Nagai Kafu's Rivalry - A Geisha's Tale (translated by Stephen Snyder, published by Columbia University Press) is an excellent trip through the world of the fascinating Japanese courtesans. It begins with a chance encounter at a theatre, as Yoshioka, a successful businessman, notices a face from the past. His conversation with the beautiful Komayo is our ticket into the hidden world of the geisha.
Komayo, formerly known as Komazo, had retired from her career as a geisha after marrying one of her clients and moving to the provinces. However, after her husband's death, a combination of homesickness and her new family's attitude brings her back to Tokyo. She returns to Shimbashi and the career she thought she had put behind her - and for the new girl in town, picking up again with the brash Yoshioka might just be the break she needs.
However, it's not quite as easy as all that. Yoshioka already has a geisha dependent on him, one who is unlikely to take kindly to the idea of losing her benefactor. In the slightly incestuous atmosphere of Shimbashi, this is always going to cause problems. And, of course, in accepting the patronage of a wealthy man, Komayo is going to be in big trouble if she really loses her heart to another man...
Nagai was no stranger to the delights of the pleasure quarters, and some of his best writing is set in and around these areas. He portrays a parallel society, one far removed from the conventional office and home environment, where men stray from the 'other' Tokyo in search of entertainment, companionship and (occasionally) a little more. Shimbashi is described as a pressure valve, a place to let off a little steam:
"Yoshioka's need to experience the carnal delights of civilized society was not unlike the urge that in ancient times led men to mount their steeds and chase wild beasts across the plains, to kill them and eat their flesh; the same urge that led medieval warriors to don fine armor and shed their blood on the field of combat. They all were simply manifestations of that pathetic, and yet seemingly limitless, human energy known as desire. With the advance of civilization, this energy was transformed, expressing itself now as the pursuit of luxury and pleasure, or else as the will to dominate in the business world. Fame, wealth and women - these were the driving forces in the life of the modern man."I suppose, as a hobby, it beats fox hunting...
p.70 (Columbia University Press, 2007)
What makes the setting of Rivalry so intriguing is the gradual uncovering of a whole interdependent society. The centres of this world are the theatres, where actors, the leading lights of the quarter, entertain the hordes of businessmen and their female companions. Later, the audience might head off to a tea house, where they will listen to music played by their favourite geisha, or perhaps indulge in a little harmless flirting. Behind the scenes though, there are thousands of other people dependent on this night-life: maids, rickshaw drivers, bath house attendants, kimono makers... The more we read of Rivalry, the further we are allowed to see into this world.
Which is not to say there's no real plot to the book. Our focus is principally on Komayo, our guide to the world of the 'water trade'. She is both an old hand and a new face, and in her attempts to adjust to life back in the quarter, the reader is slowly inducted into the secrets of the geisha. We see the sacrifices she makes and the unpleasant side of her profession, one which strides an unsteady path between skilled artisan and sex toy. There is no judgement here though - Nagai is just telling it how it is...
What exactly is it he's telling us though? Is Rivalry glorifying the geisha, à la Memoirs of a Geisha? Is he showing the reader how the profession empowers women? Is he lamenting a system of sexual quasi-slavery? Erm, the answer to all those questions is probably no. The book concentrates on description, not proscription, and it is up to the reader to make up their own mind about how palatable it all is.
In fact, Rivalry is probably not best read in an analytical way but in a historical light. It's a book which, for its size, contains a vast array of characters, each there to describe the pleasure quarters in more detail. The more people we meet (and the more they interact with each other), the more we see of the intricate, tangled web of relationships upon which Shimbashi rests. The book is less about Komayo than about creating a picture of the time and place she lived in. Don't worry though, it all makes for pleasant reading - and (unlike many J-Lit classics) this one has an ending to look forward to :)