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Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale [Hardcover]

Nagai Kafu , Stephen Snyder

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Book Description

Sept. 21 2007 Japanese Studies Series

Originally published in 1918, Rivalry is regarded as the masterpiece of Nagai Kafu, a Japanese novelist known for his brilliant renderings of Tokyo in the early years of modern Japan. Stephen Snyder offers the first English translation of the complete, uncensored text, which has long been celebrated as one of the most convincing and sensually rich portraits of the geisha profession.

Rivalry tells a sweeping story in which sexual politics compete with sisterly affection in a world ruled by material transaction. Komayo is a former geisha who, upon the death of her husband, must return to the "world of flower and willow" to escape poverty. A chance encounter with an old patron, Yoshioka, leads to a relationship in which both lovers hope to profit: Yoshioka believes Komayo can restore his lost innocence; Komayo plans to use Yoshioka's patronage to compete in the elaborate music and dance performances staged by her fellow geisha.

Yoshioka is eager to ransom Komayo, but as she considers his offer, Komayo falls in love with Segawa, a young actor who promises to turn the talented geisha into the finest dancer in the Shimbashi quarter. Though her feelings for Segawa are genuine, Komayo is eager to use her lover's position to become the lead performer among her peers. Her ambition even tempts her to take on a third patron known only as the "Sea Monster," a repellent but wealthy antiques dealer whose deep pockets promise to shoot Komayo to the height of celebrity.

Though she finds herself at the pinnacle of a glittering career, Komayo nevertheless becomes the target of a bitter rivalry between her three lovers that leaves her both thrilled and exhausted, both brutalized and redeemed. Kafu's compelling tale takes readers from the intimate corners of the geisha house to the back rooms of assignation, from the dressing areas of the great kabuki theaters to the lonely country villa of a theater critic and connoisseur of Shimbashi women. His lush depictions of architecture and costumes and his incisive descriptions of urban life and individual motive provide a vivid backdrop for Komayo's struggle-one woman's absorbing quest to find fame, affection, and financial security in the refined but ruthless theater of Shimbashi.

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Portraits of Japanese geisha most often present these women either as tragic victims of oppressive institutions catering to male sexual desire or as sexually empowered entrepreneurs navigating a harsh reality. In Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale, Nagai Kafu introduces us to an altogether different geisha. Because Komayo's story is not offered as an allegory for a woman's place in a man's world, she emerges as a vivid, complex character fiercely resistant to narrow-minded moralizing and simplistic glorification. Her tale pulls readers into a far more compelling world—that of messy, inconsistent, and irreconcilable human attitudes toward love, sex, power, and performance.

(James Dorsey, Dartmouth College)

Nagai Kafu's novel is powerfully observed, exposing the tension between the elegant surface of the geisha districts and the sexual hierarchy that unfolds behind closed doors between the geisha and their patrons. Stephen Snyder's sensitive and smooth translation draws the reader into a sometimes outrageous, sometimes alluring world. An important corrective to the romanticized and exoticizing Hollywood versions of the geisha experience.

(Ann Sherif, Oberlin College)

Now we have a complete translation of Rivalry, Nagai Kafu's novel about the couplings and calculations in the world of geisha. The inclusion of the sexually explicit scenes left out in the prior translation makes this version funnier and infinitely tougher. Komayo's distress in the final chapters can only be comprehended if we know the full demands she faces as a geisha.

(Ken K. Ito, University of Michigan)

An awesomely economical and incisive writer, Nagai packs this short novel with incident and astonishingly thorough characterizations.

(Booklist (starred review))

This new translation by Snyder... successfully transforms Nagai's Taisho-era Japanese into flowing modern English.

(Library Journal)

Snyder is to be thanked both for translating this half-forgotten novel... and for doing it so compellingly.

(Bradley Winterton Taipei Times)

About the Author

Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) was a Japanese novelist whose translated works include Autumn Wind and Other Stories, American Stories, and During the Rains and Flowers in the Shades: Two Novellas.

Stephen Snyder teaches Japanese language and literature at Middlebury College. He is the author of Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu and coeditor of Oe and Beyond: Studies in Contemporary Japanese Literature.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Cameo of the Taisho Period Oct. 18 2008
By Bariloche - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Nagai Kafu is not well known in the West but he is important for his chronicling of certain aspects of the Taisho period (the one after the Meiji Restoration) when Japan was undergoing massive change due to its contact with the West but much still remained of what, we in the West, would regard as traditional Japan.

This is the story of a geisha who after having been married by one of her customers, returns to the quarter when her husband dies and she cannot survive in the remote country area of his relatives.

She becomes involved in a love triangle where she is ultimately disappointed. The ending is, however, in the context of the book, a happy one.

