Ancient Egyptian gods, a Japanese ghost story, and a real-life Buddhist mandala.
These are among the intriguing web of ingredients spun into Orikuchi Shinobu’s surreal and controversial mid-20th century novel, The Book of the Dead.
Newly translated into English and bundled with an extensive collection of commentaries and analysis, the complicated work offers a fascinating introduction in an important period of Japanese literary experimentation.
It’s difficult to put a date on the novel because one of its important facets is the way in which Orikuchi constantly evolved and changed the story over the course of its multiple publications. Chronologically, it was first serialized in a Japanese magazine in 1939, during the Second World War (although some have found provocative and possibly rebellious metaphors in the work, its obscure historical context and surreal surface narrative enabled it to escape censorship). It was subsequently published in book form in 1943, but Orikuchi dramatically changed the work, re-ordering and rewriting large segments of the narrative (this has become the standard version of the text). In 1947, after the war, he published a slightly revised version of the book featuring an additional essay on some of its imagery. That same year he began writing a sequel, which he died before completing, but the two surviving drafts of the sequel have helped scholars to identify some of the themes they believe Orikuchi was attempting to convey in this cycle of shifting evolving tales.
So what is Book of the Dead about? It’s considered a ‘modernist’ novel—perhaps Japan’s first—which is to say that it’s a complex and deeply symbolic work with esoteric and intersecting themes that are difficult to sort out. It also leaps back and forth chronologically, rendering it even more difficult to follow as a straight narrative, but helping its author to foreground its conceptual themes in the reader’s mind.
In a useful introduction, translator Jeffrey Angles identifies three key plotlines comprising the text. The first thread involves the legend of Chujohime, an 8th century noblewoman and adherent of Pure Land Buddhism, a messianic sect. Chujohime eventually ran away from home and became a nun at the Taima-dera temple (overcoming the monks’ traditional refusal to allow women into the temple). There she copied sutras, had visions, and eventually wove the legendary Taima Mandala, a magnificent and ancient work of art which is now the main object of worship at the temple. The story of her running away from home and seeking refuge at the temple, and eventually producing the mandala, is threaded throughout the novel.
But Orikuchi also weaves in a second story, a sort of ghost story involving a prince who’s given the fictional name Shiga Tsuhiko, but is based on the legend of the 7th century prince Otsu. Otsu was caught in the middle of a power struggle for the imperial throne, accused of insurrection and executed. Otsu’s grave is located near the Taima-dera temple, and in Orikuchi’s novel, the dead prince’s spirit is accidentally awoken when Chujohime seeks refuge at the temple. The novel has been described as a ghostly love story; while there’s not really much interaction, the implication is that Chujohime weaves the mandala to bring rest to the prince’s soul.
Finally, a third character also appears periodically throughout the novel: the 8th century statesman Yakamochi, who is best known to history for compiling some of Japan’s earliest literature. He appears more as an observer of events but at the same time laments the socio-political changes that he witnesses going on in society.
What was Orikuchi doing in this cryptic little tale? A whole lot, according to literary scholars; they haven’t stopped arguing over it since he wrote the book. Was he writing against the imperial establishment? Probably not, but there are tantalizing hints of a political agenda: many of the characters in the book were in fact associated with political rebellions so ancient and obscure that even the wartime censors likely didn’t realize it. Was he criticizing a changing society? Characters like Yakamochi and another anonymous storyteller spend a great deal of time lamenting the nature of change and spin-off in extended discourses on the topic.
What about the bizarre relationship between the spirit of prince Otsu and Chujohime? Some have argued that Orikuchi was positioning himself as Chujohime, and writing to lament the loss of a lover; he himself later wrote that the novel was a tribute or eulogy to an “old, deceased friend”. Precisely who that “friend”—and likely lover—was has been the subject of intense scrutiny. More broadly, however, is the fact that Orikuchi published the compiled version of the novel at the end of the Second World War which had claimed millions of lives (including that of Orikuchi’s own partner, who was drafted and killed during the war); scholars have also suggested that he was grappling with existential and spiritual questions of how to bring rest to the millions of dead souls lost in the War.
If Book of the Dead is a complex novel, it reflects the complexity of its author and his times. Orikuchi Shinobu was an important writer and seminal folklorist, but he was also a queer man who grappled with the same existential and political themes that gripped his nation as it careened toward war and empire. What should the country’s relationship be with Asia and the West? How ought Japan retain its sense of cultural identity and integrity as it underwent a dramatic modernization? How ought one to come to terms with the rise of emperor-worship, militarism, imperialism, and militant nationalism? And as the war progressed, how to deal with the deaths of millions in this horrifying conflict?
Orikuchi was a first rate folklorist, and he weaves a tremendous array of legends and historical references into the work. Japanese literary scholar Ando Reiji untangles many of these references and also explores the different theories of the work in a series of intriguing articles translated from his Japanese publications on the subject and bundled into the English-language translation (analyses and commentaries comprise over half the volume). He also explores Orikuchi’s fascination with religion and the occult, and the like-minded circle of occultists and scholars he associated with. There was a move in the decades prior to the war to develop a synthesis between eastern and western religions, and this may also have been one of the ideas driving the narrative. It also helps explain the title of the book (and the Egyptian-themed art which appeared in early editions of the text); Orikuchi drew on the legend of Isis and Osiris as part of his work exploring and synthesizing themes of resurrection and religious universality.
Less a book for fans of Japanese fiction, and more a work for those interested in literary scholarship, The Book of the Dead nonetheless helps to illustrate the power of fiction and literature to bring to life—quite literally, in this case—academic theories surrounding religion, folklore and sociology. Both a scholar and a novelist, Orikuchi published fiction under a pen name in order to keep his two bodies of work separate, but as Ando Reiji notes, his fiction was in many ways scholarship taken to the next level and applied in creative ways (Orikuchi may have been Japan’s first post-modernist). Either way, what this fascinating and insightful collection illustrates is the thin line between reality and fiction, history and myth—and the creative ways in which they can be interwoven to produce new ideas and new styles both of scholarship as well as literary production.
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