A tale of beauty and pleasure
“Mistress Oriku: Stories from a Tokyo Teahouse” is simply a fantastic book. A pure pleasure to read, author Matsutaro Kawaguchi has opened a window to a time in Japan’s past when delight in arts and culture were refined and simplified, and when a simple bowl of chazuke, green tea over rice topped with fresh clams, could be considered a work of art.
Almost in the Jane Austen style, “Mistress Oriku” tells the story of a women from the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters who was raised from being a brothel-owner’s mistress to being the proprietor of an elegant teahouse, whose customers were the leading artists and actors of the day. She falls in and out of love, experiences struggles and floods, but maintains her composure and enjoys herself along the way, taking from life the pleasures that it has to offer without guilt or complaint. Oriku’s story is not one of the pathos of a prostitute, and there is no moral condemnation or political lesson to be had. There is just the joy in things beautiful and sensual, be they the warmth of a human body or a steaming cup of heated sake.
Mixing fact with fiction, Kawaguchi has populated Oriku’s teahouse with the greatest figures of kabuki, rakugo, gidayu chanting and other refined entertainments from the era. Although they will probably not be familiar to the reader, the depth of information lends a air of authenticity to the story. Like an Austen novel, it makes one want to go back to that half-fantasy time, and experience the love and sensation forever lost in the modern vulgar era. To help guide you, a glossary is included in the back of the book that gives the background on several of the figures that drift in and out of the story, both real and imaginary.
Royall Tyler’s translation is flawless, as one has come to expect from him, and one can even sense the underlying Japanese phrases in his English. The rhythm and flavor of the language has been maintained, as has been the subtlety and beauty. His translation is as much a work of art as the novel itself.
The only slight complaint about “Mistress Oriku” is the ending. The entire book is one of beauty and pleasure, and only at the end does the harsh reality of the encroaching modern world rear its ugly head. While this may be honest historically, it represents a sharp departure from the tone of the rest of the novel, and seems to be included only because of the rule that Japanese novels are not allowed happy endings.