Wednesday, June 02, 2010

lesley downer: madame sadayakko

When I started Book Munch, I told myself that I would strive, anyhow, to read at least fifty books between January and December. I'm now reviewing book #62 at the beginning of June. I'm thankful things turned out this way, in a year when so much of my time has really not been my own. I also think I should learn to assess basic aspects of time and ambition correctly.


#62 Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Conquered the West, Lesley Downer

I knew what I was getting into when I opened this book. I did read Memoirs of a Geisha in my irresponsible youth. I am somewhat familiar with the creepy Japanophilia of some aspects of the West's relationship with the country, and its history that stretches well back into the cultural obsessions of *~edgy~* fin-de-siecle France. [I hope Kate Beaton makes a comic about it soon.] Still, I dug it out of the bargain bin of Magna Bookstore for fifty rupees, and it contains such stunning photographs of Sadayakko that they alone would have made it a worthy purchase.

But the story, even told in a strange confluence of meticulous reportage and whimsical flights of fancy about its subjects, surpasses all bounds. Here is a woman who was adopted by a geisha house as a young girl, and rose to become the star of her generation as one of the most celebrated women in Japan. At the height of her career she counted the Prime Minister of Japan as a patron. But that was in between finding the love of her life -- a penniless student from whom she was parted, as he allowed himself to be adopted into one of Japan's foremost industrialist families, to marry their daughter -- and marrying Otojiro Kawakami, the adventuring actor-rebel who went about calling himself 'the Liberty Kid' as he lambasted the Meiji-era establishment in his political satires, and set himself to revolutionising kabuki theatre.

Yakko herself became an actor at the age of twenty-eight, going along with Otojiro's theatre company on an unprecedented and rather cocky tour of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and then stepping up on stage to help rescue them from certain doom among the fickle audiences and unscrupulous agents of San Francisco and Chicago. Her effect, and the effect of Otojiro's customised kabuki, was absolutely electrifying. It shocked Japanese observers with its convenient cannibalisation of the art's ancient traditions as much as it delighted Western audiences, and the effect is still easily imagined today. Henry Irving and Ellen Terry couted Yakko and Otojiro as their 'comrades in art,' and Sarah Bernhardt paid them the compliment of finding them 'abominable' when she saw them in Paris, where Yakko was counted as having fired the audience's imagination in a way that almost surpassed the previous Expo's great attraction, the brand-new Eiffel Tower. The Czar hosted them at dinner; Prince George was infatuated with Yakko; Picasso painted her in a couple of his earliest sketches ['of moderate value,' according to a Picasso expert today.] The two did not return to Japan empty-handed of art, either: their productions of Shakespeare and other classical Western theatre were tailor-made in their turn by Otojiro, to suit Japanese audiences. At their heart, shocking and delighting Japanese audiences very much interested in the ways of the West, was Yakko, who became the first woman to act on the Japanese stage after centuries of a sumptuary law. She alone lit the torch for a whole generation of Japanese actresses who found their calling in drama.

I have tried not to summarise any of the books I've blogged so far extensively, but believe me when I say that the paragraphs above just about cover the bare bones of the story. Downer, to her credit, does a good job assembling various aspects of this extraordinary life, the conditions that influenced it, and the influence it had in its turn on the world and Japan of its time. She rightly assesses the disgusting Orientalism informing the West's rapturous love affair with Sadayakko [Puccini went to hear her sing while he was writing Madama Butterfly]. She even puts together a well-meaning defence of Yakko and Otojiro's rather opportunistic overturning of stage traditions - both their own and foreign ones - to put bums in seats. After all, Downer says, they did it because they would have starved otherwise, for one. And for another, the West would discover post-modernism and freedom from the text so many decades later -- in their adapting classical theatre to their own ends, Yakko and Otojiro were also ahead of their time.

Nice try, say I. But in spite of their crimes against art, there is something irresistible about Yakko and her villain of a husband, a vibrant sense of adventure and independence -- once, in a period of utter frustration with creditors knocking ceaselessly at their door, they got into a boat and sailed around the coasts of Japan for three months -- and that makes it extremely hard not to sympathise with them. Even Otojiro, with his inglorious record of spousal infidelity and disrespect, comes off as a bit of a lovable pirate [and surely there is a biography that would be worth reading as well].

Although she makes no bones about Yakko's troubles, her social status as woman and geisha, and the fallout of her flouting convention upon convention, Downer strives to paint a picture of a woman who would be iconic and inspirational to any woman in the last century. Often this narrative is so compelling that it is almost easy to forget that it belongs to the robust tradition of the white scholar remaking a subject of colour to suit their own ends. Downer combs through extensive records of Yakko's own youth, but has very little, for example, to say of her reputation in contemporary Japan. This is troubling - surely a personage so important would matter greatly to generations of Japanese actors, artists and feminists? We do touch upon the destruction of piles of records and, indeed, a whole way of life in the wake of World War II, which makes the absence of material or memory fairly understandable. But it is a serious gap in the text, and would have made for a much fairer and balanced account had it been addressed. It is otherwise far too easy to read Yakko's story as co-opted to serve the Downer worldview, and no matter how well-intentioned that end, it is only an end.

More annoying yet is Downer's inexplicable descent into fantasy at the end of pretty much every documentable incident in Yakko's personal life. "They may have found an hour alone in some quiet room in the teahouse." "She must have been deeply grieved." "She was probably --" "As a Japanese woman she could only --" Dude. If I want speculation, I'll read the fanfiction. It's a pity to keep hijacking your own research by appending fluff to practically every page of history, and it's moderately insulting to both reader and subject. And Downer's editors clearly let her keep in her auto-text macros from her drafts, which cannot but stand out as they string themselves across page after page: the number of times she refers to Yakko's deferentail relationship to Otojiro as her status as 'the little woman,' or the reminder after every reference to her physical beauty about 'one flat eye and one round,' [hi, did you think no one knows what the epicanthic fold is?] runs easily into the dozens.

These are serious faults. I have only myself to blame for falling all over them, in the, yes, I-knew-what-I-was-getting-into way. Nonetheless, it's a book I'm glad I read, even for what I understand can only be the bare bones of a life in itself -- it is a tremendous story, and one that deserves to be known much better, and treated much, much more in depth.

Coming soon on Book Munch:
The Demon's Lexicon
Leela: A Patchwork Life
The Audacity of Hope

1 comment:

  1. someday when i grow up, i'll learn to read atleast a tenth as fast as you do. No make that a third.