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Inoue Yasushi (1907-1991)


Prolific Japanese novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and poet, whose subject matters ranged from modern Japan to ancient China, but he gained fame with his historical fiction. Inoue began his literary career after reaching middle age. Among his best-known works is Tempyo no iraka (1957, The Roof Tile of Tempyo), set in the 8th-century, and describing the journey of a group of Japanese Buddhist monks in China. Inoue received several awards and was honored as a "Living National Treasure" of Japan.

"He sat on the expanse of grass, cross-legged in contemplation, and old man in a turban. When he opened his eyes I asked him what he prayed for. He said he prayed for freedom all mind, all thought. I asked him then how one might enter these mindless regions. He said you hold the tongue in the center of the mouth, making quite sure its sides touch against nothing." (from 'Old Man in a Turban', trans. Dennis Keene, from Global Voices, 1995)

Inoue Yasushi was born in Asahikawa on the northern island of Hokkaido. His father, Hayao, was an army doctor, who was transferred several times. His mother, Yae Inoue, came from a family of doctors in several generations. At the age of six Inoue was sent to his grandmother, a former geisha. He grew up in the family's native village in Shizuoka Prefecture. While in the Numazu Middle School, Inoue started to read poetry. In 1926 Inoue moved to Kanazawa where his parents lived and attended the Fourth Higher School. During this period his trained obsessively at a judo club and wrote poetry. To his family's disappointment, Inoue failed the entrance examination for the medical school at Kyushu Imperial University. His father, who retired from his work, spent his last years in semi-seclusion raising chickens. Inoue was accepted into the University's English department, but he did not pay much attention to his studies. After entering the Kyoto Imperial University, where he studied aesthetics and philosophy, Inoue received his degree in 1936. His thesis dealt with Paul Valéry's poetry.

In 1935 Inoue married Adachi Fumi, whose father was a professor of anthropology. Inoue published some poems and short stories in magazines, but he abandoned his career in literature and became a reporter for the weekly magazine Sande Mainichi in Osaka. After serving as a foot soldier in northern China in 1937-38, Inoue continued in the culture department of the Mainichi newspapers.

After the war Inoue made his breakthrough as a writer in 1949 with two short novels, Ryoju (The Hunting Gun) and Togyu – the latter won in 1950 the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature. The Hunting Gun is a love story set in the post-war period. It is told from three points of view in letters written to the male protagonist, Josuke. Shoko, his mistress' daughter, has found her mother Saiko's diary and learns that there are secrets between mothers and daughters; his wife goes through their unhappy marriage, and his mistress reveals her true self before her death. Midori is the unhappy wife of Josuke, the husband-lover. The novel originated from a prose poem, inspired by the relationship between a hunting gun and human loneliness, which Inoue wrote for the magazine The Hunter's Companion. "A large seaman's pipe in his mouth, / A setter running before him in grass, / The man strode up the early winter path of Mount Amagi, / And frost cracked under boot-sole. / The band with five and twenty bullets, / The leather coat, dark brown, / The double-barrelled Churchill – / What made him cold, armed with white, bright steel, / To take the lives of creatures?"

Inoue's serialized samurai novel published in the Sunday Mainichi was filmed in 1952 by Hiroshi Inagaki, starring Toshiro Mifune. Inagaki wrote the sceenplay for the film, Sword for Hire, with Akira Kurosawa. In the story civil war and another woman separate a warrior and his lover, a chambermaid, but eventually they are reunited. Sword for Hire was filmed in black-and-white. When it was shown in the United States, it was paired with an Italian sex comedy. Kurosawa also wrote the screenplay for Asunaro monogatari (1955), directed by Hiromichi Horikawa, and based on Inoue's story. Honkakubo Ibun (1981) inspired Kei Kumai's film Sen no Rikyu – honkakubo ibun (1989). It told of a famous tea master, Sen Rikyu, who was an adviser to warlord Hideyoshi. Twenty-seven years after Rikyo's death his disciple Honkakubo tries to determine, whether the tea master committed suicide by his own volition, or whether he was compelled to commit seppuku by Hideyoshi. The film won the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion Award.

