Your average reader yearning to discover some good gossip in a biography by Kobo Abe’s long-term mistress about their decades-long relationship might be forgiven for assuming that the title in question will certainly offer up any number of juicy tidbits, especially when the second page of the photo-inserts at the very front of the book features a full-frontal nude shot of the author herself nonchalantly lounging on a bed, cheerily smiling while raising a glass of who-knows-what to the lens.
Yet Karin Yamaguchi’s 2013 biography 安部公房とわたし (‘Kobo Abe And Me’) is not nearly as sleazy or upfront as this fading Polaroid might suggest.
If anything, this chronicle of the life of a prominent Japanese actress who happened to share a good part of her life with one of the country’s most celebrated authors is altogether reticent in analyzing and exposing what exactly it is that they emotionally shared with each other.
As I read, I kept feeling like there was a curious hole at the center of her story; I kept waiting for the ‘good stuff’ to be revealed, meaning both the emotionally raw and messy stuff, but also the prurient stuff, the illicit stuff, all the erotic and sordid details promised by that initial photo, the kind of none-of-our-business details that modern biographies nevertheless parade with dutiful glee.
I then found myself reflecting on what else was actually on display in those three pages of photographs at the start, aside from that rather startling naked shot of the writer: numerous photos of Yamaguchi in various locales that Abe himself must have taken; three shots of Abe-in-thought, on the phone, having a snack; images of his notes, his books, even his toilet-paper constructions. All along as I read I had been expecting more deep-detailed dish on Abe-as-author, Abe-as-lover, Abe-as-betrayer-of-his-wife-of-a-good-many-years, neglecting to realize that, instead, what I was actually experiencing was a prosaic chronicle of a very young woman, barely out of her teens, making her way through her life and career while simultaneously co-existing as the hidden-partner of a literary icon.
I was being granted access to a whole life, in other words.
Late twentieth-century Japanese academia, theatre, film and familial relations are all diligently laid out via the ‘mundane’ course of Yamaguchi’s recollections, prodded by the numerous notes she jotted down over the years (even if she occasionally can’t remember what they are actually referring to), so what we we end up with is, fundamentally, a tale about a woman discovering who she truly is in the modern Japan at that time as she ages in relation to her much older, much more ‘important’ elder beau.
We see her figuring out herself, to herself, and to us by extension.
By the end, decades after his death, she’s finally learned to exist without being linked to the legend of ‘Kobo Abe’. This book’s title prominently places his name first, as if she herself is a secondary character in the arc of her own life. That she also exists as herself, for herself, is the kind of awakening that only time itself can offer us when we’re ready to acknowledge that light.
The book’s structure folds into itself and bounces around a wee bit, starting with Abe’s collapse during the Christmas holidays of 1992, shortly before his eventual death, the last of a series of medical incidents that had plagued his later years, and during this prologue we become aware of a few key practical and situational realities that will recur throughout this biography — that Yamaguchi was not welcome to visit Abe at the hospital, per the request of the author’s wife and her daughter; that Abe had balked at the idea of a divorce; and that Yamaguchi remained his lover right until the end of his life.
It’s therefore clear to the reader from the get-go: Yamaguchi was emotionally entangled in a set of domestic and personal scenarios that plagued their relationship even as he fell ill.
From this rather dramatic beginning we jump into their relationship, which began when she was a university student attending one of his classes — Abe’s age being almost a full twenty-four years older than her, a man in his forties romancing a girl not yet in her twenties — but it’s probably best to recap her own growing-up, which for some reason occupies the middle portion of this book. (Japanese non-fiction often hoists us readers around in unconventional narrative modes of approach.)
Exactly who was this young woman who so captivated Kobo Abe for so long?
Yamaguchi was born in 1947 as the fourth daughter to a bookselling family, a trade that her father took over as an eighteen year- old when her grandfather fell ill. She remembers this postwar era as a particularly cultured one, in which people would line up outside her family’s bookshop for hours on the day when a popular new title was to be released. Raised in what sounds like an elite family in Tokyo, she attended the same elementary school as celebrated author Junichiro Tanizaki, where she was told that she ‘talked too much in class’.
