In the collection A Riot of Goldfish, translated by J. Keith Vincent (2010. Original: 金魚撩乱, Kingyo Ryōran, 1937/ 食魔, Shokuma, 1941), both novellas deal with protagonists who, alienated from society (and, ultimately, from themselves), go off track and get lost in their obsession to shape nature and reality to their will – and, in the meantime, get confronted with the emptiness that this entails.
In the first novella, “A Riot of Goldfish”, we follow Mataichi, the adoptive son of a goldfish breeder and shop owner. As a child, our protagonist used to bully Masako, the wealthy daughter of his father’s best customer, Teizo Araki. One day, Masako decides to fight back, and throws cherry petals into Mataichi’s face. From then on, he falls in love with her: as the petals get stuck in his throat, so does Mataichi gets stuck in his love for Masako. “But one painful petal remained behind in some unreachable region of his heart from where it would never be removed.”
As the children grow, Teizo eventually becomes Mataichi’s patron, paying for his studies as a researcher at a fisheries station. When our protagonist is about to graduate from his studies, he hears the news that Masako is going to get married, and becomes devastated: obsessed by his former classmate, who he now sees as unattainable, Mataichi sets out on a quest to breed the most beautiful goldfish. His aim is nothing less than to create a fish that mirrors Masako’s beauty. “He would create a precious, beautiful new breed of goldfish like none the world had ever seen. Making this his life’s work, he would think of himself as a man blessed with a tragic form of happiness shared by no other, as a nameless hero caught up in a mysterious fate.”
He focuses all his energy on this aim, and spends over a decade on a vain attempt to create the perfect goldfish. He is driven almost mad, and practically ruins his career and his reputation. We already know that he is doomed to fail – what we don’t know is that only mere chance will be able to produce the perfection longed for by our protagonist; and beauty will be found where it is least expected: “He remembered nothing and thought of nothing, but beheld the beauty of nature as it was, transforming into ecstasy itself.”
In the second novella, “The Food Demon”, our protagonist is Besshiro, an embittered gourmet who works as a cooking instructor to the daughters of the wealthy Araki family. We follow his frustrations at having been born in a lower class, and his constant feeling that a man with his genius deserved better in life. At first, he dreams of entering high society by becoming an artist, but his aspirations are soon thwarted – contrary to his feelings, Besshiro lacks talent.
He discovers, however, that he has a flair for cooking, and sets out to create the best possible meal for his clients, in an attempt to impress them with his culinary skills. As he does so, Besshiro refines his talent at the expense of the people who love him, and he even neglects to feed his wife and child. Embittered that his craft is seen as somewhat inferior to art, and angry that he does not get the acknowledgement he believes to deserve, Besshiro feels engulfed by darkness, as if his whole existence had been in vain: “So what about the taste of this darkness?” He will learn the hard way that he was missing the point the whole time: the elusive core of true art is not acknowledgement, but love.
Both novellas are set in Japan, during the interwar period, and both are told in a retrospective way, beginning in the present and then retracing how the protagonists arrived at the point the story started. Moreover, both novellas centre on lower class men who feel they are not understood and see themselves as deserving of something better in life. Plagued by their inner demons, and forever craving for elusive things, they are caught in an endless cycle of failure and dissatisfaction, from which they are only liberated by a leap into the very source of their bitterness: an insight into impermanence, selflessness, and surrender.
“Maitachi’s heart, free from all entaglements began to think in the space between dream and reality. The half-sacred and half-human creatures of Greek myths are not imaginary. They actually exist. They are alive in the world even today. They are tired of reality and have lost their patience with its violence and vulgarity. Their sensitive natures have made them flee it, but they have too great a life-force to die. Yet they are too childlike and attached to everyday life to become gods or heavenly creatures. So they linger in our world and have their fun.” – Kanoko Okamoto, A Riot of Goldfish
“Something hot flew like a dragon at an angle through his heart, but when he thought of Masako, a beautifully vague state of mind enveloped him again like a red mist.” – Kanoko Okamoto, A Riot of Goldfish
“It was a darkness that could only swallow and never spit things up. What would happen to a person who got caught in this horrifically dark, dull and boundless digestive force? You could cry and scream but never outrun it. And gradually your body would dissolve like an insect caught in a sundew plant.” – Kanoko Okamoto, The Food Demon