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Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

The writings of Mori Ogai, a multifaceted Meiji intellect


By SAM GROLMES
NOT A SONG LIKE ANY OTHER: An Anthology of Writings by Mori Ogai, edited by J. Thomas Rime. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004, $42 (cloth).

Editor J. Thomas Rimer includes in this anthology an excellent introduction that clearly and succinctly outlines Mori Ogai's achievements and expands readers' appreciation of the writer's intellectual and creative abilities. Concise and thorough introductory comments by the editor or translators, in each of the seven sections of the book, place the materials in context.

Works include "The Author Himself" essays; "In Germany," essays written for German newspapers in response to articles written by a German geologist to whom Ogai took exception; "In The World of Politics," two essays that read like fiction and deal with moral issues; "The Visual Arts," essays in which Ogai discusses accomplishments in Western art and their meaning for art in Japan; "The Contemporary Japanese Theater," which presents several of Ogai's original dramas, most notably "Shizuka" and "Ikutagawa," both drawn from traditional literary sources dating back to the eighth century but presented in modern colloquial Japanese (a first for the Japanese theater); "Four Unusual Stories," three that draw largely on Ogai's own experiences and opinions plus a historical fiction novella; and "The Art of Poetry," a set of poems by Ogai.

Known to Western readers primarily through translations of his novels and short stories, Ogai is reintroduced here through a comprehensive view of his accomplishments and broad range of interests and influence. How should Ogai be described? He is a novelist, translator, poet, dramatist, art critic, intellectual and, perhaps most impressive, a scholar.

Opening with extracts from essays in which he discloses aspects about himself not found elsewhere, this book goes on to show Ogai's concerns for social and political issues as well as his comments on art and the theater. Included are original plays, fiction and poetry -- all of which have been translated here for the first time.

The opening essays show a sophisticated intellect expressed with a warm charm. Remembered by most as one of the outstanding intellects and scholars of the Meiji Era, the Ogai depicted here is a man of many other facets and accomplishments.

Born to a traditional family of physicians, Ogai was groomed for the life of a doctor. Although he also studied Confucian philosophy and Chinese classics -- a study that helped his literary career later in life -- at an early age he was sent to Tokyo to study German in preparation for his medical career.

Attending the prestigious Government Medical School, which later became Tokyo University of Medicine, Ogai graduated at the age of 19 and was immediately taken into the Army as a medical officer. Thus began a military medical career that culminated in his becoming the Army's surgeon general. Ogai was sent to Germany to study medicine, in which he became very accomplished while thoroughly acquainting himself with the literary and artistic world, social issues, religion, theater and political matters.

Ogai's long novella "Oshio Heihachiro," translated by Hiroaki Sato, reveals Ogai's skill in depicting factual reality from his own research and knowledge, while letting his imagination flow to elaborate an event. He describes a peasant uprising in Osaka in 1837, an event well-known among the Japanese, and follows the story of Oshio Heihachiro, a former government official turned scholar and teacher who is credited with spurring a revolt against the government following years of famine. Ogai assembles not only a record of the events but fills it with incredible details of place, time and people involved.

Following this very sophisticated piece and concluding the anthology, a series of Ogai's poems, again translated by Sato, deals with his experiences as an Army doctor. The inclusion of a set of 100 tanka in this surprising poetry section serves as a pleasant addition of calming insight.

To say this is an important book is to understate its accomplishment. It is marvelous -- from the sensitivity the title represents to the overall organization of the materials included. It is an outstanding scholarly book in a very readable presentation. Those who are familiar with Ogai through his short stories and novels will find this an enlightening book that will enhance their understanding and appreciation of the life and work of a great man.



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