Inoue moved in 1951 to Tokyo and devoted himself entirely to writing. Inoue visited China in the late 1950s, where later he also travelled several times, and in 1964 he was elected to the Japan Academy of Arts. From 1969 to 1972 he served as chairman of the board of directors for the Japan Literary Association. In 1976 he received the Order of Cultural Merit, the highest honor bestowed by the Japanese government. Following Kawabata Yasunari, Inoue was elected an international vice president of PEN in 1984. Inoue died on January 29, 1991 in Tokyo. His name was frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Inoue's tales are often autobiographical and had an essayish objectivity and calmness. "At first encounter, the potential appeal to Western readers of Inoue's writings may seem somewhat limited," wrote J. Thomas Rimer in A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature (1999). "While his work is not difficult in terms and style, a certain amount of close attention in needed from readers learning to respond to his celebrated re-creations of life in classical China and early Japan." 'The Counterfeiter,' written in 1951, is a tragedy of a mediocre artist. The story is narrated by a writer who has been asked to compose the biography of a famous artist. "When I was first approached, I had jumped at the opportunity of taking on this arduous task. I was very fond not only of Keigaku's work but also of Keigaku as an individual. Besides, compiling a biography of Keigaku would be more than just writing a history of Kyoto's art circles with him at the core; it would be like writing a history of Japan's art world." He finds out that Keikagu had only a few friends, the most important of them the mysterious Shinozaki. The narrator suspects that Shinozaki was in fact Hosen Hara, who had devoted his life to counterfeiting Keigaku's works. Haunted by the fame of Keigaku, Hosen Hara is not able to pursue his own career in the arts.

In Chronicle of My Mother (1975) Inoue tells without sentimentality about his strained relationship with his father, and his mother's illness (Alzheimer's disease?), when she declines into senility. His father's attempt to reach his son with a simple gesture, shaking hands, ends sadly: '' Just that – two hands gently holding onto each other. Then in the next instant I felt my hand being softly pushed away. It was a sensation similar to the slight jerk of the tip of a fishing rod.'' In his mother's fate the author examines the themes of loss, resignation, and loneliness – she forgets her marriage and husband and sinks into a timeless world of childhood images.

Inoue's historical works include Ro-ran (1959), about the rise and fall of a small state in Central Asia, Tonko (1959), which deals with Buddhist manuscripts hidden in the Tun-huang caves, Aoki okami (1960), a fictional account of the life of Genghis Khan, which was originally published in the cultural journal Bungei shunju in 1959-60, and Futo (1963, Wind and Waves), about the Mongol attacks in the 13th century. Its material was partly based on Inoue's travels in Korea. His visit in the United States produced Wadatsumi (1977), an account of Japanese immigration to America. Seiiki monogarari (1968, Journey Beyond Samarkand) drew on Inoue's experiences in Central Asia. Inoue paid much attention to historical accuracy and frequently consulted with academic historians; for Tun-Huang he sought advice from Fujiara Akira (1911-98), a specialist on manuscipts and for Tempyo no iraka (The Roof Tile of Tempyo) he consulted with Ando Kosei (1900-70).

For further reading: Encyclopedia of World Literature, vol 2, ed. by Steven R.Serafin (1999); World Authors 1980-1985, ed. by Vineta Colby (1991) - For further information: Autoren und Autorinnen: I: Inoue, Yasushi (in German)

Selected works:

