yasuko tells her (male) lover, again about her mother-in-law Mieko, "She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She's like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface to a waterfall. She' s like the face on a Nō mask, wrapped in her own secrets." (p. 31)

Just what Mieko has masked and the extent of her power over others, is revealed near the end, which I won't spoil. Whatever Yasuko's relationship with Mieko, they both end up with a something vastly important to each.

Quotations from the 1983 Vintage edition, available in the Aventura series, the Vintage Library of Contemporary Writers.

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