The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan

The Nobility of FailureAuthor: Ivan Morris
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075502
Released: September 2013
Original release: 1975

In some ways, Ivan Morris’ The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan could be considered a companion of sorts to his earlier work The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan. While The World of the Shining Prince explores the beauty of court culture in Japan, The Nobility of Failure addresses the country’s more tragic history. Originally published in 1975, The Nobility of Failure has been out of print for years. Happily, Kurodahan Press was able to rerelease the volume in 2013 with a newly added preface by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Happier still, I was selected to receive a review copy of the new edition of The Nobility of Failure through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. The Nobility of Failure is an important work that examines the cultural and historical background of some of the tragic heroes who continue to influence the modern Japanese psyche. I am very glad that I, and others, once again have the opportunity to read it.

While not unheard of in Western tradition, Japan has a particular, and some might call peculiar, predilection for the tragic or failed hero. They are admired for their sincerity and loyalty even when their causes were meet with failure and their goals could be considered traitorous. Above all else, those heroes adhered to their ideals, especially in the face of their own destruction. In The Nobility of Failure, Morris traces Japan’s tradition of the tragic hero back to the fourth century and the archetype of Prince Yamato Takeru. The following chapters explore the lives and influences of Japan’s legendary and historic failed heroes found throughout the centuries: Yorozu, Arima no Miko, Sugawara no Michizane, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, Kusunoki Masashige, Amakusa Shirō, Ōshio Heihachirō, and Saigō Takamori. The volume culminates in an examination of the World War II kamikaze fighters—an unprecedented development in modern warfare which for most countries would have been unimaginable.

One thing that I didn’t realize about The Nobility of Failure before reading the book was how much of an influence Yukio Mishima had on its creation. Morris and Mishima were friends and the book was at least in part written in order to put Mishima’s act of ritual suicide in 1970 into historical context. The volume is even dedicated to his memory. Since I happen to have a particular fascination with Mishima, I found this connection to be especially interesting. Many of the heroes who are the focus of The Nobility of Failure (tragic heroines are only mentioned in passing) were men that Mishima personally admired, but they are also generally recognized as important to Japan as a whole and are even considered to be inspirational figures to some. Japan’s tragic heroes carry immense psychological and cultural significance; their role in Japanese history was crucial to the development of Japan’s national character, perspective, and worldview.

The Nobility of Failure is an extremely illuminating volume. It’s readily clear that Morris put a tremendous amount of thought and research into the volume. In fact, the endnotes, bibliography, and index make up approximately a third of the books’ length. Morris draws upon both primary and secondary materials, including literature, poetry, and theatrical interpretations of the heroes’ stories found in kabuki and Noh. Using a combination of sources, excerpts, and retellings, Morris reveals both the mythic and legendary basis of Japan’s tragic heroes as well as their historical reality and how they have influenced Japan’s culture and psyche. This is particularly evident in the chapter about the kamikaze fighters in which Morris ties in everything that had previously been examined. Even though The Nobility of Failure was written nearly forty years ago, it is still a valuable and fascinating work. Morris’ compassionate analysis deserves to remain in print.

Thank you to Kurodahan Press for providing a copy of The Nobility of Failure for review.

The Edogawa Rampo Reader

The Edogawa Rampo ReaderAuthor: Edogawa Rampo
Translator: Seth Jacobowitz
U.S. publisher: Kurodahan Press
ISBN: 9784902075250
Released: December 2008
Original release: 1926-1956

The Edogawa Rampo Reader, edited and translated by Seth Jacobowitz, was only the third volume of Edogawa Rampo’s work to be released in English, following Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination (which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed) and The Black Lizard and The Beast in the Shadows. Published by Kurodahan Press in 2008, The Edogawa Rampo Reader collects eight of Rampo’s short stories and ten of his essays selected from 1926 through 1956. In addition to these eighteen selections, The Edogawa Rampo Reader also includes a preface by Tatsumi Takayuki and an extensive introduction by Jacobowitz. Prior to the release of The Edogawa Rampo Reader, none of Rampo’s nonfiction work had been translated into English. In fact, all of the selections in The Edogawa Rampo Reader made their first appearance in English in the volume.

After the preface and introduction, The Edogawa Rampo Reader is divided into two sections: The Stories and The Essays. The stories include “The Daydream,” “The Martian Canals,” “The Appearance of Osei,” “Poison Weeds,” “The Stalker in the Attic,” “The Air Raid Shelter,” “Doctor Mera’s Mysterious Crimes,” and “The Dancing Dwarf.” Selected from throughout his career, the works exhibit Rampo’s skills as a mystery writer as well as a writer of the strange. The essays primarily fall into two different categories, those that are at least somewhat autobiographical—”The Horrors of Film,” “Spectral Voices,” “A Passion for Lenses,” “The Phantom Lord,” “My Love for the Printed Word,” and “Confessions of Rampo”—and those that deal with mystery fiction—”Fingerprint Novels of the Meiji Era,” “Dickens vs. Poe,” “An Eccentric Idea,” and “A Desire for Transformation.” Although there are more essays than stories in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, the nonfiction selections tend to be shorter than the fiction and so the section isn’t quite as long.

Whereas Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination basically amounted to a “best of” collection of Rampo’s short stories, The Edogawa Rampo Reader was deliberately curated to be representative of the different stages in Rampo’s career. Additionally, the volume emphasizes recurring motifs and themes that Rampo was fond of incorporating into both his fiction and nonfiction. The Edogawa Rampo Reader is meant to be comprehensive, single-volume exploration of Rampo and his work. As much as I enjoy Rampo’s short stories (which I do quite a bit) the real draw of The Edogawa Rampo Reader for me was the essays. Rampo is not only a fascinating author, he is also a fascinating person. His love of reading and writing comes through very clearly in his nonfiction. It was also interesting to see where he found his inspiration as a writer. His own life and imagination were sources, but literature from Japan and the rest of the world were also important influences.

The Edogawa Rampo Reader is a valuable resource. Rampo is an important literary figure in Japan, often cited as the father of modern Japanese mystery and crime fiction. His influence can still be seen today. Rampo is a noteworthy and intriguing creator; it really is a shame that more of his work isn’t available in English. Although they are all very good, I didn’t find the short stories in The Edogawa Rampo Reader to be quite as immediately engaging as those in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. However, overall the selection is broader in terms of genre and style. My favorite story was probably “The Stalker in the Attic,” which features Rampo’s detective Akechi Kogorō. (I would love to see an entire collection of Akechi stories in English.) But, as already mentioned, Rampo’s essays are really the highlight of the volume. I hope to see more of Rampo’s work released in English, but The Edogawa Rampo Reader makes a fine introduction to the influential author’s life and writing.