She passed the difficult tests required to the elite Ochanomizu University Junior High School for Girls — Japanese schools often linking their elementary systems to their post-secondary institutions — where she found a new artistic freedom for herself that she hadn’t felt before. Dance, performance, Italian and French movies, the European Nouvelle vogue: All exciting, all intriguing, all accessible. (She also notes that it was common at this time in junior and senior high schools for swim teachers to ask students like her out on dates, as hers did to her — an eyebrow-raising remark which hints at her own future romantic developments.)
Not getting into the first university of her choice, Yamaguchi instead ends up at a school where Kob0 Abe is teaching a theater class. Impressed by his writing in high school, she’s even more impressed in person.
Apparently, so is he.
In an environment where Arthur Miller and his wife would drop by for a chat, where John Nathan, Yukio Mishima’s translator, could be occasionally seen bopping around the halls, where Abe himself hung around with Donald Keene, the famed American Japanologist, it’s no surprise that Yamaguchi found herself in a rather heady academic and artistic bubble.
So is it so surprising that, by 1969, her fourth year of university, this attractive and bright young student, whose only previous romantic encounters were with her long-broken-up-with high school boyfriend, who wants to be an actress someday, finds herself suddenly in a sexual relationship with a famous novelist and playwright who happened to be her professor at one point? (One day he asked her for a drive, so they could chat, and they ended up at a ‘love hotel’. As one does.)
Yamaguchi notes that, throughout university, a famous editor of a literary magazine would ask her out once every term, and that her college-age friend dated a middle-aged literary notable. In the world of the arts, however questionable one might consider these relationships, in any country, they are not exactly unusual.
Perhaps what is rather rare is how lengthy Yamaguchi’s relationship with Abe eventually turned out be — almost a quarter-century long, throughout the entire space of the Seventies and Eighties, right into the nineties.
So, getting down to the nitty-gritty: What was that relationship, exactly?
The book proceeds to dive into the logistical specifics, but not the emotional roots.
Most of the book is an extended discussion of Yamaguchi’s steady career-rise as she begins to get more and more work as an actress — in film, television, and Abe’s own theater company — while she continues as Abe’s lover and confidante throughout this whole span.
He snags her an apartment of her own in the tony Omotesando district of Tokyo; he purchases a cottage in the posh resort town of Hakone where they hang out all the time, meeting each other at Odawara Station before driving to their own secret place; he even gives her the stage of name of ‘Karin’, since her actual first name is too close to that of a prominent politician. (Fake-names in Japanese entertainment are just as common, if not more so, than in western circles; Kobo Abe’s own given name was actually ‘Kimifusa’.) Yamaguchi feels like her new name sounds like some sort of Chinese restaurant, but she nevertheless goes along with the choice.
Personal details are revealed, sparingly.
We are told by Yamaguchi that she has talked to his wife only once or twice in her life — ditto the couple’s daughter. We are informed that, when she was three and a half months pregnant with Abe’s child, she got an abortion, not wanting to sacrifice her budding acting career with the burden of motherhood. We learn that Abe refuses to divorce his wife, even though she eventually learns of his illicit lifelong rendezvous, because if the media found out that he had a long-term mistress his chance of obtaining a Nobel Prize in literature would probably be kaput. (She is therefore second-fiddle to his own literary aims, although she not once comes across as angry or resentful.)
Which brings up another interesting omission from the book, namely any true sense of Kobo Abe, the author.
Yamaguchi never delves into her own opinion of his work, nor even attempts to give a precis of what, exactly, his themes were, his overarching ideas, his ideological bent; she does mention specific titles of his plays and novels, but usually only in orientation to this-or-that-detail in regards to the timeline of their relationship at one temporal point or another.
What, exactly, drew them to one another?
