Nakagami Kenji & the Literature of the Echoing Chamber

A Review of The Literature of the Echoing Chamber: Nakagami Kenji and the Theory of the Utsuho, by Hisaaki Wake.

As one of the most important literary figures in modern Japanese literary history, Nakagami Kenji 中上健次 (1946-1992) continues to attract much critical attention. Hisaaki Wake’s dissertation contributes to the existing scholarship on Nakagami by exploring the intersection between Nakagami’s literary prose and music. What sets Wake decisively apart from other critics who have looked at this connection is his refusal to treat music and literature as distinct entities. Wake argues that critics, such as Etô Jun, who had a profound understanding of Nakagami’s endeavor to make his writings closer to music, still fell into the trap of considering literature as being distinct from music. Wake’s synthetic approach is, in fact, fully in keeping with the theory of literary creation Nakagami himself developed and put forth in the late 1970s: the theory of utsuho (hollowness, vacancy). Wake reminds us throughout that in this theory there is no essential distinction between music and literature. According to Wake, this is precisely because utsuho is a vacant echoing chamber where sound, voice, and music — whether oral traditions of performative narratives, jazz, reggae, classical music, or narrative songs for Buddhist preaching known as sekkyo-bushi — are all reduced to primordial vibrations before being incorporated into his literary creation. Thus, it is not only the distinction between literature and music, but also the genre distinctions within music that gets dissolved in the space of utsuho. Despite its importance, the theory of utsuho has received scant critical attention, and Wake explores this theory by probing its workings in Nakagami’s literary texts. He carefully traces how Nakagami, via the medium of this theory, incorporated various forms of music as well as the oral/aural qualities of the traditional monogatari into his monogatari narrative. Wake argues that Nakagami, keenly aware of the complicit role modern Japanese literature played in the formation of the modern nation-state, sought a kind of monogatari that could challenge the modern system of illusion — “the Japanese nation as a coherent, natural entity” (p.1) — which persisted even after the 1970s, when the modern nation building had been completed. Wake maintains that the theory of utsuho is a key to understanding how Nakagami, by his literary creation, confronted this task.

Both the Introduction and Chapter 1 explicate in detail the concept of utsuho by examining Nakagami’s essays as well as literary works. Wake cites Nakagami’s 1978 lecture which reveals that utsuho (hollowness) can be found both inside and outside a person. Nakagami, in fact, found utsuho inside himself and in Japanese society. He specifically identified this vacancy in society with his native place, the ghetto in Shingu city or, to borrow his words, “the roji.”  By the time Nakagami delivered this lecture, the roji had ceased to exist due to the government’s redevelopment program. By relating utsuho to a function in a mathematical equation, Wake proposes a simple formula to characterize Nakagami’s complex creative process: “y=f(x)” (pp. 5-7). (y=literary texts; f=utsuho; x=sound and voice)  In the vacant space of “f” (his interior and the roji), “x” reverberates and is morphed into a literary work “y.” Curiously enough, Wake notes that Nakagami would not have put other novelists’ works in “x” in the formula without reservations. This was because he saw limits in the existing written narratives, including Ôe Kenzaburo’s, despite the latter’s use of a similar idea of vacancy as a creative source. Drawing on the critic Iguchi Tokio, Wake stresses that unlike Nakagami, “Oe’s vacancy is transcendental” (p. 210). Thus, it was not coincidental that Nakagami’s break from Oe’s influence occurred when the former identified utsuho with the roji.

In Chapter 2 Wake illustrates how Nakagami deconstructed the generic boundaries between various genres of music in his effort to recuperate the original power of music in his literary creation. He insists that understanding Nakagami’s work in terms of established genre categories misses how Nakagami engaged in a creative process which was aligned with how musicians created new trends in music through dynamic interaction with the old. Wake calls attention to how the creation of the theory of utsuho was a turning point for Nakagami, ending the privileged place jazz held for him over all the other genres of music. The influence of jazz on Nakagami is well known, as Nakagami himself acknowledged his indebtedness to jazz on a number of occasions. However, the importance of jazz for Nakagami, stresses Wake, stems not so much from his empathy with jazz musicians’ minority status as from his understanding of how jazz musicians also had a generative echoing chamber inside themselves. Nakagami sensed the presence of utsuho in African American jazz musicians because “those who experienced segregation and were forced into the realm beyond the border between humans and non-humans by the unnamable power of society were those most likely to know the utsuho” (p. 48). Utsuho is a conduit for the other world, and both jazz musicians and Nakagami, barred from full entry into this world, were deeply in touch with it.

