Obituary: Masuji Ibuse

James Kirkup
Monday 12 July 1993 23:02

Masuji Ibuse, writer: born Hiroshima Prefecture 15 February 1898; died Tokyo 10 July 1993.

MASUJI IBUSE, the great Japanese author, was among the few literary men still active who were born in the 19th century. The place of his birth, Hiroshima Prefecture, was later to have a significant place in his


Ibuse wanted to be a painter. After leaving middle school, he applied to study under a famous artist, Hashimoto Kansetsu, but was rejected. So he enrolled in Waseda University where he studied French, then entered the leading Tokyo art academy, Nihon Bijutsu Gakko. At the same time, he began writing poetry. The painter's observant scrutiny of objects, nature and individuals helped to give his writing its sharp visual precision, while his early leaning towards poetry lent it a lyrical tone.

His first published work was the short story 'Koi' ('Carp') which appeared in 1928 in the Keio University literary magazine Mita Bungaku on the recommendation of an older writer, Sato Haruo. This encouraged him to continue writing fable-like stories like 'Sansho Uo' ('Salamander') in 1929. This creature is portrayed with gentle irony as being too big for its lair, and is almost a prophetic image of the novelist in later life, when he took on an amiable batrachian appearance. Ibuse was a perfectionist, and he rewrote this tale seven times during his long life. When his collected works were published in 1987, he cut the last 16 lines, to the consternation of his readers. His next story, 'Yane no Ue no Sawan' ('Sawan on the Roof', 1929), also employs an animal protagonist, in the form of a wild goose. The animal in each fable crystallises an existential situation in the author's life, described with typically wry, self-deprecating humour.

Ibuse published his first full-length novel, Shigoto Beya ('A Room to Work In'), in 1931, and followed it next year with a novella, Kawa ('River'). He stood firmly apart from the left-wing trends in late-1920s literature. Instead of literary agitation, he preferred river fishing, and wrote a series of essays about this peaceful hobby. He was always 'The Compassionate Angler'. As the well- known haiku poet Ryuta Iida, his fishing companion for over 40 years, reported, he fished not to make a catch but simply for the pleasure of casting a line in a river, never caring whether he caught anything or not: indeed, he was just as likely, if he did happen to make a catch, to gently disengage the hook and return the fish to its natural element. 'Masu' (as in Masuji) in Japanese happens to mean trout.

Ibuse's next novel, a picaresque satirical comedy, Shukin Ryoko ('Travel to Collect Money'), appeared in 1936, and was made into a popular movie by Noboru Nakamura in 1957. It was in a comic vein that he would develop fully after the war. In 1938, he was awarded the Naoki Prize for Jon Manjiro Hyoryu Ki ('Jon Manjiro Castaway: his life and adventures'), the real-life story of a Japanese whose boat was swept by a storm across the Pacific, where he was picked up by an American ship and taken ashore. He stayed some years in the United States, learnt a little English, and was returned to Japan by the Americans in 1851.

During the Second World War, Ibuse was drafted into the army as a war correspondent in Thailand and Singapore. It was after he returned to Japan that the first of his most representative works were created, among them Honjitsu Kyushin ('No Consultation Today', 1949-50), which has a sly nostalgic tone and a dry wit in its tragicomic portraits of a gynaecologist and the odd assortment of post- war down-and-outs visiting his clinic. It was made into a successful film by Minoru Shibuya in 1952.

Ibuse's post-war writings are often filled with bitter condemnations of the war and its after-effects. The aim is oblique but all the more telling in Yohai Taicho ('Lieutenant Lookeast', 1950), in which we see a lieutenant repatriated from the Malayan front who has become crazy because he cannot forget his military past. He is contaminated not by the atom bomb but by the barbarous militarism that has governed his whole career. So he continues to observe army rules and regulations with maniac strictness and when he returns to his home village terrifies the inhabitants who are trying to adjust to the new demokurushi, by howling commands and totalitarian slogans of a now-discredited regime. Another post-war human relic is found in Hyomin Usaburo ('Usaburo the Bum', 1956), which was awarded the Arts Academy Prize that year.

