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April 28, 2008


Of samurai, sex, and spiders


When the world was too much with samurai in 17th- and 18th-century Japan, they headed down to the Yoshiwara district of low-city Edo. Last week, in a similar mood, I headed down to the Drama & Desire show at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. There I had to make do with paintings of kabuki actors and courtesans. The samurai had the real thing. But since the paintings in the museum were commissioned by wealthy samurai, they also saw what I saw.

We saw a place gone topsy-turvy. Outside the walls of the Yoshiwara, Buddhist priests talked about the fleeting quality of life in this world. They called it ukiyo, the floating world. Inside the Yoshiwara, ukiyo became the very reason for life:

Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating: caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.

It was a sensuous life, filled with textures and colors, grounded in the sights and seasons of the natural world.

But still, it was topsy-turvy. Outside the Yoshiwara walls, devout painters depicted saints in familiar scenes drawn from the sutras. Inside, irreverent painters depicted popular entertainers in the same scenes. Imagine George Clooney in drag, portraying the Virgin Mary.

Everything was upside down. Outside, Confucian teachers defined social relations as dutiful, and women as good wives and mothers. Inside, social relations were playful, for those who could pay. Women were fascinating, intelligent, cultured creatures, who inspired dreams and works of art. And they were courtesans.

They were sexual beings, as were the men who flocked to their sides. In a country that had only passing familiarity with Christianity, sex was not original sin. It was just sex. It was fun. It was one of the pleasures of the floating world. And it was one of the many visual themes that attracted artists. (At the same time, it goes without saying that life for denizens of the Yoshiwara was risky and restricted. But so was the life of a samurai.)

Many of the paintings in the show are triptychs. On the left is the portrait of a middle-class woman. On the right is a geisha. In the middle, the place of honor, stands a courtesan. In other paintings — often panoramas of an entire street — a courtesan in a bright kimono and obi sits prominently in the center. It’s hard to find a modern, Western parallel. Critics have compared courtesans to movie stars, but they must have been referring to a different era. It’s hard to imagine Paris Hilton, or even Angelina Jolie, inspiring men with the kind of star-struck longing that these women commanded.

Something has gotten lost in translation. And it’s our loss, for both men and women.

There’s an old short story called “Tattoo” (“Shisei,” sometimes translated as “The Tattooer”) by the writer Tanizaki Jun’ichiro that illustrates what I mean. Although known for its elements of obsession and sado-masochism, the story is essentially a tale of transformation. The plot revolves around the elaborate image that a tattoo artist inscribes on a young woman’s back. The image — a spider — changes her from a demure maiden to a powerful, self-confident woman.

A spider. What kind of spider could do that? Surely not the small brown variety that spins cobwebs in the corner of your attic.

The earliest translator of this story into English made an odd choice. I don’t know if he had been inoculated with a deep sense of sin. Or he had a horror of strong women. Or he simply knew nothing about spiders. But he turned this one into a black widow.

The transformation was as extreme as the one that the heroine underwent.

Tanizaki’s spider was a jorogumo — a courtesan spider. (Click on the link & scroll down to see her in all her glory.) Unlike the black widow, its bite is not lethal. Unlike the black widow, it is a beautiful creature. Like its human namesake, it stands out in a crowd, its red, yellow, and black markings resembling the pattern on a richly embroidered kimono.

When “Tattoo” appeared in 1910, the glories of the Yoshiwara had begun to fade. Following its astonishing defeat of Russia in 1905, Japan had taken a position among the major powers. The rest of the world took the country seriously. And many Japanese questioned whether something had been lost in the process.

Tanizaki originally set the story in the present, but then he rewrote it, moving it back to an earlier, less fraught time. “Tattoo” is too bizarre to be nostalgic. Tanizaki was too much a man of his own era to yearn for the past. Like the painters displayed in the show at the Asian Art Museum, his concerns were artistic. Like them, he was excited by the act of creation. And creativity, he must have known, thrived when people were comfortable in their own resplendent skins.

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Wednesday.      

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008