Stories of Osaka Life
Translated by Burton Watson
Here, within the four short stories, all about characters hovering in or about Osaka in the years of 1930 - 1947, we have a small gem.
To be honest, living in Osaka must certainly lend something to how much I did enjoy these stories, but, well, it’s my review here and we all have bias don’t we. Mine is a love of Kansai and the rough, rich, hungry, drunk, wild, horny, greedy, scrounging Osaka life. Yep, those adjectives just about perfectly sum up Osaka, and this book as well.
Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two!
The most famous of the stories (and from what I’ve gathered, Oda Sakunosuke can’t be labeled as famous here in Japan anymore) revolves around a hard working woman and a sponge of a husband. Neither would make great company, but their character adds to a simple quiet comedy of life.
The restaurant that the story is named after still sits in Shinsaibashi/Namba and continues to dish out sweet beans for two. I shall have to make a stop someday soon.
Six White Venus
A shorter and lesser work, but an interesting study of Narao, the stupid second son of the mistress of a doctor. Not an enviable position, to be second best in just about every way; Second best family, second born son, second smartest. This story has bit of Gump-ish formula, as the fool sometimes prospers while his brother’s intelligence can’t always save him. I think the successful fool is the type of character much loved in Osaka, which, as a city, feels like it comes in second in many categories in Japan. In that way, Narao is a perfect match for the setting around him.
City of Trees
Much more nostalgic and less humorous than the other tales, this one centers on a man returning to his birthplace, around the slopes of Uehonmachi, and making a connection with a record selling family whose father he once knew. As the man reconnects with the place, the son of the record seller is forced to leave, moving to Nagoya to help at a factory with the war effort. Over and over again, the boy runs away back home to Osaka, and his father, tired of bringing him back, moves the entire family to Nagoya. With his last connection to the area gone, the main character loses his excuse to keep visiting and his short nostalgic months of self reflection come to an end.
This work is a quite enjoyable glance at the idea of a place holding so much meaning, though in the end, it’s the people there that matter more.
The State of the Times
The final story here is a really beautiful first hand look at Osaka in the aftermath of WWII. A reasonably successful, but controversial writer (a stand in for Oda, who was edited heavily during war time) meets an old friend, who, just back from the war needs a bit of a handout, over and over again. Hearing tell of this returnee taking the money directly to the gamblers on the street, only to lose it in an obvious scam is a bit infuriating, but when he’s spotted later running his own scam, with nice new shoes, he appears less of a fool. Along with these types of funny interludes, the description of thousands of men returning from China and having to sleep the cold December nights on the floor of Osaka station (surely not as nice as the new version) is enough to make a reader shiver.
In addition to this, the main character of the writer spends a lot of time trying to figure out a way to write up the story of Abe Sada. If you don’t know that name, (and you enjoy true crime stories) you are in luck, as this is the sleaziest, dirtiest, grossest of Japan’s love tales, and the inspiration for the oft banned In the Realm of the Senses. A quick glance at the Bobbit-esque details will let you know just why Oda had trouble publishing his work around the time of the war.
Overall, this is a quick, fun read, and the only of about 50 short stories by Oda that have ever been published. He died young and left a small unique set of work behind. Its all enough to make a man brush off his kanji dictionary and see about adding a few more to that list. (unless someone else wants to do the hard work and let me read the result?? Anyone?? ;))