In sitting down to write this review I am taking on not one but two sets of deeply ingrained prejudices. The first are those held by the many dedicated and loyal fans of Donald Richie, who during his life became the voice of Japanese cinema in the West. It is entirely due to the life work of Donald Richie that names like "Akira Kurosawa", "Yasujiro Ozu", and "Kashiko Kawakita" are commonly known throughout the Western world. The other deeply ingrained set of prejudices that I must address are the assumptions the Japanese people make about themselves, their past, and their culture. In every human society there are immense gaps between how we think of ourselves and how we really act. In the absolute worst cases those gaps become so vast we call them "delusions" and the person holding them is labelled "insane", or if not insane, deeply troubled. Japanese culture as much as any other, and even more so than many, encourages the individual to perceive the world in one way while acknowledging that this perception is entirely false. They even have a word for it, "tatemae" (建前), the consciously created front each individual presents to the world regardless of how they feel inside.
So then, let us start with Kumagai no Jiro Naozone himself. The real one, or at least as real as we can verify. Kumagai (sometimes known as "Kumagae", and in death known as "Rensei") was born into a family of peasant farmers and hunters. Not content with his lot in life, Kumagai took charge of his own destiny when he chose to leave his home village and sign on with Minamoto no Yoritomo. Like many low-ranking ashigaru fighters of that era, he switched sides several times over the course of his career and was fortunate enough (or perhaps farsighted enough) to wind up in the ranks of the Minamoto when they finally defeated the Taira clan in 1185 at end of the Genpei War. In story, song, plays, and poetry he is credited with many stunning and important victories, the most noteworthy being the killing of Taira no Atsumori in one of the final, most bloody encounters between the two rival warrior clans.
This is where things get tricky and I have to throw up my hands in frustration. The only records anywhere of the encounter between Kumagai and Atsumori are stories and/or stage plays based on those stories. There is no historical document detailing the time and place of this encounter. Everyone simply assumes it is true because if it were not true then what would story writers have to write about? And yet, those very same academics who assume the story of Kumagai and Atsumori is completely true will dismiss out of hand any attempt to assert the Synoptic Gospels also tell a true story. Deeply ingrained prejudices indeed.
The Genpei War did take place. There is documentary and archaeological evidence in abundance to demonstrate this simple fact. However, the details of what took place in any one encounter during that war are largely missing from the factual record. Therefore, the people and events chronicled in stories such as Heike Monogatari and Makura no Soshi are assumed to be reliable indicators of who did what to whom and how each party felt about it. It is believed by academics everywhere, with no factual background whatsoever, that these stories represent real life during a violent, turbulent period in Japanese history.
And that brings us full circle to Donald Richie and his novel, "Memoirs of the Warrior Kumagai". In telling this story Donald Richie is doing far more than providing an entertaining action-packed fiction. He has an agenda. He wants this story to prove to a reader that these violent, head-taking warriors of ancient Japan are noble, honorable men doing their best for home and hearth. Richie is not only trying to replicate the poetic style of the ancient Japanese stories, he is also trying to show how superior the civilization of that day and age was to our own. To the fictional warrior who narrates this story, and to Richie as well, the pageantry and pomp, the infighting and scheming, the passion and romance of the Heian court represents a golden age that once passed can never come again.
And we were, after all, courtiers. That is what we had become under Kiyomori. A number of the officers had even taken to using makeup and adopted the courtly custom of lacquering the teeth black. The paint was mere vanity but the lacquer proved practical. In the coming carnage it offered a way to tell the Taira from the Minamoto heads. Ours were the ones with the blackened teeth---dead courtiers of Kiyomori.
If there a redeeming quality to either the battle-hardened warrior turned priest who narrates this tale or to Donald Richie who is presenting the tale to us, it is that every now and again Richie has Kumagai pausing over the impossibility and often complete absurdity of the chronicles and plays that claim to preserve for posterity the glamour of the Heian Era. There is definitely a level of self-criticism at work on this pages, but that self-criticism is never allowed to become cynical or revisionist. Even while poking fun at that creation of fiction, there is affirmation of the pomposity and grandeur of the lost Heian court, rendering the self-criticism as hollow as the stories and leaving the reader puzzling over why so much time is being spent telling a tale no one really believes. The reader is neither allowed a complete suspension of disbelief, not a complete immersion of belief, but instead is left hanging between the two from the first page to the very last.
As I pause, brush in hand, I am more mindful of the difficulties of the blind balladeers down the hall as they struggle with their own historical accountings. Just the other day these adolescents were improvising away and began to sing of the death of Emperor Nijo. He was a blossom fallen in the bud they decided. But this was not enough for the needs of the posthumous picture they were painting. So they made him a great gallant and have him asking a private in the guards to go outside the palace to procure women for him.
The reason for this singular account is that some Chinese emperor was said to have done just this and ended up with the beautiful Yang Kwei-fei. But our musical historians are not disturbed by the unlikeliness of it. Actually, had an imperial majesty felt this need he would have ordered a staff officer out---certainly no rank lower than that.
The point I am trying to make is that literature needs to do more than entertain us. A book of this stature should carry us to a place where we challenge our assumptions. When a modern Japanese reader or a modern western reader encounters something like Genji Monogatari, it excites and tantalizes, but it also shocks. There is an immediate, visceral reaction to the way Heian and post-Heian writers casually romanticize rape, murder, and combat. Gore and violence are part and parcel of modern entertainment. That is not the part that catches us by surprise. The true horror of Japanese literature of this period is how the writers go to so much effort to make life's most brutal, traumatizing experiences into something every bit as beautiful and endearing as an afternoon composing poetry under the cherry blossoms. When a Heian-era writer does this, we assume it is simply the conventions of the day. It is their very human effort to gather up the horror of their lives and deal with it. When a modern writer sits down and applies those very same conventions, however, it becomes something entirely different. Now it is manipulative and propagandistic. How could any modern writer so deeply embrace such horror and treat it so very lightly? What deeper agenda are they pursuing? What is the real theme behind this story they are telling? How could any modern writer so lightly dismiss wanton, willful rape and pillage?
When a post-WW2 Japanese writer deals with the Heian-era, the violence and sadism is either ignored completely (as in manga and anime), or it is judged and condemned as the evil that men do when greed and ambition are allowed to override their common decency (as in dozens of NHK dramas and hundreds of modern novels). If the modern Japanese themselves can look at their past with clarity, why should Donald Richie who built his reputation interpreting Japanese culture to the west do any less? Why this huge effort at mimicry and glorification of the most violent and disturbing acts humanity is capable of? Why does Richie's Kumagai, old and unrepentant, still celebrate the debauchery of his youth? Such self-aggrandizement is out of character with both modern expectations and the historic record of Kumagai's last years as a Buddhist monk of the Pure Land sect.