More important than the plot to the modern reader is the picture of everyday life of a geisha in that period and their vulnerability to the whims of men and the fears that they face. It also dwells on the cultural skills of the geisha and the central role played by kabuki actors at that time.

It is a fascinating and at times, alarming tale. Japan
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mean girls July 14 2008
By Zack Davisson - Published on Amazon.com
Apparently catty girls fighting over a popular guy knows neither the boundaries of time nor place nor social status. "Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale" could just as easily be a hot new teen film, starring Lindsay Lohan as the naive new girl being manipulated and preyed upon by the more cynical seniors. Even when set against the elegance of the flower and willow world, these women of the arts are still just ordinary people inside, with hopes and ambitions and disappointments just like everyone else.

And that really is the charm of this book. The geisha here are just allowed to be people, and interact in a regular old-fashioned love/rival story, rather than serving as some great symbol of refined and mysterious Japan. There is almost no emphasis put on the job of the geisha, the endless hours of training, the various roles in the geisha house and the extravagance of rare mockingbird-poop make-up that gives them a special sheen. Instead, they are just human beings doing a job, not all of them happy with it, not all of them good at it, but all of them determined to make some go at happiness, by hook or by crook. Author Kafu Nagai has put forth a story that is far more Jane Austen than Kawabata Yasunari, more light-hearted romp than heavy-hitting classic.

The basic story has Komayo arriving on the Tokyo Shimbashi geisha scene, returning after a short break when she was married are taken to the countryside. Her husband dead and her marriage over, she returns to the only work she knows. Unknowingly stealing a client from another geisha, the established and imperious Rikiji, she sets herself in a position of retaliation, and the gears start slowly working against her. Others move about the scene, like Hanasuke, the second-place girl content to be in the background but still looking after her own interests, or the slutty Ranka about whom it is gossiped that she is little more than a prostitute painted like a geisha but is still very popular with the male customers. The prize for all involved is the handsome and popular actor Segawa, a somewhat fickle man who is content to watch the game unfold and see who emerges the winner.

A short book at a little over 200 pages, it is still a great read and a refreshing perspective for anyone wanting to read about geisha, or just get involved in a fun catty story of a couple of pretty gals maneuvering for the top guy.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An entrancing window on the world of the geisha Jan. 14 2013
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
Better than any historical or sociological account could be, this novel is a fascinating portrait of late-Meiji society in Japan and the world of the geisha. It also is a pretty good story. Set in the Shimbashi geisha district of Tokyo, RIVALRY follows a year or so in the life of Komayo, who had been a geisha as a young woman (actually, just out of girlhood), then married, but then returned to the profession at age twenty-five after her husband died. During the novel, she develops special relationships with three men (or, in one instance, has a special relationship of patronage more or less forced upon her). In the case of two of them, her emotions are also stirred; in the case of the third, it is strictly business. The three are all rivals for her affections, or at least for her services, and with the two with whom she entertains the notion of marriage she finds that she herself has rivals in the form of other women, including the wife of one and the mother of the other. The denouement, for Komayo, of these assorted rivalries constitutes a surprise that is at once pleasant and bittersweet.

The real reason for reading RIVALRY, however, is for its portrayal of its time and place. The translator Stephen Snyder, in his Introduction, writes that RIVALRY "is perhaps the best depiction of the complex politics and economics of a hanamachi [geisha district] in modern Japanese literature." The novel also is, according to Snyder, "among the franker depictions of the sexual component of the geisha's duties." For a work written in 1916, RIVALRY is remarkably forthright in its accounts of several sexual episodes. (I cannot think of any American fiction from the same period that is as frank.)

Author Nagai Kafū (b. 1879, d. 1959) is an astute student of human psychology and desires, both male and female. He reminds me of Henry James, though somewhat more direct. Also notable about Kafū, at least as represented in RIVALRY, is a certain "Weltschmerz".

With regard to the urge for sexual conquest, portions of the novel seem almost timeless. Would you guess that this passage - concerning Yoshioka, an up-and-coming insurance executive around forty years old and one of Komayo's patrons and rivals for her affections - was written in 1916 and not a century later?: "Yoshioka's need to experience the carnal delights of civilized society was not unlike the urge that in ancient times led men to mount their steeds and chase wild beasts across the plains, to kill them and eat their flesh; the same urge that led medieval warriors to don fine armor and shed their blood on the field of combat. They all were simply manifestations of that pathetic, and yet seemingly limitless, human energy known as desire. With the advance of civilization, this energy was transformed, expressing itself now as the pursuit of luxury and pleasure, or else as the will to dominate in the business world. Fame, wealth, and women--these were the driving forces in the life of the modern man."

