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Fumiko Enchi: 女面 (Masks)

This is a book about masks, starting with a visit by the four main characters to see a collection of Noh masks, though, like most of us, they will wear figurative masks. But is also about love and passion, about betrayal, about the spirit world, about twins, about the idea that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and about control of others, from the spirit world as well as directly. It is about classic Japanese literature, particularly but certainly not only The Tale of the Genji (Enchi translated the book into modern Japanese.). Above all, it is about lying, deceit and death.

The four main characters who meet at the house of a famous Noh actor (who, like other characters in the book, we do not meet, as he is too ill) are Mieko Toganō, a widow, a poet and a lady with an old-fashioned easiness and grace; her daughter-in-law, Yasuko, who had been married to Akio, Mieko’s son, who had died in an avalanche on Mount Fuji, and who now lives with her mother-in-law and assists her with her poetry magazine; Tsuneo Ibuki, an assistant professor, specialising in Heian era literature, and Toyoki Mikamé, a doctor. Ibuki is married with a daughter and Mikamé is single. Both are old friends. Akio had worked in the same department as Ibuki and now advises Yusako, who is continuing her late husband’s research into the study of spirit possession. Both men are in love with Yusako.

The Toganō family was a very distinguished Japanese family. One of their traditions was that the men, when young, were given a maid for their personal (and, obviously, sexual) use and kept her after marriage. This had happened with Masatsugu Toganō, Mieko’s husband. Indeed, the maid twice became pregnant and twice had to abort the child. That this coloured the marriage of Masatsugu and Mieko is evident. Indeed, Mieko has not one but two secrets, albeit related, which come out during the course of the book. One of the key themes of the book is how Mieko controls those around her, particularly but certainly not only Yasuko, and how subtly does it, feigning innocence and deceiving even those cloest to her.

Spirit possession is key to this novel. Ibuki and Yusako are studying it and Akio was. Mieko, in her younger days, wrote a paper on the Rokujō lady in The Tale of the Genji and we get the entire text of the paper. The Rokujō lady was one of Genji’s mistress and her jealous spirit attacks and, in a couple of cases, kills other mistresses he had. We learn that Mieko wrote the paper for one specific person. The group also attend a seance, at which Jean Matois, a mountaineer who was killed on the Matterhorn in 1912, appears, obviously reminding them of Akio’s death.

However, the main story revolves around love and passion and, as often happens both in literature and real life, that brings in lying and deceit and death. All of the four main characters have somewhat complicated relationships. Ibuki and Mikamé both love Yasuko. She says that she wants to marry Mikamé but has a fling with Ibuki. Mieko had a complicated love life when younger, which involved betrayal and death. But the main complication involves Mikamé, Ibuki and Yasuko and very complicated and very cleverly portrayed this relationship is.

This is a superb book. The characters and their complexities are brilliantly done by Enchi. The plot is very clever and keeps us guessing. Above all, she shows us the masks, the masks that humans as well as Noh actors wear and show to the world but, also, what lies concealed behind the mask, and what lies concealed is not always pretty.

Publishing history

First published in 1958 by Kadokawa Shoten
First English translation by Knopf in 1983
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter