Receiving this human form We cannot tell what tomorrow will bring Observing the great of this world How long will they continue in their glory The changes of the world are swift Like the legs of the wide-winged dragonfly
So writes Kano, one of the few honest and upright characters in Hayashi Fumiko's novel Floating Clouds, a sprawling portrait of Japan just after the end of World War II. Dying of tuberculosis in Tokyo, he is visited by Yukiko, the female protagonist of the novel, with whom he is hopelessly in love. The poem, which he encloses in a letter thanking her for the visit, uses old-fashioned poetic language and the image of evanescence—a core image of classical Japanese literature—to place defeated Japan and the war itself in the context of the eternal flow of time.
Contrast this to the down-to-earth tone of the bar owner Mukai, a friend of Tomioka, the novel's promiscuous male protagonist, who repays Mukai's friendship by seducing his wife. Mukai ends by accidentally murdering his wife in a fit of rage, but before this tragic turn of events, in conversation with Tomioka, he has this to say about the current state of the country:
Regulations, taxes—they make it impossible to get started in business. Even when a good customer walks in, I'm not allowed to serve him rice curry. Informers are everywhere, and the bureaucrats are as strict as the bailiffs of the Tokugawa era. They're like kids fighting over who's going to be the bully of the neighborhood. After gleefully making business impossible, they harass you. Meanwhile, the black market is thriving.
Floating Clouds shows defeated Japan from many different points of view. If the changes of the world are as swift as the legs of the dragonfly, the novel itself is as multi-faceted as the dragonfly's eye. And yet all is filtered through the sensibilities of the two protagonists, Yukiko, a young typist (then one of the few occupations open to a decent woman) for the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and Tomioka, a minor official in the same department, as they struggle to find a new beginning after Japan's defeat and their own repatriation to Japan from Japan-occupied Indochina (now Vietnam).
Tracing the aftermath of the affair conducted in Indochina by Yukiko and Tomioka, Hayashi touches on each and every kind of civilian—the home front population—who survived. There were the war widows, and the returned "comfort women," the black market speculators, the religious hucksters, the American soldiers of the Occupation. All are shown in precise detail, as the lives of the two protagonists encounter them in their quest to find a new life.
But Floating Clouds is more a story about the absence of love than anything else, for almost immediately upon returning to his wife and family in Japan, to whom he feels no more than a sense of responsibility, Tomioka has resolved to break with Yukiko. His intention is announced before the novel is well under way and the rest of it is occupied by the agonizing process of their separation, which ends with her death from the effects of a botched abortion (of his child).
The world of Floating Clouds is powered by money and sex and the occasional flash of tenderness. If the id were released to wander without principles or restraints of any kind, this is the kind of world it would make—nothing would be permanent, not even feelings.
For a woman making her way alone, however, Japan's defeat was not the beginning of this kind of society. For Yukiko, who came to Tokyo to make her way as an independent young woman, devoid of any kind of parental protection, it was kin to the society of prewar Japan as well, where a woman who was unattached to any protective male figure was no more than a piece of flotsam, up for grabs by any male who wanted her. When Yukiko was a student at a typists' school, sleeping in the tiny maid's room of her uncle's home, her uncle simply walked into her room one night, silently took her virginity, and then continued to rape her regularly for three years. Marriage was out of the question, since he was already married, and his wife lived in the same house. Unable to see a future in this, Yukiko volunteered for Indochina. But much as she hated her uncle, Yukiko also sensed that his desire for her gave her some small modicum of power. In circumstances like this, the survival of any kind of human feeling is a kind of miracle in itself.
And yet both Yukiko and Tomioka hold on to a dream of paradise, and its location is Indochina. Indochina, the palace of memory, is not only a geographical entity; it is also a state of mind. Tomioka, lying in a grimy hotel room with Yukiko and considering double suicide with her, remembers:
Gazing at the sooty ceiling—so stained that it looked like a map of the world—he recalled the city of Hue, remembering how, along the road from the railway station into the heart of the city, the buds on the young camphor trees gave the trees a soft, golden hue.
On the promenade along the city's river, the blooms of canna and clematis were as brightly colored as printed silk. Coconuts, betel palms, and sweet osmanthus flourished everywhere. Tomioka remembered the Moi tribesman, clad only in their red loincloths, lined up along the promenade to sell the two or three parakeets in their cages.
Tomioka's life in Dalat was becoming a single design, like that of a splash-pattern kimono, printed indelibly on his memory.
Tomioka ultimately becomes able to sublimate his obsession with Dalat into the articles on Indochina's forests that he begins to write for a new journal. But Yukiko is unable to give up her dreams. Watching over her as she lies dying, Tomioka reflects, "The woman held her memories dear always. She would always mistake memories for destiny."
Tomioka survives, yet he has lost all feeling. Yukiko dies, and yet she dies holding onto memories, retaining her humanity. In this paradox lies the redeeming power of this magnificent novel of a moment in Japanese history when it seemed all was lost.
Lane Dunlop's translation is excellent, skillfully navigating many difficulties in Hayashi's surfacely simple but poetic style, and the introduction is helpful, though brief. Readers who want to know more can consult Donald Keene's chapter on Hayashi in Dawn to the West: Fiction, Joan Ericson's Be a Woman: Hayashi Fumiko and Modern Japanese Women's Literature, or Janice Brown's introduction to I Saw a Pale Horse and Selected Poems from Diary of a Vagabond.
One of the most popular authors of modern Japan and at the same time one of the most respected is the female novelist, poet, and short story writer Hayashi Fumiko (1904– 1951). Her parents were itinerant peddlers and she spent her childhood in extreme poverty, wandering from place to place, changing elementary school thirteen times. She somehow managed to put herself through the equivalent of a modern high school, however, and then came to Tokyo, determined to make her way as a writer. Working as a café waitress and at other low-paying jobs, she continued to read ravenously while submitting stories to magazines. Her first success came with Diary of a Vagabond (Horoki), which she published in 1930. An instant best seller, it and two sequels published soon afterwards sold 600,000 copies in two years. Hayashi used the proceeds to travel abroad, visiting China, Paris, London, and Italy. As war approached, she was accredited as special war correspondent for the Mainichi in China and reported on the war for several years. Then, in 1942, as part of an information unit, she was sent for approximately eight months to the Japanese-occupied areas of Singapore, French Indochina, Java, and Borneo. Her experiences during this time provided material for the tragic short story "Borneo Diamond," about government prostitutes (so-called comfort women) in Indonesia, and for Floating Clouds (Ukigumo), unquestionably her masterpiece and one of the most moving novels of twentieth century Japanese fiction, which was published in 1951. When she died the same year, the greats of Japan's literary world, led by Kawabata Yasunari as chief mourner, were joined by many ordinary people. She had published over 270 books. The film of Floating Clouds made by the legendary director Mikio Naruse is one of the classics of modern Japanese cinema.