In Chapter 3 Wake carries out a close structural analysis of Nakagami’s novel Karekinada. The chapter underscores how Nakagami’s creative method corresponded to that of a composer. Borrowing Roland Barthes’s idea of  “lexia,” a minimum meaningful unit for the purpose of structural analysis, he illustrates the utilization of the structure of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos in Karekinada. Nakagami even advised readers to listen to the concertos when reading the landscape descriptions in Karekinada. Heeding the author’s advice, Wake listens to the concertos and draws a connection between the concertos and Karekinada. In doing this, however, he looks at the novel in its entirety rather than just the landscape descriptions. He carefully illustrates the repetition of modulated lexias (e.g., repetitions of scenes of the protagonist Akiyuki at work, Akiyuki and his girlfriend Noriko having sex, descriptions of Akiyuki’s father) occurring throughout the text and how it renders the text polyphonic.

Chapter 4 continues the discussion of Karekinada but this time the focus turns to “Kyodai shinju” (Brother-Sister Double Suicide), a song cited in the novel. It is a song Nakagami heard as a child growing up in the roji. The song originated in Kyoto and was brought to the roji of Shingu city and kept alive. In Karekinada the song is sung by an old lady, a resident of the ghetto, during the bon festival. Wake examines the significance of the aged female voice as well as the place in the text where the song is inserted. Showing that its citation happens between lexias, Wake interprets the song as a manifestation of the primordial vibrations echoing in the textual hollow (utsuho) of Karekinada. Citing Nakagami’s own interpretation of the song as being an inversion of the story of Izanagi and Izanami, the brother-sister gods in land creation myth, Wake draws a parallel between the song (the underside eclipsed by the creation myth of Japan) and the place that kept the song alive, the roji (the constitutive outside of the modern nation-state).

Chapter 5 turns to a discussion of the ways in which Nakagami incorporated the musical aspects of the orally performed narrative, Sekkyo-bushi, into his literary creation. Wake argues that it was the theory of utsuho that enabled Nakagami to treat the oral quality of Japanese traditional narratives as music. The chapter starts with a history of the sekkyo-bushi, how it developed from Buddhist didactic tales in the middle ages to a form of popular entertainment in the Edo period. Wake highlights aspects that Nakagami considered most important in sekkyo-bushi,  including its ability to evoke in the audience an emotional intensity akin to what Orikuchi Shinobu called “hare” (celebration of otherness at the time of festivity) (p. 144). Other important traits include the lowly and segregated status of the performers as well as the content of the songs that told of the agony of those occupying the lower strata of a repressive society. Wake suggests that for Nakagami, just like the brother-sister double suicide song, sekkyo-bushi was born out of the lived experiences of those forced to inhabit another dimension eclipsed by this world; i.e., the utsuho in society. Wake shows that Nakagami resurrected what had been foreclosed in the creation of modern Japanese literature, an example of which was the timbre of voice (p. 150), by adopting sekkyo-bushi’s variant repetition of set phrase.

The dissertation concludes by analyzing the ways in which Nakagami applied the theory of utsuho to his reading of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s “Yoshinokuzu” and Orikuchi Shinobu’s “Shisha no sho.” The chapter demonstrates how the theory of utsuho can help illuminate the inner workings of each text. In the case of “Yoshinokuzu,” the theory elucidates the structure of discrimination implicitly inscribed in the text, whereas in the case of “Shisha no sho,” it renders sensible the rhythm of the ancient dance at its purest. This chapter invites readers to apply the theory of utsuho to other literary works. Wake’s translation of Nakagami’s essay, “The Other World, God, Vibrations,” included as an appendix, allows readers to glimpse the working of the utsuho in Nakagami as a critic.

Hisaaki Wake’s dissertation is an interesting and provocative addition to the existing scholarship on Nakagami Kenji. Moreover, his refreshingly original approach to literary works, which treats music, oral narratives, and written literary prose on the same plane, inspires readers to rethink and broaden the ways in which they engage in literary analysis.

Yukiko Shigeto
Assistant Professor
Department of Foreign Languages and Literature
Whitman College

Primary Sources

Nakagami Kenji zenshû. 15 vols. Tokyo: Shueisha, 1995-6
Etô Jun, Jiyû to kinki. Tokyo: Kawadeshobô shinsha, 1984
Karatani Kôjin and Suga Hidemi, eds. Nakagami Kenji hatsugen shûsei. 6 vols. Tokyo: Daisan bunmeisha, 1996
Ôe Kenzaburo, Atarashii bungaku no tameni. Tokyo: Iwanami shoten, 1988
Araki Shigeru, et al., eds. Sekkyo-bushi. 243 vols. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1973

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2012. 222 pp. Primary Advisor: Indra Levy.


Image: “Kado sekkyo” in Jinrin kinmo zui, vol. 7, p. 19. National Diet Library Digital Archive. Used with permission.

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