As foreign as the setting is, the writing is surprisingly Western. In part that perhaps is due to the fact that Kafū traveled extensively in Europe and America. No doubt it also is due to Stephen Snyder's translation, which is modern and American in tone, and features numerous colloquial expressions. There is one other English translation in print, by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich, but since it is based on an early expurgated Japanese edition, this one by Snyder is the one to get.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A significant, new translation restoring the missing passages from Kafu's commercial edition of 1918 March 28 2013
By Charlie Canning - Published on Amazon.com
Although the novelist Nagai Kafu is not as well known as Kawabata, Mishima, or Tanizaki; Kafu certainly has his charms. Of the three, he is probably closest to Tanizaki. Both spent long periods of their lives first embracing than rejecting Westernization. Both immersed themselves in what they could find of traditional Japanese culture among all the borrowed and hybrid forms once things turned ugly or just plain dull. For Kafu, it was the demimonde of Tokyo and the area around the Sumida River in the city's eastern district.

Kafu's Rivalry (Udekurabe) was first serialized in the literary magazine Bunmei in 1916-1917. Following serial publication, the manuscript was published as a book in a private and then a commercial edition. Stephen Snyder's translation is based on the first private edition restored in Iwanami Shoten's Complete Works of 1956: "I decided to retranslate Udekurabe partly because the 1963 translation by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich is based on the 1918 commercial edition and thus lacks passages, some harrowing and others hilarious, that are vital to our understanding the geisha's experience and Kafu's views of the exploitation and suffering that haunted the lives of women in this profession."

The "harrowing" part is that being a geisha involved sex for money. As Snyder notes in his Introduction, while the geisha called to entertain at a machiai or teahouse were not usually expected to sleep with their customers, those who accepted a sponsor or danna certainly were. In the third chapter of the novel, the heroine Komayo is summoned to meet her former patron Yoshioka after an interval of seven years. The obligatory romantic part of the exchange is rather short:

"'Komayo. It's been seven years.'
`I'd die if you left me again,' she sighed. Then knowing what was in store, she quickly closed her eyes to hide her discomfort.
They said nothing more. The man's face grew bright red as if he were drunk, and the veins in his arms and his neck stood out."

What is peculiar about Kafu's writing, and what sets him apart from most of his contemporaries, is the mix of styles. While much of Rivalry is nineteenth century in both treatment and tone, the narrative is peppered with rather frank, even brutal, assessments of character and scene (namagusai in Japanese) that give it a modernist feel. In the chapter "Welcoming Fires", we meet what at first appear to be two very sympathetic characters of the quarter, Gozan, the rakugo storyteller and proprietor of the Obanaya, and Kurayama, the novelist. Kafu writes of their histories and of their professions in unsparing detail. We soon learn, however, what the author really thinks of them: "The reactionary old storyteller and the outdated novelist wet their throats with cold, bitter tea and were about to go on with their flights of fancy when the reed screen parted, and Jukichi, the mistress of the Obanaya, entered the room."

The "rivalry" of the title comes from the machinations of intrigue and plot associated with securing, maintaining, or furthering one's standing in the world of the pleasure quarter. For the geisha of Rivalry, the contest is about enticing the most desirable patrons or lovers - rich businessmen like Yoshioka or handsome actors like Segawa. For the men, it is about being with the most desirable and accomplished geisha. Loss of standing for either women or men in the eyes of the community is not suffered lightly and revenge is both calculating and fierce.

Aside from the thorough rendering of the geisha Komayo and her plight, the novel's principal strength is in its description of the vanishing Edo demimonde. It was almost as if Kafu wanted to get it down on paper before it disappeared. In Chapter 12: "Rain on an Autumn Night," (also translated by the late Edward Seidensticker in his Kafu, the Scribbler), the writer Kurayama Nanso, muses: "No matter how Westernized customs and manners might have become, as long as one could hear the bells on a brief summer night or see the stream of the Milky Way on an evening in autumn, as long as the trees and plants specific to each region remained, then, he was sure, sorrow would remain at the heart of relations between men and women, just as the old ballads said."

Stephen Snyder's new translation is significant in that it restores the missing passages from Kafu's commercial edition of 1918. This means that we can now finally read the version that the Japanese have been reading since 1956. But there is something lost and something gained, whichever way you turn. Because the trysts in the Meissner and Friedrich translation are suggested rather than minutely described, there is a certain lyricism to the whole business that somehow manages to preserve the myth that geishas are purveyors of culture and not flesh. In Snyder's translation of Kafu's Rivalry, however, this illusion is shattered. The lovemaking is predatory and salacious and the demimonde is a mean little show peopled with vulgar men and women. And in this world, the beautiful Komayo is a fish in a barrel swimming around and around trying to find the stream.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Geisha reality April 28 2008
By Michael Claxton - Published on Amazon.com
In a typically well-written Japanese novel from the early half of the last century we find out - between the lines rather than between the sheets - just what it meant to be a geisha and to live in the geisha world. And if anybody knew about this world, it was Kafu.

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