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Top>Opinion>A Question for the Modern Age: Sansho the Steward


Reiko Seki

Reiko Seki [Profile]

A Question for the Modern Age: Sansho the Steward

Reiko Seki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern Japanese Literature, Representation Theory, Gender Theory

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1. Sansho the Steward shown on textbooks

Today, The Dancing Girl seems the most common piece among Ogai Mori's novels shown in high school textbooks of contemporary writing. Until around the 1990s, however, another work entitled Sansho the Steward had been in those textbooks. Interestingly, many of junior high school textbooks of Japanese had also carried it before that period, between the 1950s and the 1970s. In fact, I am one of those who first read this story in a junior high school. When I was a junior high school student, I had already known a story Anju and Zushio [Anju to Zushio]-a variation of the same story for kids-only roughly through picture books of old stories, but I did not know how to react to Ogai's Sansho the Steward I read in my textbook.

2. From sekkyobushi to a modern novel

Some years later, after I became a university teacher, I learnt that this work was not created by Ogai himself but a historical novel based on a sekkyobushi story entitled Sansho Dayu, which was popular in around the 17th century. Sekkyobushi is a performance in old Japan that expresses the world of a story with voice and gestures of a sekkyoshi (performer) at a crossroad in a town, where people come together, like a street musician today. Sansho Dayu was a leader who administrated a sansho, an organization subordinated to the lord of the manor. People working for a sansho were forced to endure hard work and dreamed their release in the afterlife. Ogai reconstructed this old-fashioned storytelling with his own words while retaining its historicity to create a world that is as much a modern novel as a historical one.

3. Positioning of the work

Ogai published this piece in 1915, when Japan started as a modern state, the upheaval Meiji era ended after civil wars including the Seinan War and international wars such as Japanese-Sino War and Japanese-Russo War, and people finally found scope for recalling the distant past of their own country. In terms of the history of Ogai's works, it might be surprisingly unknown today that this work is described as "a masterpiece that defined the format of historical novels in the Taisho era inherited by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and other novelists" (commentary by Yukio Miyoshi, in Sansho the Steward / Takasebune [Sansho Dayu / Takasebune], Shincho Bunko, the old version).

4. Variation in images

This story is about the period at the end of the Heian era, when sekkan seiji-politics by the Fujiwara clan, the regent to the Emperor-was declining but samurais had not emerged at the end of the 11th century, shortly before the time described in the Taiga drama based on The Tale of the Heike now on air from NHK. It may be difficult for a junior high school student to understand such an old story. Sometime after learning the relation between Sansho the Steward and sekkyobushi as said above, however, I had an opportunity to watch the film Sansho the Bailiff (Steward) directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. I was strongly impressed by the world of the epic drama with a plenty of poetical imagination found in realistic pictures, although the narrative content was partly changed.

5. The essence of the story

Combining the three genres of the novel, sekkyobushi, and the film in this way in my mind, I finally found the clue to the essence of this story. The story residing in the broad time and space starts with a journey of a sister and a brother in search of their father after separation from him, followed by the narrative content with ups and downs that hold readers' attention even today, such as separation from their mother; the children alone forced to live as slaves in another country; its loneliness and pains; an escape as a result of thinking out; and meeting their mother again at the end of the story. In particular, the image of Anju committing suicide after letting her brother Zushio go is extremely pathetic, but this death seems to imply to us a dimension beyond life and death.

6. A message to the modern age

As seen above, Sansho the Steward is not a pleasant story at all. In this story based on an old tale handed down from generation to generation since the ancient Japan, however, it can be said that Anju and Zushio lived their life very valiantly. While praised as an incarnation of a god or Buddha in sekkyoubushi Sansho Dayu, Anju was described by Ogai as a woman acting on the ground instead of such a heavenly existence. Ogai expressed Zushio, on the other hand, as a man who acts out her desire. I believe that the deeper layer of this story represents how a family or individuals can live humanly amid a time of difficulty. When rules, regulations or conventions are uncertain, you should try to find a path of your life facing them bravely rather than looking away from them-I believe that Ogai's Sansho the Steward delivers a message of a thoroughly modern nature.

Casted in my distant junior high school days, the seed of the story definitely bore fruit in my mind finally after many years. I am grateful to people who afforded me the opportunity to write this article in the memorial year of the 150th anniversary of Ogai's birth.

This article is a summary of my presentation at the Ogai Mori Lecture held at the building of the Faculty of Science and Engineering on June 23, 2012.

Reiko Seki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Modern Japanese Literature, Representation Theory, Gender Theory
Born in Gunma Prefecture in 1949. Graduated from Department of Japanese Literature, College of Arts, Rikkyo University in 1974.
Graduated from the master's program, Graduate School of Arts, Rikkyo University in 1979.
Withdrew after completing the required course work at the doctoral program, Graduate Degree Program in Japanese Literature, Graduate School of Arts, Rikkyo University in 1984.
Assumed the current position in 2011 after serving as a Professor for Faculty of Economics, Asia University, etc.
Her current research agenda include consideration of the modern literature (1) from the perspective of representation theory or gender theory, and (2) through comparative studies of literary films and their original literary works.
Her major publications include:
The Era of Narrating Women: Ichiyo and Female Expression in the Meiji Era [Kataru Onnatachi no Jidai: Ichiyo to Meiji Josei Hyogen] (Shinyosha, 1997)
The Modern Age of Female Representation: Literature, Memory, and Visual Images [Josei Hyosho no Kindai: Bungaku, Kioku, Shikakuzo] (Kanrinshobo, 2011)