Yumeno Kyûsaku - Three Very Short Stories
Volume 23, Issue 3 (Translation 2 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 30 January 2024.
A translation of three short stories by the Japanese author, Yumeno Kyûsaku (Sugiyama Yasumichi, 1889-1936).
Keywords: Yumeno Kyûsaku, Japanese literature, modern literature, avant-garde fiction
Yumeno Kyûsaku (Sugiyama Yasumichi, 1889-1936) receives relatively little critical attention in non-Japanese scholarship, in comparison with some of his peers such as Edogawa Ranpo (Hirai Tarô, 1894-1965), Akutagawa Ryûnosuke (1892-1927), or even Dazai Osamu (1909-1948), and this is unfortunate. Even Japanese scholarship has paid less attention to his writing than it, in my opinion, deserves—indeed, “until his revival, which began with an article in Shisô no kagaku (Science of thought) in 1962, Kyûsaku was essentially a forgotten author who lived on in used bookstores and the memory of fans and fellow writers” (Clerici, 2013, p. 33). His writing spans many genres, from eroguro-nansensu (“erotic, grotesque nonsense”) to detective fiction, flirting with surrealism and the avant-garde along the way. This eclecticism is not surprising when we situate him in his historical context: he lived from the late Meiji Era (1868-1912) through the Taisho (1912-1926) and into the first decade of the Showa (1926-1988), periods of remarkable, dramatic, and occasionally violent transformation in all aspects of Japanese life. These periods were all opportunities for Japanese artists to encounter, experiment with, and develop their own unique visions of artistic forms from diverse artistic traditions, Japanese, Asian, and non-Asian alike, and so, indeed, they did. Some of the most fertile areas of experimentation and growth occurred in the shadows of “mainstream” literature or popular fiction, at the margins of territory which writers like Natsume Sôseki (1867-1912), Shiga Naoya (1883-1971), or Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) cleared and cultivated as their own. In these shadows Yumeno Kyûsaku wrote, and at these margins he produced his body of work which in some ways goes beyond the experimentation and development of his peers. His longest work, the novel Dogura magura (1935), appeared in cinematic adaptation in 1988, under the direction of Matsumoto Toshio, and French translation in 2003, by Philippe Picquier. Absorbing the spirit of transformation which so informed his times, “Kyûsaku offered an alternative model of being in the world: romantic and darkly comic, and engaged with questions of authority and madness” (Clerici, 2013, ii).
The stories I present here are all slight, brisk, and slightly ghastly.
The first is reminiscent of traditional folk tales of rewards for selfless kindness. The ending is even vaguely similar to Chuang-tzu’s butterfly dream, but there’s a dark undertone that is both apparent and quite disturbing. The protagonist, Kantarô, demonstrates true compassion in what seems to be his true self, but he witnesses a version of himself that demonstrates cruelty in direct proportion to his ostensibly-true altruism. The ending of the story is ambiguous—which version of the protagonist is the real one? And this is the point of the story, suggesting the difficulty in evaluating one’s true nature, but also the horror that just maybe, that true nature really is as cruel as one fears…
The next is a short flirtation with a surrealistic process of vengeance; it’s very much in keeping with Japanese experiemental fiction of the early years of the Twentieth Century, as writers probed the boundaries of not only propriety but also the depiction of psychology and the processes that lead towards, or away from, crime. The vengeance here seems sufficiently gruesome to be quite fair…
The final story is really a collection of trailers for “coming features” but it teases in a playful, engaging way, and demonstrates an aspect of Yumeno that we could otherwise easily overlook—often, the grotesque worlds he creates contain very black humour, humour that is consonant with the eroguro-nansensu sensibilities which so typically characterise much of his writing.
I confess to having enjoyed translating these very short stories, as poorly as I have done them; time permitting, I’m looking forward to doing more.
