Fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)


Haniwa Part II

by Blair Reeve

I now jump forward eighteen months to my discovery of another story dealing with these ancient cultural artefacts known as haniwa. This came about through my persistent enquiries of Japanese friends and acquaintances as to who among them were familiar with the story of Takara-no-nendoko. It transpired that everyone I spoke to knew of the bamboo cutter's tale that Barclay mentions in his preamble, but no one knew a jot about "The Potter's Tale"—not even the librarians in Tokyo Metropolitan Library. I started to wonder about the veracity of Barclay's sources. Had he contrived the story of his own accord? The more I thought about it, the more I began to question the plausibility of an ancient story appearing to destabilise the Shinto foundation myth.

My ponderings on this mystery have often led me to wonder whether Barclay was exercising more creative license than he lets on, inserting into the post-war literary milieu a subtle reminder that emperors are not gods—something Western media had ignored in its coverage of Hirohito's 1946 Declaration of Humanity—the Emperor's "failure" to explicitly renounce his divinity. This is a rather sublunary reading of the tale, however, and wild speculation on my part. It may be that the opacity of the story's origins fused in my mind with its supernatural element causing me to read into it more mystery than actually exists. Nevertheless, I found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by the origins of Takara-no-nendoko over the following year and a half, as my wife and I struggled to produce any offspring of our own.

Bunko Yamashita, a librarian from the aforementioned Tokyo institution, had recalled reading in an old edition of the Kansai Digest a biographical tale based on a year in the life of a woodblock print artist called Saito Kiyoshi (1907–1997). She remembered this story also having something to do with haniwa, and after some tedious searching through archives, we found a copy of the issue containing the story (Vol. XXI, Winter 95). Upon reading it, I became infected with the conviction that there was an arcane relationship between haniwa and childlessness and decided to make this my first attempt at a full translation. The story had been written by an acquaintance of the artist in the seventies, but re-published in 1998, the year after Saito's death.

After several weeks of letter writing, first to the Digest's editorial team, then to the author, Kojima Koji, and finally to his publishing agent, I was able to obtain permission to translate and publish the story in English, providing of course that fifty percent of any income derived from its publication would return to Kojima. These were only formalities. I doubted my ability to translate the story well enough to be considered publication-worthy. Some of the more ambiguous passages proved quite difficult, even with the aid of my wife who helped me discern nuances requiring a confident interpretation before any translation could take place.

I prefer then to reproduce the story here as a continuation in the telling of my own haniwa story with a caveat: translation always requires interpretation. Some might even say that a translation is an entity as unlike its source as smoke is distinct from a pyre. My exercises in translating Japanese have often produced a feeling that is akin to implanted experience; protracted relative clauses and ambiguous tenses force the imagination to work overtime resulting in the absorption of details with a greater suffusion than lyrical imagery would normally allow. By the time I'd finished, it almost seemed as if I'd had once lived Saito's life myself.

 

The Woodblock Printer

by Koji Kojima

 

Kiyoshi put his brush down and glanced at the timepiece propped up like a tiny book in the alcove behind his bench. It was ten forty-five. He looked back at his drawing of the clay figures. There was something missing, an austerity in the design that dissatisfied him. He changed his mind and began redrawing the two figures, facing to the right this time. This meant that when the print was made, they'd be facing left and left was where devils resided. Not that he had any special interest in devils—quite the opposite—it was because the museum curator had explained to him that these haniwa were purpose-built to outstare malevolent spirits.

He shivered then stood up to roll back the vinyl on his skylight a little further. It was midwinter—almost a year since he'd visited the museum. Despite the late hour of the morning, the light had gotten dimmer in the past while. The dark wooden walls of his workshop absorbed most sunlight, although he'd always preferred to work among shadows—it intensified his focus. Since his success with "The Cat," he'd even formed a habit of mixing inks under moonlight. That print had been featured in an issue of Time magazine back in June. It showed the image of a feline, a blend of angular tension and curvaceous release. He'd made thirty-five originals, all by hand. In no time, his gallery was swamped with orders from American and European collectors. It was a lucky break, but he'd been urged by friends to revive in his work the Zen culture he'd grown up with.

He flicked on a desk lamp and returned to his seat. Having recalled the curator's explanation, he now remembered the exact wording, the font even, of the plaque which described the haniwa: "Votive vessels containing souls." Again, the uneasy feeling he'd experienced that day in the cold museum crept back into his mind. He was hardly a stranger to death, but possessed of a potent imagination, he'd beheld a darkling glimpse of his wife as if through the haniwa's hollow eyes. The sense of threat would haunt him for months. In moments like this, he would reach for the timepiece he had bought for Ayako and hold it like a talisman.

