Your novel Masks, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter (女面, Onnamen, 1958) reminded me of an intricate structure one is made to peel off, layer by layer, only to find out later that the layers only made more visible the core that they were to be hiding – they were, after all, the very things we were looking for.
The novel centres around four characters who share an interest in ghost and spirit possession. Mieko Togano is a cultivated woman and famous poet whose son Akio has died tragically in an avalanche on Mount Fuji. She lives with her daughter-in-law, the young widow Yasuko, who decided to continue Akio’s research on Heian era spirit possession. The topic brings them together with the professor Tsuneo Ibuki, a specialist in Heian period Japanese literature who was Akio’s colleague at the university, and the psychologist Toyoki Mikamé, Ibuki’s old friend from college.
Both men feel attracted to Yasuko, and two events are weaved in this love triangle, conveying a sense that they may have been cast under a spell: their strange attraction to Yasuko evolves gradually, and coincides with the chance discovery of an essay written by Mieko decades ago, as well as with the reappearance of Akio’s mysterious twin sister, Harume, who had been raised by her grandmother in the countryside.
Onnamen means “female masks”. As the title suggests, the sense of something hidden pervades the story. Furthermore, each of the novel’s three parts takes its name from a type of Nō Mask – Ryō no Onna, Masugami and Fukai – and each of those masks conveys an aspect of the personality of the female characters. As the Nō Masks are embodiments of ideas and depict primary human emotions – grief, love, hate -, so each of the three parts represents one of the novel’s leitmotifs. As the narrative progresses, the masks will fall down one by one, like the thin layers that, by concealing a strange, haunting core, are there to better display it.
The first mask, Ryō no Onna, means “spirit woman”, and is said to represent “the vengeful spirit of an older woman tormented beyond the grave by unrequited love”. It refers to Mieko’s essay on the character of the Rokujō lady from The Tale of Genji as an embodiment of female power. In a long-forgotten essay on the subject, Mieko claimed that the Rokujō lady, unable to surrender her spirit to Genji, turned unconsciously to spirit possession as “the only available outlet for her strong will”. While many critics see the character as an embittered woman, Mieko identifies with her: spiritual possession was the only means by which a woman could exert power over men.
Slowly we come to know why and in which sense Mieko, like the Rokujō lady, is a Ryō no Onna – one who “can carry out her will by forcing it upon others”. She is intent on exacting revenge against her deceased husband by manipulating the relationship between Yasuko and the two men. Mieko is “one of the last women who lives that way still–like the masks–with her deepest energies turned inward”; like a rigid mask which changes its expression in a game of light and shadow, Mieko “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.”
The second part, Masugami, means “young madwoman,” or “young woman in a state of frenzy.” Each of the female characters experiences a moment where they are a helpless Masugami. And one of those female characters will be used as a sacrificial Masugami, in a treacherous but dreamlike scene, to seduce and trap one of the men: “Her heavily rouged, camellia-bright lips were ripe with sensuality, and her face was the face of Masugami”
Finally, the third part, Fukai, means “deep well or deep woman”, and represents a middle-aged woman whose heart is as deep as a bottomless well – “a well so deep that its water would seem totally without colour.” As if it were a mirror reflecting her real face, the Fukai mask conveys Mieko’s sudden awareness of the consequences of her revenge: “In that moment, the mask dropped from her grasp as if struck down by an invisible hand. In a trance, she reached out and covered the face on the mask with her hand, while her right arm, as if suddenly paralyzed, hung frozen, immobile, in space”.
This is a tale of women who fight oppression with the simple means they have: their masks, their body, and the sole strength of their will. It draws upon the literary traditions embodied on The Tale of Genji – the use of allusions to classical texts to foreshadow later events – and the Nō dramas – the use of masks to convey ideas -, so as to reinterpret and subvert those same traditions.
The highlight of your novel, for me, is its veiled eroticism, in which seduction and manipulation are interwoven. The relationship between Mieko and Yasuko seems much more than that of mother and daughter-in-law: at times, it is sensuous, physical, as if they were lovers; at times, they seem to be fierce enemies manipulating one another. It can be difficult to pinpoint who is using whom, and who is being revenged. Mieko longs to ensure her lover’s bloodline over her husband’s; Yasuko, on the other hand, longs to produce a child bearing Akio’s blood. Those intentions both complement and destroy one another. “You and I are accomplices, aren’t we, in a dreadful crime – a crime that only women could commit.”
As Mieko covers the Fukai mask as if she were covering her own face with her hand, we feel as bereft as she seems to be by the ambiguity of her gesture: is she embarrassed? Afraid? Struck by the terrible beauty of her own will? Or is she finally reduced into submission? Is she purged or punished? Is she possessed?
“Just as there is an archetype of woman as the object of man’s eternal love, so there must be an archetype of her as the object of his eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions.” ― Fumiko Enchi,
“The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume.” ― Fumiko Enchi,
“A woman’s love is quick to turn into a passion for revenge – an obsession that becomes an endless river of blood, flowing on from generation to generation” ― Fumiko Enchi,
“Believe me, she is a woman of far greater complexity than you – or anyone – realize. The secrets inside her mind are like flowers in a garden at nighttime, filling the darkness with perfume. Oh, she has extraordinary charm. Next to that secret charm of hers, her talent as a poet is really only a sort of costume.” ― Fumiko Enchi,
About the book
- Vintage, 2015, tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter, 155 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1958
- Original title: 女面 [Onnamen]
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- This book was read for Japanese Reading Challenge 11