Clerici, Nathen Dreams From Below: Yumeno Kyûsaku And Subculture Literature In Japan, Doctoral Dissertation, Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2013
1. An Insect's Life
Kantarô the charcoal maker lived alone with neither wife nor child; day after day, deep in the mountains, he would stand in front of his charcoal kiln, watching the rising smoke, and thinking to himself how lonely he was.
This year, too, Kantarô did nothing but cram wood of oak and evergreen-oak into the charcoal kiln to greet the New Year, but on the morning of the second day, he had an odd dream for his Hatsu-yume, the first dream of the New Year.
While Kantarô was sleeping, he began to hear, coming to him from somewhere, a sad, tiny, chanting voice singing a song…
“In town, human hibernation is
Bright and fun and beautiful;
In the trees, an insect’s hibernation is
Dark and sad and forsaken.
The evergreen-oak tree I’d thought would shelter me
From the screaming winds of winter nights
And falling snows and frosts
Has been cut down and dried
And stuffed into the charcoal kiln
Tomorrow it rises as smoke, deep in the mountains…
Together with that evergreen-oak
As ash or smoke or charcoal
Am I to disappear without a trace?
Won’t anyone take pity on this sorrowful, sorrowful life?
Won’t anyone take pity
On this tiny, tiny insect?”
Gradually becoming aware of this song, Kantarô awoke with a start; there, standing in the darkness, was a beautiful princess—he could see her form, holding both sleeves to her face, bitterly weeping.
When Kantarô sprang up in surprise, he realised he’d been dreaming; night was over, and he could see that snow had fallen all around.
Kantarô thought that he’d over-slept; he hurried to his kiln, and was about to start its fire, but no matter what, he couldn’t get over his feelings of worry from last night’s dream. There was much evergreen-oak wood in the hearth—wasn’t there perhaps an insect in there as well? And not just in amongst the evergreen-oak—in the other wood, weren’t there insects living there too? If he were to know that they had been burned to death along with their dwellings, how truly sad that would be…
Kantarô thought he could hear that song from his dream—“Won’t anyone take pity on this tiny, tiny insect?”—coming to him from inside the snow-covered kiln.
Decisively, Kantarô smashed the kiln he had taken such troubles to build. Then, one by one, he began to examine each piece of piled-up wood, and yet, quite strangely, there was not a single log that had a single insect hole in it at all.
Kantarô thought that he had done a very foolish thing. If he weren’t to fire his kiln, he wouldn’t be able to eat—and yet, he thought, even so, because of that pointless dream, he had done something truly regrettable!
He checked and he checked, and finally, one final, thick, round log remained.
This was a large evergreen-oak log, and there, right in the middle of its bole, was—at last!—a single, tiny insect hole.
Kantarô thought that this must after all have been the dwelling of the insect from last night; but, peeking inside, he could see nothing; he realised that if, for example, he were to split open the log with his axe, he might end up killing any insect inside—which would hardly result in a rescue… Well—there was no choice: he made up his lunch box, and carrying this thick trunk with him, he went off into the mountains—deep, deep, and deep again to a place where he thought no one would ever be likely to go, and there, he gently stood the log between two boulders. Spring will be here before long, he thought to himself, and the bug will crawl out, and turn into a butterfly or what-not, and be able to fly about…
He’d been able to save the insect, but Kantarô no longer cared to make charcoal at all. And yet, Kantarô, since he’d been born, had only ever been a charcoal maker—he had no clue at all about other kinds of work. While he was on his way home, thinking this and that about what he might do, he lost his way, and was soon completely lost in the deep mountains.
No matter where he went—mountains and nothing but! Nothing to eat, and nothing else at all… From dusk till dawn, day after day, it was all the same. In the end, because he thought he would die of starvation, he dug up the roots of grasses to eat, and stitched together dried leaves to clothe his body, and, looking like a mountain wizrd or hermit, he crossed from mountain to mountain, looking for the way back to his home.
Beset by snow, battered by wind and rain, eating the bark of trees and the roots of grasses as he made his way, his suffering was beyond compare. But even so, every time he thought that this was all because he’d saved the life of a single insect, and that he’d done that all because he’d actually had a dream about it—he wept copious tears in his pitiful frustration!
