Contains Bibliography, Index
F. Quei Quo is a political science professor at Simon Fraser University.
The name Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) is less well known to people than the title of his major work Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), popularized by Mizoguchi Kenji in a film by the same name that won the grand prize at the 1953 Venice Film Festival. The book, Ueda Akinari, by Blake Morgan Young, is a biographical study with occasional commentaries on Akinari’s literary works. Implicit in Young’s approach is the assumption that Akinari’s personal background must have exerted considerable influence on his philosophy of life and consequently on his writings. Akinari “had no knowledge of his true father, and little of real mother,” was “unfilial to his foster parents, losing his entire inheritance in a fire and spending the rest of his life aimlessly, and had accomplished nothing of value in his life but had merely earned the world’s censure for his useless writings” — such was the psychological state of the man at the age of 66 as he prepared for death. Whether in waka, haikai, or yomihon, Akinari’s writings are characterized by simplicity of form, supernatural tendencies in content, and fatalistic conclusions. His works are an excellent blend of kokugaku style, jugaku themes, and Taoist endings.
Although beyond the scope of what Young set out to do in his book, it is important that those who study Edo Bungaku not ignore the socio-political background of the period. From 1761 to 1786 the Shogunate’s power fell into the hands of Tanuma Okitsugu, known for his politics of suppression and corruption. The chonin (the merchant class or commoners) of Edo found in various forms of literature, such as senryu, sharehon, and haikai, avenues for expressing criticism and even cynicism toward the regime of the day. Statistics show that from 1741 onward, peasant uprisings increased from the tens to over one hundred incidents each decade. Escape from life’s miseries was found by indulging in the stories of other lands — the nether world, the land of kara, and the ages of the ancients. The more than five hundred book-rental shops in Edo and Osaka at the time also facilitated the rise in popularity of these kinds of literature.
Through his writings Ueda Akinari, like many of his contemporaries, attempted to express his political and social philosophy of how things “ought to be.” Unlike others, however, his moral world lay, not in the Confucian artificiality of law and order, but in the return to natural simplicity and the beauty of Japanese tradition.
As a biographical study, Young’s book is well written and rather comprehensively researched. A sequel, taking the socio-political background of the period into consideration, would be welcomed.