I first read Bullfight in January, and a recent reread confirms that it’s very likely to make my end-of-year list. A superb little novella, Bullfight is the second work by Japanese journalist, literary editor and author Yasushi Inoue, first published in 1949 and now available as a new edition from Pushkin Press. It really is a thing of beauty, small and perfectly formed in many ways.
The novella is set in Osaka between the final months of 1946 and January 1947, a city in the early stages of economic recovery following the Second World War. As the story opens we meet our main character Tsugami, editor-in-chief of the Osaka New Evening Post, a novel breed of newspaper focused on culture and entertainment, and targeted towards ‘urban intellectuals and salarymen.’ On the surface, Tsugami appears rational and efficient. Under his stewardship, the paper has achieved a certain level of success, its fresh approach proving popular amongst readers looking for something different to the ‘oafish’ papers of the wartime era. Beneath this exterior, however, lurks a somewhat impulsive side to the editor’s character, an aspect visible only to his lover, Sakiko, the woman with whom he has been living on and off for three years:
“No one else knows you have this side to you,” she would say when she was feeling happy. “This sneak, sloppy unsavoury side…” (pg. 24, Pushkin Press)
Against this backdrop, Tsugami receives an intriguing business proposition; he is approached by Tashiro, who announces himself as ‘President of Umewaka Entertainment’ even though he is in truth ‘as sly a showman as any you were likely to find.’ Nevertheless, Tashiro’s proposal is a tempting one; he wishes to organise a three-day bull sumo tournament to bring the sport into the city spotlight, and he offers Tsugami an exclusive sponsorship deal: an equal share in the profits from ticket sales should his newspaper agree to co-fund and promote the event.
All at once, in the most natural manner, Tashiro had caused the scene to rise up before Tsugami like a frame from a movie: the vast modern bleachers at Hanshin Stadium or Köroen Stadium; the contest between two living creatures playing itself out within a bamboo enclosure at the center; the riveted spectators; the loudspeakers; the bundles of bills; the rocking, cheering waves of people…It was a slow-moving, cold but distinctly palpable picture, executed in lead. After that, Tsugami hardly paid any attention to what Tashiro was saying. Betting, he was thinking, yes, this could work. Everyone would put money on the bulls […] In these postwar days, perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives. Set up some random event for people to bet on, and everything would take care of itself: they would come and place their bets. (pgs. 18-19)
It’s not long before Tsugami is seduced by the prospect of such a spectacle and the profits of course: the newspaper could stand to net one million yen if the tournament were to prove a sell-out. The paper’s president loves the idea of the project, so the deal goes ahead. Not that Tsugami has any semblance of a plan at this stage; there’ll be plenty of time for that later:
Tsugami had no clear plan in mind, but if all else failed they could raise the cash by selling tickets in advance. Right now his thoughts were focused less on the financial details than on the parade of bulls that Tashiro had suggested. Twenty or so bulls. It would make an eye-catching article, nice photos. At the very least it was sure to get everyone talking. (pg 31)
As preparations for the tournament get underway, Tsugami is swamped by an infinitesimal number of tasks that need to be accomplished in order for the event to take place. He must gain agreement to use the baseball stadium as a venue. There’s a bullfighting ring to construct, safety permits to secure, advertisements and teaser articles to draft…the list is endless. And while all this is going on, Tashiro is getting up to a bit of business on the side, transporting black-market goods alongside the bulls as they travel from their home in the provinces, an activity that doesn’t go unnoticed by one of the paper’s reporters. It’s appears as though ‘country showman’ Tashiro has decided he can get with anything in order to oil the wheels of the deal. Here’s the reporter as he recounts the tale to Tsugami:
“He brought that stuff up with us – says it’s all feed for the bulls. A bunch of us are pretty sure he has something else going on, though. He’s quite the huckster.”
“Feed for the bulls, my ass. And who knows what else in in there? Still, he’s a crucial partner is this project, so I thought for the paper’s sake I’d better just pretend I hadn’t seen anything. And then in Takamatsu – it was quite hilarious, let me tell you” (pg. 72)
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Tsugami is gambling the future of the newspaper on the success of the bullfight. Expenses continue to mount, greatly exceeding expectations; the paper’s sparse resources are stretched to their limits; Tsugami continues to focus on the details and risks losing sight of the bigger picture. He refuses to make compromises, relying instead on a conviction that everything will come together on the day, and there are few (if any) contingencies in place for unforeseen events. To reveal any more of the plot would only spoil the story, but it’s a beautifully crafted one.
Alongside the main narrative, Inoue uses Tsugami’s on-off relationship with his lover, Sakiko – who appears to consider their relationship hopeless – to tease out the nuances in the editor’s character. Eyes seem to communicate a great deal in the novel; take this passage, for example, in which Sakiko perceives Tsugami’s hidden desire to play fast-and-loose with the bullfight (and possibly their relationship, too) despite his outwardly serious nature:
But there were times when those emotionless, wicked eyes of his would push themselves toward drunkenness, Sakiko knew that very well. How she loved Tsugami for those eyes: their frenzied, lawless, mournful light. But then she realized that she would never be able to strip them of their sobriety, and her love began, from time to time, to turn itself into a hatred that glistened with sadness.
The fact that Tsugami had let himself be tugged along so easily by the bait Tashiro offered him, by the thought of the bullfight, may perhaps have owed less to his reporter’s instincts than to those sober eyes of his, and the rebellious urge he felt to make them drunk, finally, for once, on something. Sakiko had been right to speak of the hidden “unsavoury side” of his personality. (pgs. 26-27)
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I loved Bullfight. Inoue’s prose is wonderful – deceptively clear and lucid on the surface, but with sufficient depth and subtlety to make this a very satisfying and meaningful novella. On one level, the narrative can be read as one man’s gamble and decision to risk everything in the belief he will succeed; on another, the story could be interpreted as a reflection of the situation in Japan as the country tries to rebuild its economy and society following the war:
The landscape had a cold, frozen look that made him feel as though he were regarding a landscape painted on a ceramic dish. Close to the peak of Mount Rokkö there were a few white streaks of lingering snow. […] It seemed to him that something pure had managed to hold on there, something that had otherwise vanished from this defeated nation, little traces gathering, huddling together, talking quietly among themselves about who knew what. (pg. 104)
Inoue went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories making him one of Japan’s leading writers, and Pushkin Press published another two of his novellas earlier this year: The Hunting Gun and Life of a Counterfeiter.