Before long spring seemed to have arrived; the snows ceased falling and the winds grew warm, and such snows as cut across the mountain paths along which Kantarô went became fluffy and light. New shoots budded out on the trees under the warm sunlight, and he seemed to hear the pleasant voices of birds from all around.
But Kantarô was by now completely exhausted from starvation, and he eyes could no longer see… As he wandered this way and that, he bumped into rocks, and as he staggered that way and this, he crashed into trees; and at length while stumbling about, he collapsed with a crash he knew not where.
Even if you rescue a tiny insect
You rescue a unique life
Even if you rescue an elephant
You rescue a unique life
There is no difference between
The gratitude that comes
From the rescued insect or elephant
An insect, an elephant, just the same—
The beauty of the rescued heart
To save the life of a human being
One with a human heart
To save the life of an insect
One with the heart of a god
We all work to serve you, O God!
We all give thanks to you, O God!
From somewhere, this song came, clear and bright, to his ears; Kantarô, thinking everything very odd, opened his eyes, and when he did so, he saw that at some point he had been laid to sleep atop a splendid couch—at his side a group of beautiful heavenly maidens had gathered near, and were nursing him. Kantarô thought, I’m dreaming again, aren’t I?, to himself, and was about to shut his eyes when he suddenly noticed the princess whom he had seen at his bedside in his dream; she was standing, sweetly smiling.
In surprise, Kantarô sprang up—what was this!? All the hair on his head, and his beard as well, had become pure white, and he was wearing a large white robe, like a god! And together with this, even his feelings had become those of a god—divine and pure. He had completely forgotten all his previous sufferings, and all his previous sorrows.
“Look! God has awoken!” the heavenly maidens all at once bowed themselves low.
And so, Kantarô, with his divine spirit, dwelt there as a god. He no longer ate; he no longer worried. Each day, he listened to the spring songs of the heavenly maidens, and watched their amusing spring dances.
One certain day, Kantarô and the heavenly maidens flew out together from the home. Coming out of the entry way and turning to look back, he saw that their dwelling place was the tiny, tiny insect hole in the large evergreen-oak log he had once placed between two boulders deep in the mountains.
Before all else, Kantarô went to look at his old home. He saw that all was as it had been, and in front of his home stood, as it had always done, his old charcoal kiln. Now look at that!, he thought to himself—someone is making charcoal! And just as he thought this, who should come out from his old house but a man who looked exactly like Kantarô of old—even his clothes were the same. Looking up at the divine image of Kantarô, that man said,
“Ah! Look at all the butterflies up there! That dream I had at New Year’s must’ve come true, and that bug I saved must’ve become that kind of butterfly, flying about; who knows? Or otherwise maybe I’ve dried out in the sun and died… What foolishness! Do I really think I could have exchanged my life for that of an insect? Now, which log should I start with for this batch of charcoal… I’m going to use one especially full of insect holes!”
He set fire to the charcoal kiln as he said this, and so smoke began to billow densely up into the sky.
Kantarô the God had no idea whatsoever whether he was still dreaming, or whether what he was seeing was real.
2. The Strangled Corpse
On a park bench somewhere.
Before my eyes, a single, spraying fountain rose and fell, rose and fell, high into the blue of the evening sky.
Listening to the sound of that fountain, I had two or three evening editions spread out haphazardly. But when I realised that I couldn’t find the article I was looking for in any of the newspapers, I sneered, and crumpled them all up into a jumbled ball.
The article I’d been looking for was a report about the corpse of a pathetic girl from the shitamachi whom I’d strangled in an empty house on the outskirts of town just one month before.
