Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue (trans Michael Emmerich). Pushkin Press. 160 pp. $18.00
The premise of Yasushi Inoue’s debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper’s young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handle, and the spectacle of the bullfight itself becomes a catalyst for Tsugami’s struggle with what his lover, Sakiko, calls his “unsavory side.” Like much of the best Japanese fiction of its era, Bullfight is a marvel of compression. Its 124 pages form a subtly crafted microcosm of a nation coming to terms with the legacy of war.
While the novella is not about World War II, the specter of recent devastation provides Bullfight with its context—this is not a story which could take place just anywhere, or at just any time. Inoue’s Japan is mottled with the effects of violence, sticky and indelible as inked fingerprints. Tsugami was separated from his wife and children when he sent them from Osaka to Tottori to escape the bombings, while Sakiko’s husband was killed in combat. Their relationship itself occurred as a result of violence, and the tremors of the circumstances of its beginnings can still be felt in the lasting ambivalence of the couple’s feelings for each other. Scenery is described in terms of destruction—Tsugami’s office building is noted as having “survived the firebombings”; a road is described “like a gash in the burned-out ruins.” Tsugami’s reasoning behind taking on the project of the bullfight is that he hopes it will distract people. “In these postwar days,” he thinks, “perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives.”
The novella opens with a conversation between Tsugami and Tashiro, the “country showman” who convinced the paper to take on sponsorship for the bullfight about a month earlier. At the time, Tsugami had never heard of bull-sumo, a regional sport from the small city of Iyo with no history in the rest of Japan, and was not initially taken with either the idea or Tashiro himself. Indeed, he only agrees to meet with Tashiro in order to avoid Sakiko, whose “stubborn silence could be read as expressing either love or hatred.” Tsugami listens to Tashiro with deliberate indifference, but becomes interested upon hearing that spectators typically bet on the outcome of the fights. It is this feeling of gambling, of risk, that Tsugami feels could have the power to rejuvenate the Japanese people. However, his motives are not so straightforward as all that. As the bullfight proves to be a major gamble for Tsugami personally, he becomes obsessed with the undertaking to the point of recklessness, driven by a “rebellious urge.” What is noteworthy here is not that Tsugami’s desire to boost Japanese morale conflicts with or contradicts his selfish desire to throw himself into something, but that the two are in fact the same. One gets the feeling of Tsugami as a sort of postwar Japanese everyman, an intelligent and sensible person overcome by desperation and a need to prove himself.
Still, if Tsugami is a Japanese everyman, he is a distinctly new breed as such. His newspaper, the Osaka New Evening Post targets urban-dwelling intellectuals and emphasizes “satire, irony, and wit in every aspect of its reportage.” It is described as having “a certain shadow of emptiness, of devil-may-care negligence, of loneliness”—a sharp break from the “oafish wartime papers” Japanese readers had been accustomed to. The New Evening Post reflects Tsugami’s personality directly as its editor-in-chief. At thirty-seven, he occupies a sort of middle ground among the living generations of Japanese adults, and finds himself unable to trust either the younger or older generations. The older Okabe, a contact of Tashiro’s that the paper must rely on for further financial backing for the tournament, is viewed with suspicion by Tsugami—and rightly so, as Okabe ends up using the transport of feed for the bulls as a cover for his dealings in the black market—but Tsugami is left with no choice but to rely on him. On the other hand, he is annoyed by the confident nonchalance of the younger Miura to the point of risking everything rather than accept his help.
Every aspect of Bullfight is fraught with this kind of ambivalent tension, but it is perhaps most clear in Tsugami’s relationship with Sakiko. Their affair begins during the war a year after her husband’s death, when she walks in on Tsugami in a private moment and sees in him “the attitude of a man who just doesn’t care anymore.” Sakiko is both attracted to and repulsed by the fundamental coldness she senses in Tsugami, and while she often threatens to leave him, time and again she finds herself unable to, always wavering between desire and “a wish to see him destroyed.” As for his part, Tsugami appears, at times, disturbingly indifferent to Sakiko, and uses his involvement with the tournament to distance himself from her temporarily. Frustrated by this, she comes to see him at work in the stadium one day, and mocks his idea for a fireworks show, suggesting that a big chrysanthemum would look lovely “blooming over the charred rubble of Osaka.” The chrysanthemum is of course the emblem of imperial Japan—with this remark she derides not only Tsugami’s enthusiasm for the tournament, but the very project of revitalizing Japan.
While the tournament itself is more or less clearly a metaphor for Japan’s struggle to rebuild, Inoue is never heavy-handed. No secret is made of the characters’ “unsavory sides,” but there is never any moralizing. There is a sense of dignity in the stillness of Inoue’s narrative voice, and this dignity extends to the presentation of the characters themselves as they do what they can to get ahead. While Bullfight is indeed about a tournament, about a relationship, about a nation, it is ultimately about people—three-dimensional and flawed.
Written in spare, clean prose, and excellently translated by Michael Emmerich, Bullfight is a powerful, accessible read. Though Inoue was awarded the coveted Akutagawa Prize in 1949 for Bullfight and went on to write fifty novels, his work has not gained the Western following of many of his contemporaries. Pushkin’s edition is not only a beautifully produced physical object in itself, but an important and long-overdue introduction of a masterful writer to the anglosphere. With another title forthcoming from Pushkin this year, we may all hope to see Inoue’s work achieve the global readership it so richly deserves.
Ariel Starling is a writer and student of literature in Paris.
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