  • Ryoju, 1949 - The Hunting Gun (tr. Sadamichi Yokoo & Sanford Goldstein, 1961) - Metsästyskivääri (suom. Hilkka Mäki, 1966, radio play, 1980) - TV film 1966, dir. by John McGrath, starring Nigel Davenport, Shirley Anne Field, Zena Walker
  • Togyu, 1949
  • Kuroi ushio, 1950 - film 1954, dir. by Sô Yamamura, screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima
  • Aru gisakka no shogai, 1951 - The Counterfeiter and Other Stories (translated, with an introd. by Leon Picon, 1965) - Erään väärentäjän elämä (suom. Kai Nieminen, 1975)
  • Furin kazan, 1953 - The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan (translated by Yoko Riley, 2006) - film Samurai Banners / Under the Banner of Samurai (1969), dir. by Hiroshi Inagaki, starring Toshiro Mifune, Yoshiko Sakuma, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Yujiro Ishihara, Katsuo Nakamura
  • Asunaro monogatari, 1953 - film 1955, dir. by Hiromichi Horikawa, screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, starring Akira Kubo, Isao Kimura, Yoshiko Kuga, Mariko Okada, Akemi Negishi
  • Ashita kuru hito, 1954
  • Michite kuru shio, 1955
  • Kuroi cho, 1955
  • Yodo dono nikki, 1955
  • Hyoheki, 1956 - film 1958, dir. by Yasuzo Masumura, screenplay by Kaneto Shindô, starring Kenji Sugawara, Fujiko Yamamoto, Hitomi Nozoe, Keizo Kawasaki
  • Shatei, 1956
  • Tempyo no iraka, 1957 - The Roof Tile of Tempyo (translated by James T. Araki, 1975)
  • Shirobamba, 1960 - Shirobamba: A Childhood in Old Japan (translated by Jean Oda Moy, 1992)
  • Aoki okami, 1960 - The Blue Wolf: a Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan (translated by Joshua A. Fogel, 2008) - TV drama 1980, dir. Morisaki Azuma and Harada Takashi, starring Kato Go; film 2007, based on the novel by Inoue and Shoichi Maruyama's story Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea, dir. Shinichiro Sawai, starring Takashi Sorimachi
  • Ro-ran, 1959
  • Lou-Lan, 1959 - Lou-Lan and Other Stories (translated by James T. Araki, Edward Seidensticker, 1981)
  • Tonko, 1959 - Tun-Huang (translated by Jean Oda Moy, 1978) - film 1988, dir. by Junya Sato, starring Toshiyuki Nishida, Koichi Sato, Anna Nakagawa, Tsunehiko Watase
  • Yodo-dono Nikki, 1961
  • Gake, 1961
  • Yokihi den, 1963
  • Futo, 1963 - Wind and Waves (translated by James T. Araki, 1989)
  • Go-Shirakawa-In, 1964
  • Natsugusa fuyunami, 1964
  • Yoru no koe, 1967
  • Nukata no Okimi, 1968
  • Oroshiya Koku-sui Mutan, 1968
  • Seiiki monogarari, 1968 - Journey Beyond Samarkand (translators: Gyo Furuta and Gordon Sager, 1971)
  • Kita no umi, 1968
  • Keyaki no ki, 1970
  • Shikaku na fune, 1970
  • Hoshi to matsuri, 1971
  • Osanaki hi no koto, 1972
  • Yasushi Inoue shosetsu zenshu, 1972-1975 (32 vols.)
  • Utsukushiki mono to no deai, 1973
  • Waga ichigo ichie, 1975
  • Kadan, 1975
  • Waga haha no ki, 1975 - Chronicle of My Mother (translated by Jean Oda Moy, 1982) - Äitini tarina (englanninnoksesta suom. Jarkko Laine, 1986)
  • Wadatsumi, 1977
  • Yasushi Inoue zenshi shu, 1979
  • Selected Poems of Inoue Yasushi, 1979 (translations by Yukawa Kyoko)
  • Letters of Four Seasons, 1980 (with Daisaku Ikeda, translation of Shiki no gansho by Richard L. Gage)
  • Honkakubo Ibun, 1981 - film 1989, Sen no Rikyu - honkakubo ibun / Death of a tea master, dir. by Kei Kumai, starring Eiji Okuda, Toshiro Mifune, Kinnosuke Yorozuya, Go Kato, screenplay by Yoshitaka Yoda
  • Yasushi Inoue rekishi shosetsu shu, 1981-1982 (11 vols.)
  • Koshi, 1987
  • Yasushi Inoue zenshu, 1995-97 (28 vols.)

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