Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue

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.

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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.

Tony Malone and Tony Messenger have also reviewed Bullfight, tr. by Michael Emmerich. Source: personal copy.

52 thoughts on “Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue

  1. MarinaSofia

    To my shame, I have to admit that I cannot remember which of Inoue’s novellas or stories we read in Japanese at university, but I do remember reading The Hunting Gun and The Bullfight in translation later on. Still not very much translated into English, despite him being such a prolific writer.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Wow, I hadn’t realised you studied Japanese! How wonderful to be able to be read these books in their original language. Yes, it’s surprising that so few of his books been translated to date; all credit to Pushkin Press for bringing his work to a wider audience. NYRB also published one a few years back, but I’ve yet to check it out.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        Well, I used to be able to read in Japanese (with dictionaries, of course!) but that was a long time ago. Now I’m reliant on translations for all but the simplest little texts.

        Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Well, as you can probably tell, I loved this one. Tony Malone will be hosting another ‘January in Japan’ fest in 2015 if you fancy reading it (or any other Japanese lit of course) :)

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think Inoue would be a good author to try, and I loved his prose style. There’s a melancholy tone to some sections of this story which seems to say something about the state of the nation at that time. It’s a beautiful little novella.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      My knowledge of Japanese literature is quite limited, Susan, so I’d struggle to place it a wider context, but there is a quiet beauty to some of the passages. And the story does feel beautifully crafted, like one of those miniature netsuke figures. I hope you like Bullfight should you get an opportunity to try it.

      Reply
  2. gertloveday

    What a terrific review. There’s something so appealing about the clarity and depth of Japanese writing. So different from the noise and drama of many American writers and the buttoned-up realism of many British ones.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. That’s a very good point about the contrast in style between Japanese literature and many American / British works. There’s a quiet, melancholy tone to much of Inoue’s prose, and this is a beautifully crafted story. He sounds like quite a writer, and I’m keen to read more.

      Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Oh, I think you might be right about Ishiguro as there’s a quiet restraint to some of his work. I haven’t read Botchan, but I’ve been meaning to read Natsume for a while. I almost bought The Gate earlier this year but didn’t for some reason. Thanks for the tip!

          Reply
              1. Max Cairnduff

                I have I am a Cat. It’s a satire on the Japanese middle-classes around the turn of the 19th/20th century, the narrator being a cat is a device to allow an outsider’s view of the absurdity of their customs.

                Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I went through a phase of reading Japanese lit in the 90s but I’ve never read Inoue and it sounds like I should from your great review. And of course it’s a Pushkin, so it must be good! :)

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      As far as I can tell, Inoue’s work has only just started to filter through to the English-speaking world. NYRB may have published one a few years back (which I need to check out), but all credit to Pushkin Press for bringing us three translations this year. I think you’d like this one, Karen!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Many thanks, Claire. He does feel like a real discovery. I’ve just seen your tweet on the number of Inoue’s books available in French; clearly France is ahead of the game when it comes to this author.

      Reply
  4. lonesomereadereric

    Great review, Jacqui. I have to buy a copy of this. It’s been ages since I’ve read any good Japanese fiction. Since Yasushi Inoue was such a prolific writer, I’m ashamed I’ve never heard of him. I like how the quote about eyes conveys she is attracted to him for his flaws and mystery.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. I only became aware of this author at the end of last year when I saw a review of Bullfight. I love the quote about his eyes, and you’re right, it does convey so much about the relationship between this couple. I’m glad you were able to pick that up.

      Reply
  5. Bellezza

    I have not read Inoue (yet), but I’m so anxious to do so. It sounds like there is plot as well as examination of character, and I love that. Parts of your review made me think of these times I’ve had a bad dream, and can’t run or do whatever it is that needs to be done as I’m either unable, or somehow focused on too many details obscuring the bigger picture. That’s such a horrible feeling! I’d be fascinated in this book, thanks for bringing it to my attention again, yours is the second review I’ve read, both of which highly praise this author.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I think you’d like this one, Bellezza. There’s a nice balance between the plot and characterisation, and I’m still not quite sure how this author has managed to pack so much subtlety into this novella. It reminded me of a big meeting I had to organise several years ago, and it was so easy to lose sight of the main objective under a plethora of detail.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s a great story, and I could see it working as a film too. Ah yes, I wasn’t sure how easy it would be for you to get hold of these titles in the US…

      Reply
  6. Guy Savage

    Pushkin Press editions are marvelous additions to a personal library. If I’m ever reading one, it’s inevitable that someone comes along and comments on the book’s look.
    As much as I love a good crime book, I always pass when it comes to animal cruelty. I couldn’t read this. Don’t understand it as a ‘sport’ at all.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      The Pushkin Collection books are beautiful, aren’t they? The size, shape, paper, everything about them and PP seem to have a knack for rediscovering great writers.

      I can completely understand your need to pass on this one, Guy. As the contests are a form of bull sumo, the animals don’t fight to the death, but they do lock horns and wrestle in an attempt to force one another to give up ground. I should have mentioned this in my post to give readers some context and information on the activity. The vast majority of the story though focuses on the run-up to the event itself: the organisation, the dynamics between the organisers and the relationship between Tsugami and Sakiko. In fact, in many ways, much of the story probably could have been retained and applied to a different type of sporting event, one without the involvement of animals at all.

      Reply
      1. Guy Savage

        I meant to tell you that I abandoned Inherent Vice. Perhaps I’ll come back to it later but it seems to be full of the worst of the 70s. I’ve never been an admirer of the drug culture and the book really wallows in it. There’s a positive review of it on Trevor’s blog Mookse and Gripes by a guest poster, and it’s well written, but even so you can read between the lines and guess what I had troubles with.
        I’ll wait for the film.

