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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Invoking 17th-century demons and desires

Edo Period dark magic, fantasy, chivalry and romance

THE BLADE OF THE COURTESANS by Keiichiro Ryu. Vertical, 2008, 304 pp., $21.95 (cloth)

On the opening day of Shin-Yoshiwara — Edo's new pleasure quarters — Matsunaga Seiichiro, a 26-year-old swordsman stands on the Asakusa Nihon Embankment and looks across at the city. He then descends into streets filled with music, danger, alcohol and prostitutes, and thus begins his journey to manhood and power. Ostensibly, he is a naif from the country, one with deadly weapons, but he has a secret known only to a select few — he is the son of ex-emperor Go-Mizuni-in and his sword is none other than Oni-kiri — the Demon Cutter.

Within the hour on the streets, he is attacked by boisterous samurai and meets Gensai, an old man, who introduces him to the women of the quarter and becomes his guide to this peculiarly Japanese heaven and hell.

The novel is — forgive me — a swords and sorcery tale set in the 17th century. Seiichiro is introduced to the delights and demons of the pleasure quarter. He meets four women during his stay: the famous courtesan/ninja Katsuyama; the 9-year-old spiritual medium Oshabu, who believes she is destined to be his wife; Takao, a beautiful courtesan who forgoes the tripartite conventions of wooing Seiichiro in order to sleep with him on the second meeting; and a time-traveling succubus in her 80s who summons up the past during sex as she transforms into a beautiful young woman.

Seiichiro is orphaned after his mother — a courtesan to the emperor — is gang-raped by members of the Yagyu ninja clan. The leader of the clan, in order to wrestle power from the court, then forces the courtesans to miscarry any royal child. As in Arthurian legend and biblical stories of Herod, there is infanticide and the slaughter of young princes and their mothers.

Seiichiro becomes a pupil of the legendary swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. The narrative touches on the Bushido's code of conduct, and the author draws direct parallels with the frontier towns and gunslingers of America's Wild West some 200 years later. Although a historical novel, the violence is ultra-modern and the fights are the literary equivalent of a contemporary martial arts film and are played out with cinematic speed and balletic grace.

The novel is full of well-researched historical information; it deals with sex, violence, and the occult; is a rags to riches tale; a love story and a document of politics, class, and royalty; and a swashbuckling novel that includes doubles, shadow warriors and deadly female ninja. It is told in a straightforward manner yet includes elements of magic, fantasy, romance and chivalry.

Vertical has yet again published a book that, without its commitment to contemporary Japanese literature, would not have been translated into English. Keiichiro Ryu's "The Blade of the Courtesans" is a welcome addition to the Japanese historical novel. If it has a fault, it is the tendency to get lost in historical detail, which detracts somewhat from the full-on sex-and-violence narrative. I also found the translation did not harmonize with the pace of the novel. Too many Japanese words made it feel like I required a glossary alongside the text. Like the Kiyomizu-dera structure in Kyoto, a lot of the translation is wooden and stilted.

Yet, overall, the novel is evocative and informative, captures the intrigue and customs of the floating world, and argues in favor of the individual, the outsider and the untouchable over the agents of government, repression, prejudice and fear. Published in 1984, "The Blade of the Courtesans" was Keiichiro Ryu's debut novel. It is a shame he died in 1989 and did not live long enough to write its sequels.

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