Paperback review: Bullfight, by Yasushi Inoue

Translated By Michael Emmerich

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The Independent Culture

First published in 1949, Yasushi Inoue’s superb novella tells the story of Tsugami, a newspaper editor who agrees to sponsor an exhibition of “Bull Sumo” – a traditional, bloodless form of bullfighting – in Osaka. Determined to make the event a success, he presses on despite bureaucratic culs-de-sac and the involvement of shady promoters. Meanwhile, his relationship with his war-widow mistress, Sakiko, begins to suffer.

Like the brushstrokes of a minimalist painting, Inoue’s spare prose picks out visual details: “the steam rising from the bodies” of the duelling bulls; a deserted factory resembling “a shipwrecked boat with its steel beams jutting up into the sky”; a road like a “gash in the burned-out ruins”. But if Inoue captures the desolate urban landscapes of 1940s Japan, his real interest lies deeper, in the effects of war on the national psyche.

With a mixture of empathy and ironic detachment, Inoue examines his protagonist’s motivation in staging the bullfight. At times he suggests that Tsugami wants simply to boost the morale of a beaten populace – “in these postwar days, perhaps [a bullfight] was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives”. At others, Tsugami’s obsession with the project seems a mystery even to himself: he is driven by a “feeling he could not define”. As in Akira Kurosawa’s films of the same period – Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949) – a straightforward depiction of urban life expands into a rich, philosophical exploration of human agency and choice.

Bullfight won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and gave impetus to the author’s prolific career. Pushkin Press has performed a valuable service in making this great work available in English.