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Oh, that’s very interesting to hear as I started it not long after we had that conversation and struggled to get into it. I bailed after 150 pages in the end, which is fairly unusual for me as I tend to persist. I just couldn’t maintain the thread and the prose style wasn’t particularly working for me either. You’re so right about it wallowing in the drugs culture, and I got a little frustrated by the stream of diversions. I’ll take a look at that review, thanks for mentioning it.

          Ah well, I’ll definitely catch the film!

          Reply
          1. Guy Savage

            It was a real struggle here too. One character would be mentioned (not necessarily emerge) and then another and another. I got the feeling they were clones of each other. I thought the plot was muddled and made little sense.
            I was also put off by the encounter with Jade fairly early on. There were some great passages but then others seemed to fold in on themselves.

            Reply
            1. jacquiwine Post author

              I’m so relieved to hear you say this as I was wondering if it was just me. I couldn’t get a grip on the plot at all, and your description of the string of characters is spot on. It felt a bit self-indulgent at times, and I wasn’t too keen on the early section either. Ah well, onwards…Ross Macdonald came to my rescue.

              Reply
  7. bookemstevo

    AGH! So many books so little time! I’ll add this to the list. recently read ‘From The Fatherland With Love’ by Ryu aka ‘the other’ Murakami from Pushkin and enjoyed it a lot.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I know that feeling! I hope you enjoy this one if you get a chance to read it. I haven’t read anything by Ryu Murakami, but I do have a copy of his Popular Hits of the Showa Era. Next year, hopefully! From the Fatherland, with Love sounds very interesting too.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve read a fair bit of Japanese fiction, but nothing by Inoue who wasn’t really on my radar. For some reason I mistakenly though this was a contemporary novel, a new release.

    Not sure clarity and depth are necessary characteristics of Japanese writing. That’s not how I’d describe Banana Yoshimoto or Haruki Murakami for example.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I only became aware of Inoue at the end of last year when Pushkin published Bullfight, and I saw a review.

      On the clarity and depth point, no, you’re right, Max. I’ve only read a couple of Murakami’s (Sheep Chase and Norwegian Wood), and I probably wouldn’t describe them in this way either. I can see what Gert was saying though about the contrast in style between (some) Japanese literature and some American / British novels. There is a quietness to passages of Inoue’s prose that distinguishes it from the other styles she mentions.

      Soseski’s I am a Cat is sounding more intriguing by the day…I am tempted by The Gate, though. And Cat is a chunkster!

      Reply
  9. Seamus Duggan

    I read a very positive review of this some while back (can’t remember where!) Thought it sounded really good but promptly forgot it. Now with two such positive reviews I must try harder to remember. Maybe January.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It might have been Tony Malone’s blog as I’m pretty sure that’s where I first heard about it! Which reminds me, I should add a link to his review…

      Reply
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  13. Scott W

    Fantastic review Jacqui, and a book I am almost sure to read. I did not know of this, but have been interested for some time in Inoue’s novel about the manuscripts from the Mogao caves outside of Dunhuang, China (Tun-Huang, available from NYRB). The manuscripts’ discovery is an incredible story in itself, so I’m curious to see how a fiction writer would handle it.

    I have actually seen one of these bull “fights” – at a Miao minority festival in China’s Guizhou province – and Inoue’s description is spot on: “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”. If it helps at all to assuage Guy’s animal-cruelty concerns, “slow-moving” is the operative term here; I did not think there existed a sport more slow-moving than golf, but such bull fighting proved me profoundly wrong. Baseball is positively frenetic compared to such bull fighting. 90% of the time one waits around for the bulls to be moved into position; 9.5% of the time the bulls just kind of stand around as though unaware of one another. If they do butt one another – 0.5% of the time – it’s scarcely dramatic (though the roaring crowd seems to think otherwise) and unlikely to harm the bulls. There is nothing of the gore or violence of Spanish bull-fighting. It’s more a way for farmers to show off their animals – and, as the premise of Inoue’s novel suggests – to provide a forum for gambling on a massive scale. Still, perhaps not recommended for animal lovers, especially not in Guizhou, where roast dog is the meat of choice for festival-goers.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Scott. I’m really glad you like the sound of this one as I suspect you’d enjoy it very much. It has, at times, a beautifully melancholy quality that still flits in and out of my consciousness every now and again. A perfectly crafted story and a little gem of a book.

      Interesting you should mention that NYRB Classics book, Tun-Huang. I looked at it a while ago, only very briefly though as I now have another Inoue (The Hunting Gun, from Pushkin P) on the shelf which I ought to read first. Tun-Huang does sound fascinating, and based on the strength of Bullfight and NYRB’s impeccable choice of titles, it’s virtually guaranteed to be very fine indeed.

      It’s good to hear about your experience of observing a bull sumo contest – sounds as though your impressions are very closely aligned with Inoue’s portrayal of these events in the novella. I definitely got the feeling that the owners of the bulls saw these contests as opportunities to showcase and parade their prized possessions. A little like a souped-up version of a county show, maybe. And I guess we have to remember that the novella is set in the mid-late 1940s when cultural attitudes towards this type of event were probably quite different to the way we see these things today.

      As you say, though, I can understand why some readers would pass on this book, it’s not for everyone. Do let me know thoughts if you do get a chance to read it – I’d love to hear. By the way, subsequent to my review going up, I noticed that Rise (of ‘in lieu of a field guide’) had also reviewed it, so you might want to take a look at his post for another view.

      Reply
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