 

***

 

Kiyoshi was a self-taught woodblock printer—a Sōsaku-hanga artist—who'd learnt his craft far from the Tokyo scene. Having lost both parents while still an infant, he'd lived a life of poverty. In those Aizu years, he flitted between living with his grandfather or in Buddhist monasteries. The never-ending struggle to support himself, even during the early years of the occupation, meant that marriage had never entered his thoughts. Love came wandering shyly into his life—awkward for a hermit—at the age of forty-one. Just over half his age, Ayako was the daughter of an old Tokyo printing hand who had paved Kiyoshi's way into exhibitions and competitions, but more importantly, who had taught him how to use kento—registration devices on the key block—for securing the paper and making multiple prints. Up until the age of thirty-five, he had only ever made one copy of a print, neither caring nor realising that a sophisticated method for reproductions even existed.

From 1945, the creative print movement began receiving international attention thanks to returning American soldiers promoting Japanese prints in their homeland. Then suddenly, good fortune struck. It began with Kiyoshi winning an important prize at the São Paulo Art Biennial. The Japanese public jumped on the bandwagon and the Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi held an exhibition of his work. The cumulative good luck added up to wealth, fame and an obligation to marry.

Since moving to Tokyo from northern Honshu twenty years earlier, he'd found himself deeply moved by the history and architecture of shrines and temples in the Kansai region. He had travelled to Kyoto and Nara twice this year, staying in monasteries to remain incognito. In February, a month before Ayako became pregnant, Kiyoshi returned from the first of his two trips to the old capitals.

—Tell me about your trip. Show me the pictures, she begged. His sketches included several perspectives of a garden bridge, village scenes, a stone lantern near the Kasuga Grand Shrine, a bell from Ryōsen-ji, a path leading up to the Daikoku-ji gate, a feline sitting on a wall outside Fushimi Inari and the haniwa he'd seen in Nara.

—What are these? she said, fingering the faces of the two central figures in the last sketch.

—Burial artefacts. They're Shinto. There was an exhibition of Kofun-era haniwa at the Nara National Museum. I heard about it from a monk at Tōshōdai-ji. The artefacts had been excavated after building contractors stumbled across, and destroyed, a great number of haniwa two years earlier. Since then archaeologists had continued to excavate a number of ancient burial mounds. A great deal of fuss was being made over haniwa in the art media. Collectors were queuing up to purchase the pieces.

She stared at his drawing for a long time without saying anything. Finally, she spoke—I don't like them, and she pushed the paper away. —This one, she said, indicating the cat, it's alive.

From growing up in a printmaker's house, Ayako had a sixth sense about what made a good print. It was the way he rendered curves that she admired, along with his long artist's fingers, tender and gentle on her skin. He would listen to her opinions and file any disliked sketches away in his portmanteau.

But her reservations triggered the memory of his visit to the museum. He remembered thinking that it was the watchful stare of the clay figures that made them seem alert, alive—and he'd found himself projecting sentience into the ancient mould. He understood the cultural importance of haniwa—a perfect subject for a woodblock print—but he and Ayako were trying for a child, and his wife seeing death where he saw life was an ill sign that infused the potent image he'd seen in the museum with a power beyond his control. Yet an unwanted thought abides in the memory like poison. He considered that to suppress it was just as bad as hoping it would let him be. He regretted visiting the museum now and decided that the only way to vanquish this banal affliction was to print the haniwa after all. He would model the clay figures to his own design so that the human will he'd filled them with would remain under his creative control.

—Kiyoshi, she whispered as if reading his mind, bringing him back into the soft world of her flesh. He lay with his head on her chest while she stroked his hair. —I like the cat, she said, wriggling her sleek body from underneath him, rolling onto her hands and knees, and glancing not at all shyly back—this was the other side of woman that both frightened and excited him; the concavities of her figure, the allure of an indescribable scent, whether hers or a fusion of the two of them, he wasn't sure, but which took over his mind, left him powerless over his own body. She wanted him again, like an animal this time, and during the weeks of carnal pleasure he took from her fevered libido, the need to work on the haniwa print was pushed down and neglected after all.

 

***

 

Kiyoshi never tired of studying the timepiece nor did he tire of weighing it in his hand. He remembered being surprised but pleased that Ayako had liked it, despite it seeming large for her slender wrist.

In the shop, he had held the black face under her chin. —Ah, it goes with your eyes. She smiled at his seriousness. It was a fancy of his that the hidden workings in Swiss watches were as complicated as the process behind multiple printing. This purchase would be one of his few concessions to growing financial success. But it wasn't the jewel-like foreign technology that mattered to Kiyoshi—it was the once-in-a-lifetime shopping trip to the Ginza with his pregnant wife that gave him pleasure.

She studied the item card: Year: 1952, Jaeger LeCoultre, Reverso Duo, Calibre 407. It had an art deco design with a black lacquered dial, embossed and transferred numerals, platinum hands and frame. —Re-ver-so Du-o? she asked.

