American readers will be intrigued by a language for sexuality that is plain but understated, neither vulgar nor coy.
Twelve Views from the Distance by Mutsuo Takahashi. Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles. University of Minnesota Press, 256 pages, paperback, $19.95.
By Helen Epstein
We’ve become so accustomed to American coming-of-age narratives—black, white, Asian, gay, straight, aristocratic, or working class—that it’s unusual to be surprised by yet another account of growing up. But surprised and intrigued I was by the unusual history, structure, and tone of Twelve Views from the Distance.
It’s a memoir of a rural, Japanese, working-class childhood told by a 32-year-old whose direct and sensual writing sometimes reminded me of D. H.Lawrence. Mutsuo Takahashi recounts scenes from his childhood in 12 overlapping chapters that serve as reflecting mirrors. First serialized in a Japanese cooking magazine in 1969, at the suggestion of Takahashi’s boss at a Tokyo advertising agency, Twelve Views was published as a book in 1970. This English version is the result of a long labor of love by Japanese literature scholar Jeffrey Angles, who provides an informative introduction. The volume also includes a new afterward by Takahashi.
In today’s publishing environment, it’s is all but impossible to find support for translation. In a moving acknowledgment, Professor Angles writes that he had been questioning whether “the vast amounts of time, knowledge, research, and dogged perseverance required to complete a good translation weren’t better spent on other pursuits” when he received a grant from the PEN American Center to pursue this one.
I had never heard of Matsuo Takahashi but learned that, now 75, he has published a wide variety of work including essays, plays, and opera libretti. For decades he has been primarily known as Japan’s leading gay poet, going back to 1975, when his Poems of a Penisist appeared in English translation and was compared to Alan Ginsberg’s Howl. His work brought homoerotic poetry into the Japanese mainstream and earned Takahashi international attention.
In 1969, while writing Twelve Views, Takahashi was thinking about the still-current controversies about the veracity of memories. His first chapter, “The Snow of Memory,” is based on a rare photograph of himself and his mother and the recollection of taking a rickshaw with her to a photographer’s studio shortly before she left him, without warning, to live and work in China. It was snowing that day and, to his adult eyes, their portrait seems to be flecked with snow as well, even though it was taken inside of the studio. “Pure recollection” he writes, “isn’t the only thing one might call memory. Wouldn’t it make sense to think of a second type of memory, which is built on stories gathered from outside, and a third type, in which recollections and stories supplement one another?”
Takahashi raises but does not belabor those questions. He’s more interested in sketching the details of his first months of life. Born in 1937 to a poor factory worker and his wife in Kyushu, the southernmost large island of Japan, he grew up during imperial Japan’s invasion of China and the Second World War. His father Shiro fell ill and died three months after his birth. “People tell me,” Takahashi writes, “that Mother was so overwhelmed by the enormity of his death that for a while she lost all desire to respond to or even hold her frantically wailing children. The day after his death my older sister Hiromi, who had seemed to be suffering from some sort of flu, died from meningitis. My mother placed her daughter, only four years old, side by side in the same coffin as her thirty-year-old husband. People tell me that Mother did not shed a single tear when she took me, still little more than a newborn, on her back and walked to the crematorium, leading my sister Miyuki by the hand.”
“Due to these circumstances, my grandparents strongly urged Mother to give up Miyuki…”
His mother, Hisako, tried to kill herself and her remaining two children but was discovered by his grandparents: “Her attempt at murder-suicide ended in failure, yet for me this failed ending could be seen as a sort of symbolic death.”
When Matsuo was three, his mother Hisako left Kyushu to live as the secretary and mistress of a Japanese, married man working in China. The circumstances around that decision are unexplained. The reader infers that, in 1940, the economic crisis combined with hostile in-laws and possibly love, led Hisako to abandon her only son. But the author doesn’t probe. That year and at times even after his mother’s return, Matsuo lived with his parsimonious, peasant grandmother who often farmed him out to others—a practice the author recounts in the same matter-of-fact way that he describes more pleasant matters. There is little psychological delving in Twelve Views, no character analysis—just description, anecdote, song, and folklore.
