Review Of The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, by Yasunari Kawabata

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 12/10/10


  It is difficult to take much from Kawabata’s The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa because in many ways, it is an odd and experimental work that plays with narrative to the point that the overall arc comes across somewhat fragmented. This is not to say there are not nice moments within, but The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa is both an early and relatively minor work when thinking of Kawabata’s output. It’s not even a stretch to claim this, since it is noted that Kawabata himself would often cringe whenever he heard it read aloud. Having said that, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa is a work that should be read once readers have familiarized themselves with his more popular (and much better) novels such as Snow Country, The Sound of the Mountain and Beauty and Sadness, among others.

  Kawabata recreates the Asakusa setting, known as the entertainment district of Japan, and it attracts everyone from artists to prostitutes. It puts one in mind of The Great Gatsby (in terms of the thriving times, not stylistically) and the many changes occurring throughout that era. “Gang youths” are the focus, for via way of these youths, we can observe life through them as the novel sets up a series of situations that slowly builds into a narrative, even if the narrative is not coherent in the traditional sense.

  For example, there are moments within the novel that begin to cohere (the book was originally serialized in newspapers and so individual parts were written fragmentally for this purpose) but then frequently the narrative and even the point of view shift onto another. The parts discussing the famous Tokyo earthquake of 1923 are some of the most interesting moments, for they bring both a historical perspective to the changes that resulted from such a disaster, as well as offering the emotional perspective one would have felt during that time. Tanizaki also has discussed this event at length, and for Westerners unfamiliar, the book does dip into certain cultural aspects that can allow one to feel part of it, even if only in the momentary sense.

  From a historical perspective and also for anyone who has sought out Kawabata’s works, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa shows the growth of the writer, and interesting are the forward and afterward by Donald Richie. He provides his personal background with regards to meeting Kawabata, includes a number of photos, and his thoughts on the work overall, which seem to confirm what I think: that there are good moments within, some interesting fragments, but ultimately not a work that reflects when Kawabata was at the top of his game. (Richie also mentions that Kawabata once saw the famous Tanizaki surrounded by attractive women and so he too thought this is what the writing life would entail.)

  Here’s a scene that depicts bums in the park:

  “Wading through the pigeons, we go into an open place with a cluster of trees. Here and there bums have their morning meetings among the benches.”

  Then the narrator continues and notes:

  “The dregs of Asakusa. But as long as she can still run, she’s still a woman. Because most bums are no longer human enough to run.”

  Interesting observations as these are no doubt contained within, but the problem involves the lack of character development that is always present when one thinks of Kawabata’s best work. Instead, we are given snippets and snapshots of members within this period that readers do not care for as full-bodied people, since they are not developed as such. Of course, not all works need this to succeed, and while I do think the novel does succeed in the snapshot sense, it does not succeed in capturing the movement of a thriving culture as a whole. We are instead presented it at a distance, and interestingly, the novel contains a glossary explaining many of the cultural references within. Those not familiar with Kawabata or Japanese literature as a whole could find The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa a bit confusing and tedious at times, but the glossary does help.

  The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa is a novel stuck very much within the moment, for the scenes do not resonate as they do in Snow Country or in any other number of Kawabata’s better works. Even scenes like those described in The Lake (an underrated novel of his that often gets labeled ‘minor’) where the women are being followed by the pathetic stalker, Kawabata manages to create such a loser of a character that allows readers to feel empathy for him. These strengths are not so much present within Asakusa, though the novel is not without merits, for in addition to the isolated moments of insight, it does show the growth of the writer, and this makes it worthy of at least a look.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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