In fact, I’d been in a profound love affair with that girl; but one night when she’d come to meet me, I couldn’t bear how chokingly beautiful she’d been, with her momoware, “cleft-peach” hairstyle and her long-sleeved kimono; I took her into a detached house in the vicinity of XX rail crossing in the suburbs. She was surprised; she was suspicious; but abruptly, single-mindedly, I strangled her to death, and at last I felt like I’d put down a heavy burden. I was thinking to myself that if… just if one in a million, just if, I didn’t do this, I just might go insane…
After that, I undid the obi waistband of her kimono, and hung it over the lintel of the door to the room; I made it look like she had hanged herself.
I went back to my lodgings with an unknowing look on my face; but ever since, every day, each day, twice a day, morning and evening, like a routine, I came to this park, sat myself down on this bench, and looked through the two or three morning or evening editions I’d bought at the entrance way; this had become my custom.
“Suicide by hanging of a girl in a long-sleeved kimono.”
I kept expecting that headline… but then, as I ascertained that I really wasn’t going to come across that article anywhere, it also became my custom to look sneeringly up at the blue, blue sky above that empty house…
Same thing today. I crumpled up the paper from two or three newspapers, shoved them under the bench, stuck a Bat cigarette in my mouth, and turned to look at the clouded sky in that direction. With the usual sneering smile, I was just about to strike a match, but just at that moment, a page of newsprint that had fallen at my feet caught my eye, and I gasped, catching my breath.
It was the local news page of the evening edition of that very day; someone sitting on that bench must have thrown it away. Right in the middle was an especially large, three-column article that leapt to my eyes like a jolt of electricity.
Suspicious Corpse in Empty House
Partial skeleton, approximately one month after death found in deserted house in the vicinity of XX rail crossing
Young man in business suit, apparently an office worker
Clutching the article I flew from the park. Then, without knowing how I’d gotten there, I found myself standing stock still in a daze before that deserted house, so heavy with memories, near XX rail crossing…
Finally noticing the page of newsprint I clutched in one hand, I looked around me in consternation. Making sure no one was coming, in desperate determination I opened the front door and crept in.
It was almost completely dark inside the deserted house. I searched everywhere inside; coming to the eight-mat room where I’d hung the girl’s dead body, I struck a match and looked about—
That was indisputably my corpse.
Hanging by my belt from the joist, a Bat cigarette stuck in my mouth, a match in my right hand, clutching the newspaper in my left hand…
I grew faint from an excess of shock. I dropped the match as it burned me—doubts floated up fleetingly in one part of my mind—this must be some sort of trick by the police!—but just at that instant, from the darkness behind me, I could hear the unexpected, laughing voice of a young girl.
That was unmistakably the voice of the girl I’d strangled…
“Oh hohohohoho! Now you understand how I feel!”
Unwritable Detective Stories
I want to write great detective stories.
Beneath a glittering sun, a splendid shooting star races past. The profile of a beautiful woman walking past, wearing coloured glasses, her hair in a superb marumage style, burns itself clearly into my retinas and begins to fade. After, the smell of gasoline and a the unbearable stink of a rotting corpse—a chaotic jumble of smells—strike my nose.
…What the…? Wasn’t that a corpse wearing make-up, just now…?
The minute this thought comes to me, my heart begins to pound… I shudder as a chill runs up my spine… That is the kind of detective story I want to write.
A beautiful woman has been strangled and hanged from the ceiling of an abandoned house.
Because no one is renting that empty house, the corpse isn’t discovered for a long, long time.
Unable to endure any longer, the culprit disguises himself as an amateur detective, and discovers the body. He makes a report to the police, and by means of a truly surprising power of elucidation, he divulges the process of his own crime. In the end, he announces to the police officers that the true criminal will be a man by a certain name, lodging at a certain hotel, in a certain room, in a certain month, on a certain day, at a certain time; he himself, at that time, and under that name, stays in that very room. There, he mounts a fierce resistance to the police, but at last, he receives a fatal wound and collapses. He shouts out, “Banzai!” three times, and dies. That is the kind of detective story I want to write.
A certain crazed killer, a criminal the pinnacle of evil, fearing a certain famous detective, intends without fail to kill him.
