Book review of “Takiji Kobayashi” by Norma Field
(published by Iwanami Shoten in January 2009,)
By Kazuyuki Azusawa
This book is a critical biography of Takiji Kobayashi written by Norma Field, a professor of Japanese culture who has an American father and a Japanese mother.
The author was invited to Tokyo Keizai University, where she had an opportunity to discuss human intelligence with Dr. Suh Kyungsik.
This opportunity was created by a huge demonstration.
At that time, there was a huge global demonstration by tens of millions of people to protest against the start of the Iraq war.
The author was teaching at the University of Chicago, where demonstrations were held,
and the ineffectiveness of the demonstrations gave her a sense of powerlessness and made her hesitate to accept the invitation. Then Dr. Suh said to her,
“They were unable to deter Bush from starting the war. Might this have revealed the limitations of education for intelligence in the United States?”
(Kyoyo no Saisei no Tame ni (For a recovery of culture) by Shuichi Kato, Suh Kyungsik and Norma Field, published by Kageshobo)
She felt confused for a while, but it seems that the question may have touched her.
You can say that intelligence is a thing that a person has been building up for their entire lifetime from their daily life, work, exercising, reading,
chats and discussions. In other word, it is everything that a person is.
Norma Field mobilized everything for her research on Takiji’s works, life, personality, family and friends, and then she compared them with her own “everything”.
Otaru is a town Takiji had been brought up in and had loved. She lived in Otaru for one year even before the recent revival of Takiji’s 1929 novel Kanikosen
(The Crab Canning Ship) brought a boom to the town. She talked with people who remembered Takiji until she completed her book.
The late Takiji Kobayashi, who left works that stir the souls of people living in our own times,
and the living Field communicated with each other as if talking face to face through the works.
She has brought unique inspiration and revelations of her own to her understanding of Takiji’s works, personality and thought,
and they constitute the dynamic charm of her book about Takiji. First of all, she notes the broad mind with which he observed others.
Considering Takiji was an outstanding author of proletarian literature and a leader and an activist for the leftist cultural movement,
the revelation of his generosity of spirit cannot be overlooked.
The suppression of the movement was not only violent but it also deprived his family and relatives of jobs. Additionally,
a spy infiltrated the movement leading to Takiji’s arrest, torture, and death at the hands of the police,
and there was a serious conflict between members of the movement.
The seriousness of the intense conflict had affected the opinions of close colleagues and they started to dismiss each other’s ideas easily. However, Takiji did not.
The book indicates that most of the characters in his works are recognized as people by the author.
The book points out Takiji’s great sensitivity and “trust in humankind”, using the phrase of the writer Yuichi Takai. Takiji did not sneer,
and this broadmindedness was an important quality of his as an author and an activist, the book says.
There is an episode which illustrates the character of Takiji as a young man.
In front of a large audience in a hall, a young man, who appears to be a student, contradicts a lecturer who is a famous authority, and they begin to argue,
spoiling the mood of the lecture. It is a scene that all of us have witnessed at some time.
Takiji tried to argue with a proponent of population theory who swayed the audience at a public lecture. In all fairness,
the argument was on even terms, but it seems he felt awkward somehow. On his way home with his friend, Takiji suddenly burst into tears, looking mortified.
His friend covered Takiji with a cloak and let him cry all he wanted.
“Be strong. Be much stronger.” He might have been shouting such words to himself
Field lets her imagination run inside his (Page 63 of the book). About his appearance,
some people said that he held himself with his right shoulder slightly squared; this episode and Takiji’s characteristic back view may show his distinctive mentality.
The following is how Kanikosen is referred to in the book.
Field touches on the famous opening scene with the phrase “We’re going to hell,” and the innovative technique depicting reality like scenes in a movie,
and at the same time she says that Takiji is appealing to people to see things behind the reality.
Korehito Kurahara, an eminent literary critic and leader of a literary movement, comments that it is a work that forgets individuals.
On the other hand, in her book Field comments that the novel depicts each man vividly, quoting the depiction of a man who appears only once in the novel,
“he came up on deck as he couldn’t stand hearing his heart beat”
and the scene where another man stops stammering when he mourns a man who is fatally tortured on a ship, and yet, she argues,
at the same time it succeeds in depicting the emotion of a group with the way members are united even though this is really difficult to do.
Under extreme oppression, people tend to lose themselves.
The novel not only reflects such people in the social structure and other people as mirrors but it succeeds in describing how people feel when they rise up united through details of the story instead of logic.
That is why people empathize with the novel when figuring out the current reality of Japan in 2008.
Moreover, Field mentions that it was translated into Korean and read during the struggle against the military regime in South Korea.
In addition, she refers to the relationship between politics and art, which is a controversial and important theme of the book’s further discussion of Kanikosen.
