Perception and the fallacy of textual objectivity in a kibyōshi by Santō Kyōden

Kibyōshi are Edo period adult “comic books,” mostly in vogue in the late 18th century. They were popular, fashionable and humorous, which means critics with a penchant for “serious” literature (i.e., the entire literary establishment for the first century of the modern period) have ignored them. However, there are a lot of interesting things going on in kibyōshi, and recently they’ve started to attract a lot of attention.

I want to look at one particular kibyōshi by Santō Kyōden, arguably the master of the genre, titled Kyakujin jorō 客人女郎. To give credit where it is due, this work was originally brought to my attention while I was reading an article by Haruko Iwasaki. Iwasaki treats Kyakujin jorō as one of Kyōden’s failed works. And to be fair, it doesn’t seem to have sold very well, and is a bit underwhelming for a work that is sandwiched chronologically between Kyōden’s greatest hits, Gozonji no shōbaimono and Edo umare uwaki no kabayaki. Nonetheless, I think there’s more going on in Kyakujin jorō than Iwasaki gives it credit for.

The plot is a bit derivative. Hakugo, an artist in Kyoto, has heard all about the wonders of Edo (Tokyo) and longs to go there. So when he takes a nap one day some gods and buddhas visit him and give him 1000 ryō (large gold pieces; in other words, a small fortune) and tell him to go follow his dreams (“But keep it on the DL… us gods are really pressed for cash!” – rough translation). He goes to Edo, but soon succumbs to the temptations of the pleasure quarter, and before long he has spent the entire thousand ryō and is penniless. But at that point he wakes up: it turns out the gods had shown him a dream of getting rich and going to Edo rather than actually giving him money (cheapskates!). In the end he decides he’s better off staying in Kyoto and making his name there.

Let’s look at the first page:

kyakujin joro 1

A contemporary reader looking at this knows what is going on right away. Dream stories were a staple of Edo popular literature, and especially kibyōshi. The whole genre got started with Kinkin sensei eiga no yume, a story about a country man who dreams of inheriting a fortune then losing it in Edo. So even before reading the text, readers look at this page and think “Guy asleep? Check. Gods appearing? Check. Huge sum of money? Check. A-hyup, it’s a dream story.” Readers know from the start that what happens on the following pages will only be a dream. The big reveal at the end, when Hakugo wakes up, is no surprise at all. Readers think they have this story all figured out.

But notice how Hakugo’s face is not shown. By the second page the narrative has already entered Hakugo’s dream, so the reader never sees him in the waking world. The face that the text presents as Hakugo’s is pretty good-looking. He’s the guy on the right here:

kyakujin joro 2

Pretty handsome! The text says “On the advice of [his taikomochi] he snazzed up his appearance and became a pretty debonair gentleman (iki na otoko).” So that’s Hakugo; he just needed a few fashion pointers to turn into a suave urban sophisticate. This is the face that is presented as Hakugo’s from the start, and readers are allowed to assume that this is how he looks.

But the reader is in for a shock on the last page, when Hakugo wakes up:

kyakujin joro 3

Hakugo is ugly! Compare the two images above: in the waking world Hakugo’s eyes are farther apart, his lips are thicker, his nose is slightly upturned in a pig-like fashion (which is what Iwasaki is interested in, as a kind of early attempt at the famous “Enjirō nose” from Edo umare uwaki no kabayaki), and he has a slightly stupid-looking (derpy, even) expression on his face. This is nothing like the refined sophisticate we’ve seen up until now! This guy needs more than just new clothes!

Readers thought they had this text all figured out: the plot is taking place inside Hakugo’s head. But this surprising end reveals that the visual representation is in Hakugo’s head as well. By showing him in the waking world first, just slightly turned away from the reader, and then showing him walking around on the next page, the text cleverly creates an illusion of continuity and allows the reader to assume the visual representation is objective. In the end, the text reveals that the visual representation has been Hakugo’s subjective representation of himself all along.

Here Kyakujin jorō reveals the subjectivity of perception. Furthermore, it reveals the ability of texts, particularly visual texts, to create an illusion of objectivity while really presenting a highly distorted picture. It exposes the concept of objective representation as an illusion. In that sense it is similar to texts that cleverly employ an unreliable narrator. Here, the text features an “unreliable artist” rather than an unreliable narrative.

So, while Kyakujin jorō might not have reached the comic heights of Edo umare uwaki no kabayaki, it is still doing some very interesting things with its visual-verbal medium.

(All images are taken from: Santō, Kyōden. Santō kyōden zenshū. vol 1. Tokyo: Perikansha, 1992.)

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