Analysis of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks

Masks by the Japanese writer Fumiko Enchi (1905–86) tells the story of two rivals who pursue a young widow and of the inscrutable relationship between the widow and her mother-in-law, a woman of many secrets who holds her own malevolent plans for the three young people. A meditation on the artificiality of social personae and the fierce power struggles that underlie romantic and sexual relationships, Masks moves toward a chilling, nihilistic conclusion.

Despite the novel’s brevity and direct prose, Masks draws on a remarkably rich variety of Japanese cultural and literary intertexts: the Noh theater, ukiyo-e (“floating world” drawings and prints), Muraski’s epic The Tale of Genji, linked tanka poetry and traditional folktales of hauntings, shamanism, and spirit possession. These many references and allusions are skillfully layered into the plot of Masks in such a way as to concentrate, rather than diffuse, its eerie intensity. Furthermore, this rich matrix of allusiveness reveals both parallels and distinctions between traditional Japanese art forms and the modern novel, effectively positioning Masks as a bridge between ancient Eastern and modern Western forms of storytelling. The first of Enchi’s novels to be translated into English, Masks established her as one of the prominent voices of post–World War II Japanese literature.

Fumiko Enchi / TMDB

The novel opens with Tsuneo Ibuki, a college professor, and Toyoki Mikame, a medical doctor, discussing the merits of Yasuko, the widow of their former colleague Akio. Since Akio’s death during a skiing trip on Mount Fuji, Yasuko has been living with Akio’s mother, Mieko, a poet and professor, and completing the academic project on spirit possession that her husband left unfi nished. Research for the project brings her, with her suitors and her motherin-law in tow, to a Western-style séance and to a private viewing of masks at a traditional Noh theater. On the latter excursion, a Noh master shows the four visitors a mask of ryo no onna, the spirit woman. The figure of the living woman who may send out her spirit to invade another woman’s body is a trope that threads its way through the novel. Ibuki and Mikame, speculating about the strange intensity of Yasuko’s relationship with her mother-in-law, wonder which woman is the possessing spirit and which is the possessed medium. Despite intimations that the women share a dark secret—and may, in fact, be lovers—the two men are determined to court Yasuko.

Ironically, the married Ibuki initiates a sexual relationship with Yasuko, while the single Mikame chastely courts her. Seeing Yasuko’s relationship with Mieko as a potential obstacle to his possible marriage, Mikame begins to investigate the older woman’s personal and professional history. He discovers a scholarly essay that Mieko wrote decades before on an episode of spirit possession in the classic Heian-era epic The Tale of Genji. A study of the sexual-shamanistic power of the jilted woman, Mieko’s essay—which the novel includes in its entirety—seems to hold the key to the relationships among all four characters. Mikame and Ibuki both uncover secrets from Mieko’s own marriage, which likewise provide clues to the present: Mieko was locked in a battle of wills with her husband’s mistress, who out of jealousy contrived to cause Mieko to miscarry. In revenge, Mieko began an illicit affair with an unnamed man who fathered her illegitimate children. The greatest revelation is that Mieko had not one but two children, and that Akio’s beautiful but mentally deficient twin sister, Harume, has been living secretly in Mieko’s household.

None of these clues from the past fully reveals the scope of Mieko and Yasuko’s present designs on Yasuko’s lovers—or the role in which the women will cast Harume. When Ibuki begins to visit Yasuko on a nightly basis, rendezvousing with her in the Western-style backhouse where she does her scholarly research, the stage is set for the women to play a “bed-trick”—a hallmark of Eastern and Western literary traditions alike in which women change bedrooms during the night. By the novel’s end, the characters will find themselves in a configuration that neither Ibuki nor Mikame could have imagined when they began to pursue Yasuko.

Enchi, a scholar of classical Japanese literature who translated and edited a 10-volume modern Japanese edition of The Tale of Genji, is eminently qualified to write a novel couched in Japanese literary traditions. Her father was a Japanese linguist and her grandmother a patron of Kabuki theater. Growing up in this highly cultured household, Enchi absorbed the conventions of Japanese art and literature that she so deftly works into her fiction. Yet she also read deeply in the Western literary canon and studied English and French. Enchi began her career writing plays, but in the 1930s became a novelist. The works she wrote after World War II, such as The Waiting Years (1949), address women’s struggles with the roles into which society would cast them. Enchi’s combination of Eastern and Western erudition and of dramatic and novelistic conventions informs her own work and makes Masks speak to universal archetypes and concerns.

Yet Masks deals as much with contemporary Japan as it is does with the traditions of Noh and of Heian literature. One of the novel’s most powerful images is the view from Mikame’s 10th-story hotel room. From this vantage point, Mikame and Ibuki look down on crowds of faceless workers flowing into and out of the blank facades of modern office buildings. This featureless landscape of featureless people, like the smooth, blank face of a Noh mask, speaks to the unknowability of human character around which Enchi’s dark novel revolves.

Bargen, Doris G. “Twin Blossoms on a Single Branch: The Cycle of Retribution in Onnamen.” Monumenta Nipponica 46, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 147–171.
Cornyetz, Nina. Dangerous Women, Deadly Words: Phallic Fantasy and Modernity in Three Japanese Writers. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Enchi, Fumiko. Masks. Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. New York: Knopf, 1983.
———. A Tale of False Fortunes. Translated by Roger K. Thomas. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 2000.
———. The Waiting Years. Translated by John Bester. Tokyo and Palo Alto, Calif.: Kodansha, 1971.
Locascio, Lisa. “Legacy and Repetition: Heian Literature and Noh Theatre in Fumiko Enchi’s Masks.” Gallatin Undergraduate Journal 1, no. 1 (Spring 2005)

Categories: Japanese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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