The ramifications of his first traumatic years are clear in the unfolding of the family story and its resonances. The 12 chapters are impressionistic and episodic, peopled with many characters, often sidetracking to seemingly random songs and stories. It can be difficult to keep track of who’s who in the large cast of characters and may be frustrating to a reader accustomed to understanding cause and effect. Hisako leaves and comes back. Matsuo finds friends and mentors and manages to find sympathetic teachers in school. The book ends before he reaches high school. He doesn’t explain how he winds up in Tokyo, a protégé of the novelist Yukio Mishima.
Takahashi’s preference for highlighting the peripheral and understating what other writers might consider central is one of the many features that makes this memoir such an unusual and provocative read. So is the author’s pervasive sensuality. The chapter titles—“On Mother’s Back,” “The Shore of Sexuality” and “The Various Types of Sea”—are thematic rather than chronological and filled with sounds, sights, scents, and frequent episodes of sexual arousal.
The author’s relations with others are most often described in physical rather than psychological terms. “Grandmother’s back was well-suited to carrying gravel and other hard tasks,” he observes, “but it was probably not the sort of back that would carry a child who had grown much past infancy. Still, even though Grandmother was not the most motherly of women, it still does does not change the fact that historical circumstances chased my uncle from the safety of her back.” About his young, brutal Uncle Ken’ichi, who beat him with a yoga belt when he got annoyed, Takahashi writes, “In the moments his room was open, I caught the mixed aroma of ink, books, and sweat—the aroma of melancholy youth. “
Takahashi is at his most discursive when writing about sex. He traces his earliest sexual sensations to being tossed into the air by adults when he was a toddler or being lifted up on their legs in the game Americans call “airplane,” experiencing a mix of anxiety and intoxication. In a game called You Can See Tokyo, “the adult would cover the child’s ears with both hands and raise the child high above his own head. . . . The game involved a dizzying cycle of rising and falling. I would be elevated to an anxiety-filled zenith, and my feet would dangle in the air. Next, I would be cast into a hell by a force as strong as anything I could imagine, and at the terrifying nadir of this fall, I would finally find my feet on the ground once again. Later, after I learned about that thing called sex, I couldn’t help but remember the game You Can See Tokyo. . . . ”
In the course of moving from household to household as a child, Takahashi learned that one way of bonding was sharing sexual material: “I knew that bawdy songs were a sign of impudence. Plus, when men sing lewd songs to one another, they lay their hearts bare, erasing any distance between them. As I walked home from school along the glittering railroad tracks, I sang some of my dirty lyrics to my new friends Onion, Tamo-chan, and Yoshiaki-chan:
Warships like twats
Cannons like cocks
Trumpets like assholes…
“My song was greeted by loud cheers and applause, and the four of us went home singing this song in a chorus at the top of our lungs, Rumors about our behavior quickly spread. Onion and Tamo-chan told people, ‘Mut-chan is a real pervert. Being a ‘real pervert’ was in our eyes a synonym for being a real man.”
The challenges of translating this memoir are enormous. Twelve Views is the memoir of a childhood but also of a pre-modern rural society that no longer exists. Takahashi himself felt compelled to explain some of his region’s customs and slang to other Japanese readers; Angles provides a glossary of terms that elucidates many difficult references for non-Japanese readers: names, clothing, furnishings, games, places, and customs.
Given these many obstacles to translation, Takahashi’s voice comes through loud and clear. American readers will be intrigued by a language for sexuality that is plain but understated, neither vulgar nor coy. I don’t often draw attention to jacket blurbs, but in this case, it’s pertinent to quote the author’s friend, mentor and fellow gay author Yukio Mishima: “Mutsuo Takahashi has managed to achieve firm prose that, while unmistakably the work of a poet, shines with a black luster much like a set of drawers crafted by a master of old. This book is a magnificent collection of sensations and memories, much like the toys we might find in a dark closet.”
Helen Epstein is the author of two memoirs and two biographies. Her work can be found here.