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Katsushika Hokusai is best known for “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” a masterpiece of Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e. And even though “The Great Wave” was a part of a series, Thirty-Six Views of Fuji, it has almost eclipsed the rest of Hokusai’s work. Similarly, the poet Mutsuo Takahashi is best known for his homoerotic poetry, particularly the thousand-line “Ode,” which has drawn comparisons to Walt Whitman’s work for its merging of the sacred reverence and corporeal pleasure.
But as powerful as “Ode” is, it shouldn’t necessarily cast a shadow over Takahashi’s other work, particularly his newly-translated collection of essays, Twelve Views from the Distance. And although Takahashi’s examination of sexuality doesn’t start until 3/4ths of the way through the collection with “The Shore of Sexuality,” his work (ably translated by Jeffrey Angles) shows a lyrical sensuousness throughout that hint at his sexual awakening.
Interestingly enough, he connects early childhood games with his relatives—the equivalent to say “Airplane”—to his burgeoning sexuality. These games would soon escalate to more explicit adolescent explorations, but sexual feelings, explains Takahashi, “connects the individual to the outside world.” In other words, Takahashi’s sexuality is not merely an internal expression, but an outward expression—bridging him to humanity at large.
The flipside of that bridge, however, is violence. And while much of the violence that Takahashi relates is on a personal level—fights with his classmates, for instance, or beatings from his mother—it reflects the violence wreaked upon Japan itself both during and after the war, recalling, for instance, the leftover mines that would occasionally break apart a ship.
The pieces collected in Twelve Views from the Distance originally appeared sequentially in a Japanese periodical, and, as such, don’t have the narrative cohesion that one expects of a memoir; instead, each essay is discreet and thematic. And although the essays have a chronological flow—starting with his earliest memories and moving to his later ones—the chronology is never strict, and Takahashi freely moves back and forth in time not only within the collection, but at times within the same essay.
The earlier essays, as well, have a more abstract feel to them. Immediately, with “The Snow of Memory,” Takahashi interrogates the trustworthiness of his recollections, and the subsequent essays center upon certain constants: his grandmother’s house, for instance; Japanese folklore and legends; and Japanese spiritual beliefs. But as the collection progresses, Takahashi is able to draw upon memory more reliably, and the essays become more concrete and narrative-oriented.
The constant in these essays, however—much like Mount Fuji in Thirty-Six Views of Fuji—is Takahashi’s mother. Widowed at a young age, Takahashi’s mother left him in the care of his grandparents to work in China, and soon thereafter, take up with a lover. When she later returns to claim him, they begin a relationship fraught with both love and confusion, amidst crippling poverty. His mother’s presence permeates the book; she, herself, is a paradoxical figure, someone who both physically intervenes when someone threatens the young Takahashi as well as visiting her own violence upon her son.
Takahashi’s mother animates the book as much as Takahashi’s prose does. And while there’s no “Great Wave” to overwhelm them both, the views that Takahashi offers here are at once touching and troubling.
Twelve Views from the Distance
by Mutsuo Takahashi (translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles)
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816679362, 243 pp.