They both enjoy playing chess, with Abe often behaving like a child, wanting to win as often as he could. They each liked reading suspense novels. He liked pizza-toast, and had nice fingers. They would photograph each other. She was shocked that, raised in Japanese-occupied Manchuria as he was, he referred to his dad as ‘papa’; a girl of her stature, raised in Tokyo’s Shitamachi district, would never dream of using such a casual parental moniker.
Casual details like these, the minor enjoyments and observations of any co-habitation.
It’s not that, as a memoirist, Yamaguchi keeps everything bottled up. She states that there was a sexual incident of some kind in her childhood or adolescence that she kept hidden from her family, but not from Abe. He was there for her, obviously, eventually moving out of his family home and living with Yamaguchi — aside from his frequent international travels and theatrical exhibitions and her on-location film shoots — in their Hakone cottage, apparently quite happily.
Yet what’s missing is any true personal investigation into what actually drew them together, kept them together.
We mostly just read about an unorthodox couple hanging out, helping each other.
We’re left to speculate:
How could a young student interested in becoming an actress not be drawn to such a successful artist like Kobo Abe?
How could a chubby middle-aged writer not find attractive a young, vivacious student who so clearly hero-worships him?
Yet what caused them to keep on keeping on for almost a quarter century, even as he maintained the outward posture of a respectable family man?
On that, she keeps mum.
I would imagine that Japanese readers familiar with the past forty years of Japanese television, theater and film production would be fascinated to hear Yamaguchi’s accounts of when she jetted off to act in this movie, or that play, but as I remain almost completely ignorant as to the Japanese pop-culture entertainment output in these recent eras those details sort of shot right over my head, but the book truly became compelling to me in the final fifty or so pages, when Yamaguchi’s mum begins to get sick at the same time as Abe himself sees his health start to falter.
Rushing from various hospitals and numerous check-ups, running from a ravenous media that had finally discovered the nature of their lengthy affair, dealing with the death of her mum and the demise of her love, almost simultaneously — all of this is emotional, primal stuff.
What’s even more moving are her attempts, as a woman approaching her fifties, to figure out who she might be when Kobo Abe is no longer around.
How she escapes to Thailand with her best friend, newly divorced, for some kind of small peace; how she relies on this friend for solace.
Yet even that good friend will get remarried; Yamaguchi will have to reconcile her new identity all by herself, being truly ‘alone’ as she is for the first time in her adult life.
I thought this book would provide some sensationalistic tidbits about Kobo Abe’s ‘secret life’, which it does, albeit sparingly, but the true worth of this lengthy recollection about the only true romantic relationship the author ever had is how it becomes ultimately about moving on after the death of loved ones, both familial and romantic — psychologically restitching deep fissures that might never truly heal.
One of the final subheadings in a latter chapter could be translated as ‘Graduating from Kobo Abe’, which seems particularly apt in this case. In Japanese, the word 卒業 (‘sotsugyou’) is, indeed, used to mean ‘graduation’, in the scholastic sense of the word, but it also has the broader implication of ‘moving on’, ‘going forward’.
While acknowledging all of this autobiography’s minor insights into Japanese collegiate, marital and aesthetic machinations over the past fifty years, the most resonant take-away from her story I will carry with me is the notion that perhaps the very title of this book could serve as but a prelude to a follow-up of some sort thirty years down the line. (Japanese people do tend to live quite a long time, after all.)
In this version of her life, Yamaguchi’s sense of self literally comes after her lover’s — ‘Kobo Abe And Me’. I started to think at the end that, all along, perhaps this book’s name had been a bit of a misnomer. It was actually about Karin Yamaguchi, period. Her life, on its own terms, was interesting enough, compelling enough; she didn’t need Kobo Abe as a constant preface.
That was what she learned as she began a new phase of her ongoing journey, and what I realized from her honesty, however corralled and circumspect it may seem. In our lives, even though we might willingly sacrifice, through love, our own lives for another, we should never let anyone else supersede exactly what it is that we ourselves want to say.
Perhaps a commonplace notion in contemporary western psychological circles.
In Japan, however, where women’s roles all too often remain more-than-slightly backgrounded, Karin Yamaguchi’s final epiphany feels like her own well-earned harbinger.
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