The Unstable Fiction of Ihara Saikaku


A review of “No Barrier Between High and Low”: Love, Ethics, Status and Style in the Fiction of Ihara Saikaku, by David James Gundry. 

The fiction of Ihara Saikaku, with its dazzling wordplay, rich weave of (often contradictory) voices, and confoundingly fluid ethical positions, is remarkably difficult to write about. How is one to pin down Saikaku within any single argument when his narratorial mode is so dramatically hybrid and unstable, constantly undoing any semblance of a unitary voice or position—not only at the level of the work or the story, but even at the level of the sentence, or even the phrase? These difficulties are perhaps one reason why, despite Saikaku’s acknowledged status as one of the most compelling and important writers of early modern Japan, there is so little work on him in Anglophone scholarship. Between 1950 and 1990 a steady series of translations into English appeared, but surprisingly little critical scholarship. Only a small handful of critical dissertations have appeared over the decades, and there is, startlingly, still no monograph devoted exclusively to Saikaku and his work in the English language.

David Gundry’s ambitious engagement with four of Saikaku’s major works in No Barrier Between High and Low is therefore a very welcome contribution to the field. Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on dialogization and heteroglossia in prose fiction, Gundry grapples head-on with the difficulties of Saikaku’s work—its complex style, divergent voices, and shifting ethical stances—to consider its treatment of early modern social hierarchies, particularly that which separated samurai and townsmen, but also including the hierarchical structures involved in early modern sexual relationships. He argues that in these works we see a townsman-based desire for an alternate hierarchy to the rigid Tokugawa status structure that placed samurai at the top, a hierarchy that would depend upon “potentially acquirable assets such as money and cultural sophistication, rather than…birth, thus replacing a rigid status system with a fluid hierarchy, a meritocracy of the marketplace” (p. 15).

Chapter 1 addresses the samurai-chōnin relationship directly by examining Saikaku’s 1687 collection of samurai vendetta tales Budō denraiki (Exemplary Tales of the Way of the Warrior). The most major of the works by the chōnin Saikaku treating the warrior class, Exemplary Tales has confounded Saikaku scholars since the early twentieth century, dividing them over whether the text is intended to praise or to mock the samurai, or whether it is even really “about” samurai at all, as opposed to treating them as mirrors of humanity at large. Gundry traces the work’s shifting depictions of warriors through close readings of fourteen of its stories, seeing behind them an implied chōnin reader “torn between resentment of and admiration for the samurai” (p. 97). He reads in its highly allusive literary sophistication and its depictions of class-challenging male-male sexual relations a chōnin desire to “associate on a quasi-equal footing with samurai” (p. 97).

In Chapter 2 Gundry turns to Saikaku’s first work of fiction, Kōshoku ichidai otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man) of 1682. Drawing upon Saikaku’s career as a haikai poet, and considering the nuanced possibilities of sophisticated parody, he examines the complex ways in which Saikaku “brings low” elite literary genres by tying them to non-elite sites such as the pleasure quarters and the townsman world, a gesture that simultaneously elevates these “low” sites. He then expands upon this dialectical dynamic to consider other relationships—between the city and the countryside, between real and rented love, and between “the brilliance of the prostitution and theater quarters and their sordid underpinnings” (p. 141)—to suggest that the text ultimately argues not for an egalitarian abolition of social hierarchy, but for a hierarchy based upon acquired sophistication rather than birth.

Gundry’s consideration of the dialogic nature of Saikaku’s work continues in Chapter 3, in which he examines the competing moralizing voices, ethical stances, and narrative treatments of filial impiety in Honchō nijū fukō (Twenty Cases of Filial Impiety in Japan, 1686). Conceptualizing the work in terms of a dialectic between “Confucian” and “Buddhist” voices, which ultimately represent different moral approaches to personal desire and family responsibility, he concludes that Twenty Cases employs and undercuts ethical language to illustrate the incapacity of any ethical system to “deal exhaustively with the complexities of human desires and interactions” (p. 220).

In Chapter 4, Gundry examines the five narratives that comprise Kōshoku gonin onna (Five Women Who Loved Love, 1686), in which members of the townsman class engage in transgressive love affairs. Gundry again considers the complex dialogic weave of Saikaku’s narrative style, attending in particular to the tension in the narratorial voice between moralizing and sympathetic stances. He also highlights the ways in which numerous intertextual references to the Heian classics serve to elevate the status of the chōnin characters and their romantic foibles by imbuing them with an element of courtly romance—a gesture which, he argues, represents a desire for social advancement by the upper class of chōnin society. 

Gundry concludes the dissertation by reconsidering the question of Saikaku as a “realist.” Modern reception of Saikaku beginning in the Meiji period involved an identification of his works as early instances of Japanese literary realism, and the issue of realism remains alive in Japanese scholarship today; it has also played a significant role in Anglophone scholarship on Saikaku, much of it dating from the 1950s. Gundry suggests that if we are to read Saikaku as a realist, we should see his approach not as a realism of “verisimilitude,” but one that “embraces the radical inconclusiveness of experience and even accentuates it, rather than providing the seductive illusion of full disclosure” (p. 272). In recent years the Japanese field of Saikaku studies has tended towards an increasingly micro approach to the author’s works, with a growing number of scholarly articles seeking to examine no more than a single story from one of Saikaku’s many collections. By confronting the inconclusive, open-ended nature of Saikaku’s densely textured language and deceptively compact narratives, within a framework that compares a large number of narratives from different works, periods, and styles, Gundry has laid a fertile groundwork for future scholarship seeking to reconceptualize Saikaku’s fiction as a whole.

David Atherton
Columbia University

Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures

Primary Sources

Ihara Saikaku, Kōshoku ichidai otoko (The Life of an Amorous Man, 1682), Kōshoku gonin onna (Five Women Who Loved Love, 1686), Honchō nijū fukō (Twenty Cases of Filial Impiety in Japan, 1686), Budō denraiki (Exemplary Tales of the Way of the Warrior, 1687)

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2009. 279 pp. Primary Advisor: Steven D. Carter.

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