Obituary: Uno Chiyo

James Kirkup
Wednesday 12 June 1996 00:02 BST

The novelist and kimono designer Uno Chiyo was an enchantingly vivacious old lady who occasionally appeared on Japanese television wearing unusually classic kimono, old-fashioned hairstyles and thick pebble glasses. It was easy to see what a beauty she must have been in her youth, and to understand why so many men - most of them quite unworthy of her - fell under her spell.

She reminded me of the sexually voracious Marlene Dietrich - her almost exact contemporary - revealed in her daughter Maria Riva's bitter biography. Or of the centenarian grandes dames, still avid for male attentions, in Ronald Firbank's novels, one of whose delicately caricatured aristocrats, Lady Parvula de Panzoust, loves to practise her "hobby" of "standing in shafts of sunlight", just as Uno Chiyo to the very last gasp adored basking in the glow of media celebrity.

The first time I saw her in the flesh was at the Tokyo Imperial Hotel for the celebration of her 88th birthday, the special occasion known in Japan as beiju. Hundreds of friends and fans attended. During the long evening she changed her resplendent kimono three times, a custom (o-iro- naoshi) more usually performed by young brides at the wedding reception after the Shinto ceremony. These were really just opportunities for the star of the evening to freshen her make-up, and to the end Uno was an ardent maquilleuse - her first published story was the prize-winning "Shifun no kao" ("Painted Face", 1921).

She started off as a schoolteacher at the Kawashima Elementary School in Iwakuni in 1914, and in what was then a quiet provincial backwater she at once created a scandal by wearing an elaborate geisha wig and make- up in class, and had a love-affair with a young teacher. The teacher had to transfer to another post, while she went off blithely in search of another romance. It was to be the pattern of all her life.

Uno Chiyo wrote only a handful of works, most of them short. Her longest story is purely autobiographical, Irozange (Confessions of Love), serialised in the literary magazine Chuo Koron from 1933 to 1935, and runs to only 150 pages or so. After a disastrous "arranged" marriage to an unsuitable cousin, she fled to Tokyo. She worked for a while as a waitress in a restaurant opposite the office of Chuo Koron, where she got to know the editor who later published her first story.

Confessions of Love is based on a gruesome personal experience in 1929, when she had a love-affair with the artist Beiji Togo, who was recovering from a nasty double love suicide. Uno had wanted to collect information about the affair, in which the girl had died, for a novel. She arrived at Togo's house with only a handbag, but after making love with the artist on the very blood-stained futon on which the botched double suicide had taken place, she lived with him for five years. Sixty years later, she recalled: "We fell upon each other like animals. You see, it was the blood- stained bandage round his neck that got me."

The "hero" is portrayed as selfish, cowardly, weak-willed, fickle and very capricious. He is an artist who has lived some years in America - "Merican Jap" is the term Uno uses - and he never puts brush to canvas, but scrounges money from various morose, insolent girls. In the end, as nearly always in Japanese life, it is the women in this story who emerge as the stronger characters, while the self-important males reveal themselves to be little boys at heart, with second-rate abilities.

Uno Chiyo kept writing sporadically for magazines, and for her own Sutairu ("Style"), Japan's first fashion magazine. During the Second World War, however, it was suppressed by government censors, who found the articles she wrote on themes like "How to Wear a Summer Frock" and "Proper Underwear - a Must for Western Dresses" not in keeping with the seriousness of the times. But the unsinkable Uno Chiyo resurrected it during the Occupation. She became even more famous as an innovative kimono designer than as a writer.

Her "Aru hitori no onna no hanashi" ("Story of a Woman Alone", 1971) is another fascinating re-telling of her life, mainly confining itself to her early years and her precocious sexual needs. She asks herself, "Was it instinct? Fear? Or merely lust?" as she ponders her youthful erotomania. She emerges as a woman who did exactly as she pleased.

Her beautiful short novel Ohan she declares to be the most "constructed" of her works, claiming its rather erratic story is based on La Princesse de Cleves. It is a historical novel about the puppet-makers and puppeteers of Shikoku, and was awarded the Noma Prize when it appeared in 1957. The film director Kon Ichikawa made it into a movie in 1984.

Uno Chiyo celebrated her 95th birthday in grand style with a party at the Ginza branch of Takashimaya Department Store. The eighth-floor art gallery staged an exhibition of her works, including manuscripts of her novels as well as their now rare first editions, and a number of sumptuous formal kimonos designed by her. Moreover, there was an exact reconstruction of her gorgeous living-room in the high-class Aoyama district of Tokyo.

During the run of the show, this indefatigable nonagenarian was on display every day to chat with a retinue of famous friends in the presence of an appreciative audience and adoring television cameras.

For the magazine Claire Uno Chiyo composed this maxim: "I like people who don't give up their lust for life in whatever situation they find themselves until the very last moment." Again, she said: "All deaths before the age of 100 are accidental deaths, deaths caused by carelessness or thoughtlessness. Men and women can live naturally to be 100 and over." Uno Chiyo just missed that mark.

Uno Chiyo, novelist and kimono designer: born Kawanishi 28 November 1897; died Tokyo 10 June 1996.

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