The Floating World in Japanese Fiction

The Floating World in Japanese Fiction

The Floating World in Japanese Fiction

The Floating World in Japanese Fiction

Excerpt

Japanese literature is so often identified with certain of its traditional forms -- courtly romances, the mysterious nó plays, delicate miniature poems about a falling leaf or a fading flower -- that it has been sometimes unjustly disparaged for its limitations. Cherry blossoms are not the preoccupation of all its writers; nor is their mood invariably one of wistful melancholy. In particular, quite different views will be found to colour seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fiction, the literary counterpart of the familiar ukiyo-e, or 'pictures of the floating world'.

The fiction of the floating world belonged to a prosperous, creative, and illegitimate élite. It was an élite of shopkeepers and entertainers, at the bottom of the Japanese feudal order. But fashionable opinion had prejudices of its own, not the official ones, and the ukiyo -- the 'floating world' of Kyoto, Osaka, and Edo -- had become fashionable by the Genroku. Era (roughly, 1680 to 1730 or 1740, though the name comes from the yearperiod 1688-1703). With money, a fishmonger's son could be a social lion. Careers of beauty were never more accessible. An obscure shop or tea-house might blossom into splendid profit; whereupon its owner would 'train an epicure's palate, renew his wardrobe, and yearn for the exquisite in all things'. And his parties would begin to include celebrated actors and courtesans, with expensive tastes.

Here, then, are a few members of this Genroku café society as they appear in the ukiyo-zóshi, or 'tales of the floating world'. The West has been accustomed to look at their world only in the ukiyo-e woodcuts -- not in the ukiyo-zóshi, its popular fiction. Yet, as we see in the history of the illustrated book, these arts were intimately allied. Both offer pictures of the floating world -- images drawn from the same milieu of shop, street, theatre, and tea-house, and reflecting the same poses, the same cosmetic chic, the same glossy coiffures and showy dresses in striped, checked, or flowered fabrics. Of course there is a difference in point of . . .

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