—This model was made for Japan only. Please look. The salesman pushed the watch face in from the side. The block of platinum, the size of a piece of chocolate, clicked out on a hinge. He flipped it around and locked the face back into its frame. This face was made of white ribbed enamel with tiny gold-plated hands and hour markers. —Maybe when you switch faces, time flows backwards, Kiyoshi smiled. Her face brightened. —We'll get your characters engraved on the back of the frame.

Ayako was four months pregnant. She wore the watch every day of those last five months. —I'll be able to record the exact time of the birth, she said, not realising the exact time of the birth would record the exact time her life would be given in exchange for the child's.

Her hypertension compounded in the weeks leading up to the birth. There were black moments when she would scream for him to stop raping her, to stop murdering their child, and then she would go into a coma, wake and have no knowledge of the episode. On the day he took her to the hospital, her face had started twitching uncontrollably. The midwife told him to get out. But he stayed within view until the foaming and convulsions were more than he could bear. The foetus was rescued, a son, but the doctors had warned him that it was immature and might not survive. This time, Ayako went into a coma from which she would never recover.

 

***

 

To anyone else, the weight would have registered something of its value, but to Kiyoshi the heavy metal sinking into his palm was the feeling of loss. His comment about time flowing backwards now seemed like bitter irony. He wound the watch and flipped the face around—a ritual Ayako had started by alternating between the black and white faces every day of those last five months. He found that alternating the two faces was the only way he could access the memory of her as she continued to live on within him, for the myriad sides of a woman had truly astounded him. The characters of his deceased wife's name were engraved on the back of the frame. He liked to run his finger over them, read them like Braille.

He placed it back in the alcove where it sat beside a small mounted locket encasing her photo portrait in sepia taken just after the war. Ayako's gaze, focussed somewhere to the left of the camera, suggested to him both solemnity and naivety. Where his own artistry was concerned, shades of black, white, grey and the occasional beige formed the only spectrum in his artist's mind. There was an art book of European prints sitting open on his side table that he would study often. The linear distortion of Munch, the primitivism of Gauguin, the vitality of Rodin—these pleased him. Yet he continued to be troubled by the job at hand.

Getting the facial stare of each figure just right was difficult, but important. The expression had to portray a fine balance of hostility and tragedy, with just the subtlest bias towards the former. He spent the last hour of the morning drawing and redrawing the faces partly from his sketches and partly from memory, and when he finally observed in their faces that same dogged vigilance he'd seen in the museum, he traced the pattern onto minogami—gauze-like paper for the completed block design. Next, he would begin etching the outline onto the key block, and then there would be the carving. Chiselling the blocks of katsura wood was an erasing of sorts, and once the first print was completed, this foolish superstition that he'd carried for so long would be forgotten, recede into the picture and be gone.

He looked at his finished design. The shapes seemed right. No, he couldn't reverse time, but he could capture it and seal it in print as revolving phases of light and dark. She had evolved out of him, here, visible in the figurative planes, in the small mouth and long neck, in the lithe and graceful curves. But still, for some reason, the design had yet to achieve the resolve that he was seeking.

Kiyoshi stood up and stretched. Grey sunlight filtered through the skylight above his head. It was overcast outside, and his eyes were strained from the intensity of finishing the detail on the outline pattern under the lamp. There was a prepared sheet of katsura wood waiting on the printing bench. He applied a coating of paste. He would begin the chiselling—the erasing—after the mid-day meal. Better to let the paste thin and dry a little before laying the large sheet of minogami over the key block.

 

***

 

The carving of the main block took him the rest of the day and most of the next. He had already decided on the colours—black and white for the detail in the figures and an earthen red that would mix well with the wood grain for the background. When the key block was finished, he laid a sheet of mulberry paper down on the inked wood, squared it into the L-shaped kento and began working the baren to burnish the paper with the outline pattern. It was then that he conceived of detaching the registration devices—of allowing the paper to shift under the vagaries of his trembling hands. He experimented with three sheets of mulberry, first shifting the sheet and rubbing the whole pattern again, then re-rubbing just one of the figures and finally rubbing and shifting the sheet at the same time.

He studied the results. The kinetic lines of the first and third prints destabilised the images in an exciting way, but the result of the second attempt instilled a quiet calm in his mind. Where before there were two figures, now there was a third interposed between them. This would mean redrawing the entire outline pattern, but here, in this controlled accident, he saw the potential for beauty where before there had only been sadness—the monk at Toshodai-ji, Ayako's illness, the trip to see the haniwa, the cat at Fushimi Inari, success and failure, death and life—a sequence without source; beauty in chaos. There might be a thousand Pure Lands, but not one of them a safe place.

Kiyoshi would eventually remarry, open a gallery, purchase property in Kamakura and establish a generational line in his family name. His popular print, known as "Clay Figures," would be his only acknowledgment to the world that he'd once had a son for whom the intensity of life had been won and lost in the space of three fragile weeks. This too could be seen as a beautiful thing.

–translated by Clayton Drayton

 
 
 
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2017
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.