In the same year, Ibuse published an atom-bomb fantasy, Kakitsubata ('Crazy Iris') which was the forerunner of Black Rain, a disturbing tale of a certain species of iris which has become deformed by atomic radiation. It was the first Ibuse story I had read. It is to the honour of Stephen Spender that he was the first to publish it, in Encounter in 1956, in the fine translation by Ivan Morris. The story has haunted me ever since. Morris also translated another story, 'Noriai Jidosha' ('The Charcoal-burning Bus') in 1952, which can be read as a crafty political satire on Japan's militaristic leaders personified by the driver, with the passengers as the spineless civilian population.

Ibuse's best-known novel, Black Rain, was published in 1966, 20 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Paul Brians, in his authoritative work Nuclear Holocausts: atomic war in fiction, writes of it: 'Written in an understated tone, and with a thread of irony running through it, this novel is nevertheless by far the most devastating account of the effects of nuclear war ever written.' The tremendous power of Ibuse's vivid descriptions are here displayed in all the minutely catalogued details of unimaginable destruction. Ibuse waited 20 years in order to distance himself from an almost ungovernable theme, with the detached eye of a painter. Documentary passages are skilfully mingled with diaries and the troubling story of a young girl, Yasuko, suspected of having been contaminated by radiation, and who is therefore unable to find a husband - a common situation in real life. Her uncle does his utmost to find proof that she has not been touched by the bomb blast. But then the first sinister symptoms of Yasuko's sickness begin to appear, an unbearable image of the unforgettable horror of all war now haunting Japan's uneasy peace. It was made into a brilliant film by Shohei Imamura in 1989. Ibuse did not care much for its treatment of his novel.

Ibuse had been elected a member of the Japanese Arts Academy in 1960, and in 1966 he received the Noma Literary Prize for Black Rain, as well as the Order of Cultural Merit for his work as a whole. In 1972, he was awarded the Yomiuri Literature Prize for his novel Waseda no Mori ('The Woods around Waseda University'). His name had been put forward for the Nobel Prize, and he would have been the ideal candidate because of his anti-war stance. It was a matter of indifference to him when he did not receive it. He hated literary log-rolling and the tedium of social life, and when he was awarded his cultural merit prize in 1966, he felt he could not face all the dignitaries and journalists, so slipped away unobserved to a neighbouring restaurant where he spent the night celebrating on his own with sushi and flagons of sake.

One of his finest historical works, in which his restrained style and meticulous factual observation are perfectly displayed, is Tomonotsu Chakai Ki ('Recordings of the Tea Ceremonies at Tomonotsu', 1984). This highly original novel, still untranslated, uses the device of a tea ceremony diary to record faithfully all the most minute events and things at 13 tea ceremonies held between 1588 and 1599. The story is set in the ancient province of Bingo (present-day Hiroshima Prefecture).

Besides the quality of his writing and his eloquent quietism, one of the things I most value about Ibuse is that he generously helped a tormented misfit, Japan's greatest modern novelist, Osamu Dazai, giving him money, giving him a room in his house and introducing him to publishers and editors at a time when Dazai was in the grip of drugs and alcohol and tried several times to kill himself. Ibuse had a calming effect upon the demented outcast, and even acted as a go-between in Dazai's arranged marriage with Michiko Ishihara. Dazai regarded Ibuse as a father surrogate, saying that he and his elder brother Bunji were his saviours: 'I was brought up by them. If they were to die, I would surely weep.' Ibuse describes the negotiations for the marriage in Boyu ('My Late Friend'), written after poor Dazai's final, successful suicide attempt by drowning in the Tamagawa Canal in 1948.

I admire Ibuse as a great human being as well as a great writer because he stayed away from literary cliques and distrusted politics and politicians. He was like the ancient Chinese type of a literary hermit or sage. Though he began to write as early as 1918, he never sought recognition, yet his true value was soon acknowledged by certain critics and by a select public. He never associated with the tiresome proletarian-existentialist-nouveau roman groups that infested later years in Japan. He just went his own way, never trying to please every kind of public - and in the end pleasing no one - but writing, as he fished, simply to entertain himself. He was that delightful rarity, an untypical Japanese, who nevertheless never lost his native soul, and enriched his native tongue.

These qualities in him were allied to great personal modesty, and were why in October 1990 he was made an Honorary Citizen of Tokyo. It was an honour he could not refuse, and he willingly attended the ceremony in his wheelchair. Even so, it must have been a painful ordeal for him, because he was so shy, he could not bear to look into the faces of people in conversation. Obviously, he kept the use of his eyes for more important observations.

(Photographs omitted)

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