Yet, strangely, the famous detective, who till now had never known fear, seemingly in an extremity of dread for this most evil of criminals, exhausts all his secret arts in a frantic effort to escape; the criminal in turn exhausts even more secret arts in an effort to chase after him. Finally, the criminal pins down the detective on a great passenger ship, and the two pitch each other into the sea.
Fishing out their corpses and conducting various enquiries, it emerges that the criminal was a beautiful woman who had been a former lover of the detective, but she had disguised herself… How’s that for a plot?
Trotsky is dangling a fishing line at the edge of a small pond on the outskirts of Paris. He wis doing this because he is searching for the Romanov crown which his good friend, Lenin, has earlier on thrown into that pond.
Trotsky is successful. Just as he grins, fishing the crown, radiant with gold and jewels, from the bottom of the pond, a figure comes lumbering towards him from the darkness behind.
“So! You’ve fished it out, have you?”
Trotsky turns back in surprise—it is Lenin, his friend whose preserved body—he had expected!—is lying in state in a glass coffin in Moscow’s Red Square.
Trotsky is on the point of passing out! Leaving behind the crown, his fishing rod, his cap, even his clogs, he runs away at top speed.
“Aaaah! A ghost!!”
Lenin watches after him, sneering. He picks up the crown from the grass and fondles it.
“Hahahaha! I took great pains over my trick to make certain the world confirmed that I had died! But I never would have thought that even Trotsky believed in my death! He’s worked exactly according to my plan. He was the only one I’d spoken with about the crown… I doubt anyone knows that I planned that whole revolution all because I wanted this one crown… never mind that even before the revolution I’d long ago set up a pawn shop here in Paris, and installed three of my mistresses to run it! Ahahahaha! What fools!”
I could probably never write that kind of detective story in Japan…
The widow of a multimillionaire lives with her daughter in a villa atop a cliff on a certain coast. Both are quite beautiful, but the daughter is convinced that their lives are the target of someone, and that sometime they will surely be killed; a certain young detective appears on the scene, and does all he can to protect them.
Widow and daughter give heartfelt gratitude to the famous young detective. Gradually, the daughter and the famous detective fall in love, and yet, even so, no matter what he does, the detective simply cannot catch the actual fiend who is targeting the daughter’s life. What incredible, what mysterious, what wondrous, what inexplicable skill it is that always holds the great detective at bay at the very last minute, that continues to menace the life of the persevering daughter!
And yet one day, while the daughter is walking along the edge of the cliff, she is suddenly pushed over by a strong force! Her body twisting as she falls, she catches sight of her mother and the detective peering together down at her from atop the cliff, a ruthless grin on both of their faces.
In the space of the few seconds before the head of the daughter hits the edge of a rock at the bottom of the cliff, all the inexplicability till now begins to melt away. Now, I wonder—would I be able to write a full-length novel full of all the amazement and fear that spin through the high-speed film of her reminiscences in those few seconds?
There is a hunch-backed cemetary guard.
At a crematorium deep in the mountains, where signs of humanity are a rare thing indeed, he opens the casket before a person has been cremated, to snatch out anything that catches his eye. Inside the casket is a person who has come back to life—he nurses the person back to his senses, but then, after making him tell the hunch-back about all his secrets, he beats him to death and cremates the corpse. The hunch-back then threatens the bereaved family, plunders all their money, and accumulates great wealth.
Soon, he discovers that the corpse of a beautiful young woman who had killed herself over a broken love affair had come back to life, and he marries her! He gives up his cemetary guard job, and moves to a distant land where he lives his life happily after after with his beautiful wife.
But I could probably never write the story of his reminiscences at all in the style of A Thousand and One Nights…
While I’ve been getting ready to write something—I’ve now written the few pages I’ve promised my editor! And yet, re-reading everything, there’s not a single thing here I could properly call a “detective story.” They’re all just psychological sketches, like adult fairy tales…
What am I going to write, I wonder…
Article and Translation copyright Timothy Iles