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.