The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa – Yasunari Kawabata

The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa

 

Beggars are people too……Crazy people are women too……” Fallen women” were once naïve young girls……Men who indulge in ‘flesh trade’ aren’t called “fallen men”……As I scribble these words, my pen comes to a grinding halt. The notebook laid there crammed with the vestiges of my thoughts. The flux of my words was at the mercy of an inaccessible sheet of paper. No matter where landing stage of the wordy compositions deviates, words always appear to be imperfect when expressing the inexpressible. The voyeur within me now precedes Kawabata’s voyeuristic world attempting to comprehend human incidents through an impartial lens, the accomplices to my silence aiding to unearth the truth veiled in the allusive reflection of the transient beauty. The unassuming moon silently floating on the water mirrors the unreal within the real; the reflections on the windows ceasing to exist upon a whiff of wind, the window opening into a bargained emptiness. A tiny drop of water is competent to epitomize the reflection of the moon and the window oblivious to its crystalline pictorial pushes forward committing perjury. Life is a mingled yarn of all things echoic and nonechoic , pure and impure, sincerity and deceit ; the vitality of a perishable life holding onto the wispy filaments of pure longing. The world of nothingness steadily awakens with the melodious sound of the bells of the Senso Temple, the rhythmic choreographed long legs tapping to the blues of the jazz, the murmur of the piano from the dimly lit geisha house, the chatter of the rickshaw pullers, the tranquility of the Sumida River colliding with the exhilaration of the Casino Foiles ; the fragrance of the camellia oil soothing the incoherence of the streets of Asakusa.

“Asakusa is Asakusa is for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive…….”(Azenbō Soeda)

Akin to the many and various algae proliferating on a summer’s day stretching put a lush emerald carpet over the stagnant waters of the Gourd Pond, Asakusa comes alive with the vibrant hustle and bustle on the streets. The lyrical verses of Soeda resonates the wonders of Asakusa. A home for the homeless, a love for the loveless, a source of food for the famished; a world of leftovers of leftovers. Asakusa, a melting pot to amalgamating all races and classes equating to any thriving city on the face of this earth and yet, Asakusa finds distinctiveness in the allure of its design. How or rather who creates the infrastructure of a city? How are places resurrected from their own ruins? People nurture the land and the land in turns fashions the prevailing communities. Among the elderly delinquents of time, Asakusa was a “young punk”. It exudes an energetic charm seeking the genuine vitality of life, positivity through the purity of wild. Asakusa was a lost piece found through its very own people.

Kawabata generates a fascinating dais for Asakusa as a “human market”, attracting all and sundry from hobos , prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, geishas, shop girls, flappers, vagabonds, artists and the entire artistic shenanigans rough plays where the ornate dressings rooms of the “ero-queens” are as amusing as the man feeding wheat crackers to the carp in the pool while munching on few of from the pack.“But essentially Asakusa is like a specimen in the Bug House …… something completely different from today’s world, like a remote island or some African village led by a chief , a whole net of time-honored codes over it”

Originally published as a miscellaneous series in news dailies, the Asakusa chronicles finds it titular derivations in the wanderings of the Scarlet Gang. The self-christened theatrical group – The Scarlet Troupe publicized their hope of performing something spectacular in the kitschy votive stickers plastered all over the vacant walls in the city. Over the years, embarrassed by this modernist work of his, Kawabata once had said, “All I did was walk. I never became acquainted with any of the young delinquents. I never addressed a word to the vagrants either….. but I took notes…”. A young man with a baggage of just a pen and a notebook wayfaring through the heart of Tokyo in the aftermath of the 1923 The Great Kanto Earthquake investigated lonesome demimonde lives existing on the societal periphery. Kawabata being a silent flâneur preserves a certain sense of objectivity and distancing in his reportage, and yet ironically the acute perceptions are cryptic evaluation in their abstractions. The trajectory of the narrative rocks back and forth amid three distinct articulations accompanied by multifaceted active and passive vocalizations. Kawabata takes the reader along with him through the alleys of Asakusa. Kawabata devotedly address ….”Dear Reader….just take a walk along the alleys…”…..”Dear Reader…..as you knows”……” …..” what would you do if you were in their place……”……. The subtle prod eventually turns the reader into a loyal companion to the narrator. The “I” of the reader dissolving in the “I” of the narrator.

With its evenly matched pictorial illustrations denoting the aspects of materialistically cultural grandeur capturing one of Tokyo’s fascinating socio-cultural era of history and social relationships; this book registers a certain ‘pop-fic’ ambience . Nevertheless, Kawabata the literary master that he is stays true to his art, astutely conveying the philosophical totality of mono no aware allying the quintessence of transience beauty with the subsequent sadness. The melodrama budding within the printed pages leaps through the loops of subtle humour, economic recession, resistance to convention and the idea of love mingled with eroticism and vengeful crudity encumbered with the emptiness of longing. The dregs of Asakusa. But as long as she can still run, she’s still a woman. Because most of the bums are no longer human enough to run………… The weathered folks no longer talk. They live amid the hustle and bustle of the commercial district without saying a word. The malleable “taste of the backstreets” was sexy and absurd. The impish labyrinth of Asakusa is an inconclusive world of nothingness, but it is not nihilistic.

“When I’m with a man, I’m always sizing myself up- weighing the part of me that wants to become a woman against the part of me that is afraid to. Then I fell miserable and even more lonely” The yen for fulfilling the ideals of womanly dwells within the fragile beauty of Yumiko and Oharu. Yumiko’s desire to be viewed as a man pulsates through the memories of her being the fateful “daughter of the earthquake”; the vengeance of the kittenish arsenic kiss sailing on the Sumida River. Umekichi’s confessions of love residing the idea of love on the lips of a middle-aged woman. The radiance of red and purple sashes blending in the fated hues of the “fallen women”. The transparency of Ochiyo’s lunacy contrasting the rouge of the Okin on the bank. The emptiness offalseness of the varied protagonists is forged ahead surviving the customs of their incompleteness.

 
Asakusa had perhaps been for him (Kawabata) as it was for me – a place that allowed anonymity, freedom, where life flowed on no matter what, where you could pick up pleasure, and where small rooms with paper flowers were rented by the hour. ( Donald Richie , Afterword)

Wading through an interminable picturesque lattice of memories and dewy-eyed faces ; the rawness of dreams drifting though an endless ebb and flow of desires and pleasures strewn with snippets and snapshots floating in a stoic air , this chronicled narrative resembles a fragmented puzzle. And, you find yourself plucking these coquettishly naïve and seductively sinister wanderings, assembling it piece by piece into a significant portrait, an art illuminated in its own abstraction by its own peculiarities. Richie’s accuracy in his noteworthy inferences about Asakusa being a pathway of anonymity to an uninterrupted freedom resonates in the sensory perceptions captured amongst the echoes of “dear reader”. The human flow aggressive in survival and passionate in expression pulsates throughout my cerebral silence bringing Asakusa alive within the spiritless walls of my room; an absurd persuasion enticing me to seize the floating moon amid the nimble watery ripples. The yearning to obtain the unobtainable. The need to discover the sincerity and beauty in the depths of nothingness. Luminescent in the aureate sun, the urge to grab the ephemeral beauty of a piece of glass before it being engulfed by the shadows of the passing day; is how Kawabata’s Asakusa chronicles captivates me. And, I certainly do not need a new notebook for my words as my thoughts are no longer at the mercy of neither the pen nor the paper.

4/5 ****

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