In this part, she only says that politics and art should be freed from their stereotypes,
and she delves fully into the issue in the section where she discusses the novel To-seikatsusha (A Man of Underground Activities).
As a professor of literary theory, she challenged the eternal question of the relationship between politics
and art or literature by discussing Takiji’s personality and works.
Field frames her discussion of To-seikatsusha in terms of “the work that could have spoiled the acclaim Takiji earned for Kani Kosen”..
On the one side, there is an opinion that, in the relationship between politics and literature, literature should stand alone and independent,
existing for its own sake, and if a literary work is exploited for political purposes (in Takiji’s case, destroying the Emperor system and achieving revolution),
the work is considered to be of poor-quality and positioned one rank lower.
After the war, the work To-seikatsusha was widely read. Literary critics gave bitter appraisals to Takiji’s works as a whole,
based on the logic described above. However,
Field seems to infer that Takiji himself had been challenging the opinion that politics and literature are completely different things.
Takiji seemed to try an experiment in integrating the two things into one. In addition, it is possible that he did this not for his own achievement,
but for the oppressed, such as women, children and laborers, with whom his unusual great sensibility brought him into sympathy.
Field’s book seems to insist on this point. It is a difficult point, and one of the reasons for the book’s success.
Suppression by the tokko police (The special political police) forces an activist to stop his work,
quit his job and cut off contact with his family: that is what going underground means.
Takiji himself cut off contact with the outside world and lived like the main character of To-seikatsusha.
The book expresses the sacrifice involved in such a life through imagination and writing delicately, extremely delicately.
Based on those things, Field’s book appreciates the achievement of To-seikatsusha as political literature.
It is the value of literature which tried to depict how a person spends his daily life to accomplish a noble purpose as a goal of life, making sacrifices.
Readers may be divided as to whether they accept Field’s appraisals. However, she recounts a number of touching episodes.
In one of them, after going underground, Takiji went to Hibiya Kokaido Hall and, with his brother Sango, listened to a violin concerto performed by Joseph Szigeti.
With tears in his eyes, Takiji said, “I feel the joy of living welling up.” I can imagine the scene at the hall.
In another episode, the author describes how Takiji, while living clandestinely, longed to have a chat with others for just thirty minutes.
A chat for thirty minutes! What a life!
He did this not for someone’s individual benefit or his own achievement, but to prevent the nation from starting a war,
in other words, these days of sacrifice were to spare people living on Chinese soil, soldiers sent to war, and their families from the misery of death,
separation and poverty.
Amid patience and tension, Takiji had a love for people so intense it was even painful.
And he also had a burning passion for an ideal society in which equality was realized. Imagining these,
we feel able to recognize anew the things that Takiji wanted to express and to convey to us. As an extension of his way of life, he was cruelly murdered by torture.
Thinking again of his death, we feel even more strongly the message of his work.
Field depicts the torture inflicted on Takiji with very restrained language. However, when she writes that the torturers could have taken his life immediately,
but instead “it took three hours,” and that they “broke his finger, which would never again be used to write, by bending it back on itself,”
the vileness and brutality of those who took his life are made to resonate fortissimo.
When we think of Takiji’s open-minded character, beloved by everyone, the tenderness he showed in his love for his family and his lover,
the warmheartedness with which he tried to connect with laborers, and especially with women workers, [who were not allowed to keep even one light],
and the richness of the life in which he expressed these qualities to the full, we feel Takiji’s physical and mental pain when he was made to give them up halfway
---and his regret sinks deep into our hearts.
Finally, Field presents the important issue of “blunting of sensibility”
in relation to the removal from the Otaru City Literature Museum of a photograph of Takiji’s dead body which prompted one to imagine
how he was tortured to death.
His family even now does not want to see the photo; they cannot get used to it. We shouldn’t react by saying,
“Oh, that photo,” as if it somehow taking it for granted.
It is a sincere question. The author puts the question to herself, and I think that readers also should remember it.
Field brought Takiji back into life in front of us as a lovable friend, rather than a hero. That is why she puts this issue to us sincerely.
According to the book, when his friends averted their eyes from his body, Seki, his mother,
opened the neck of her son’s shirt and showed the shocking sight to the people gathered, telling them fiercely to look at the wounds.
(Page 240) Then she held his body, with tears rolling down her cheeks, and cried out with all her strength,
“Look. My boy. Stand up again. Stand up again, your fellows are watching you. Show them.”
(Tatakai-no-Sakka-Domeiki [Notes of the Struggling Writers Union] volume.2 by Kan Eguchi, published by Shin Nihon Shuppan Sha)
Let us commemorate the hardships of his mother Seki and Takiji. I want to embrace the passion that springs from sympathy. When we do,
Takiji will stand up once again and walk beside us.
I would like to express my passionate appreciation of Takiji’s life and of Norma Field’s effort.