Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Gender trough the book Mask

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Mieko is modeled on the Rokujo Lady who appeared in The Tale of Genji. She is an intelligent woman of great complexity with extraordinary charm whose precious son dies in a disaster on Mt. Fuji. She manipulates her widowed daughter-in-law Yasuko in an attempt to obtain a surrogate for the son she has lost. It is a tale of erotic desperation and complexity. Fond of the using blood as a metaphor for talking about the way women are both linked in solidarity and also regarded as polluted in the male gaze, Enchi finds a way to both collude with dominant representations of females while simultaneously subverting them. One among many of Masks themes seems clear Japans matrilineal heritage is reclaimed through blood lineage handed down from generation to generation by and through women and thereby freed from its subordination to the dominant, patriarchal ideology. The structure tripartite, with each section named after three different types of onnamen or womens Noh masks, and it follows the jo-ha-kyuu developmental pattern in terms of the intensity of plot development, but it is literally teeming with other triads and triangular relations Yasuko-Ibuki-Mikame, spirit-medium-possessed, Mieko-Yasuko-Harume,Mieko-Togano Masatsugu-her mysterious lover, etc. There are even three sets of substitutions occurring in the text the twins for Aguris two abortions, Yasuko for the twins, and Harumes baby for Miekos miscarriage as well as for Akios loss. Thus, what brings and keeps Yasuko and Mieko together is the quest for a child.

Mieko has worn several masks as she has moved through different roles--from disillusioned lover and wearing the Ryoo-no-onna mask, to the end when she dons the Fukai mask, the Deep Woman mask. On the other hand, does she ever actually put it on? She stares at it, communes with it as a Noh actor might, her face becoming one with it, but then she drops the mask and must try to cover its face with her left hand while her right arm hangs paralyzed in space. Something that struck me almost immediately upon beginning the novel was that, based on both physical and mental characteristics, Ibuki and Mikame fit into the thin man and fat man dual archetype that appears in drama as the comic relief (and foil to the male hero) or in comedy as the centerpiece, where both are idiots but one is the straight man and one is the jokester. Countless examples of this archetype abound in both American and Japanese film, not to mention the English literary tradition, dating back at least to Rozencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet.

Whether found in comedy or drama, the fat/thin man is portrayed as a comical figure. I believe this is because both men are only seen as half a man - or rather two opposite sides of one-man split down the middle, and unhappily confined into two bodies that are perpetually unable to rejoin into a coherent whole. While the hero of the narrative is inevitably a whole man, (not necessarily a healthy or likable character; at times merely endowed with elevated value within the narrative scheme, seen as somehow rounded or capable of countenancing the thought of change within the scope of the narrative), the fat/thin man is trapped in a characture of bipolar vice, the two extremes that would ideally combine to form the Aristotle an mean. One is tall and thin, almost to the point of emaciation at times sardonic, at least semi-intellectual or clever, prone to pursuits of the mind and as such clueless in the ways of love. The other is short, fat (again, almost to the point of corpulence or gross obesity) gluttonous, rather stupid and outspoken, prone to the pursuit of physical pleasure and as such equally incapable of true love.

Masks presents an interesting spin on this archetype. The first immediate discrepancy of note is the absence of the male hero that takes the place of the whole individual implied to be necessary in the conventional dramaturgical scheme. After digging a bit, either Akio or Miekos lover could perhaps be supplied as a satisfactory hero (despite being dead); both are sufficiently defied by the narrative to serve in this role. Thinking now, perhaps that is the best way to account for the dramatic nature of the novel.

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My original thought was that without the masks as symbols, Masks could be viewed as a black comedy; now I would like to revise that. Removal of the masks alone wouldnt be enough - Akio and Miekos lover would have to be removed as motivating forces for the novel to be truly transformed into a comedy (where the fat/thin man becomes the star, instead of a bit player or foil to the hero).

I would contend that despite being dead, Akio and his father are the true heroes of the novel. They ultimately get the girl in the end, and the fat/thin man who has been courting her is rejected and thrust back into his proper place as the comic relief. Both Ibuki and Mikame themselves admit to this at the end of the novel- they have been had. They do not fully understand how or why, just as surely as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did not have a clue that they were sailing to their deaths when they left Denmark, but both pairs were dealing with narrative machinations far beyond the scope of their control, or their roles as second-string actors.

I see this manipulation of the fat/thin man archetype as one of the elements of Enchi Fumikos genius in this novel. Ibuki and Mikame seem like genuine characters, they seem like they might have a chance of winning, achieving elevated narrative status - it looks like there is no hero to get in their way. However, there is. It is just that he (or they) are dead... this unique take on the manipulation of an archetype is one of the things that, in retrospect, made the novel so compelling for me.

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