I came across Ango Sakaguchi through Darakuron (A Thesis on Decadence), his most famous essay about decadence in post-war Japan. No, that would be a lie. I actually came across Ango Sakaguchi through anime.
In “Tokkoutai ni sasagu” (An Offering to the Kamikaze), Ango invokes a cliche from the war years, referring to kamikaze pilots “who scattered valiantly like blossoms in defence of the nation.” Ango proceeds to offer his own expression: let us seek out the “true blossoms of the war, quietly adorn our rooms with them, and in the light of tomorrow, bring to flower blossoms more beautiful still.”
Under the Cherry Blossoms was published after the second world war, in 1947, if you ignore this, then all that is left is a beautiful and yet gruesome fable/fairy-tale with only a surface level meaning.
“Ango's personal experience gave birth to this work. During the war, beneath the cherry blossoms in Ueno, Ango saw people being burned to death in the bombing of Tokyo. He recorded what he felt in his essays, "This is what happened when the dead were brought to the Ueno Mountain and burned. Just then, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, a forest without people. Only the wind whipped through. The frozen silence made you want to run away."” - From the Aoi Bungaku Ep 5-6 Introductions
This experience clashed with the traditional image of the “hanami” festival, the yearly cherry blossom viewing event where, as the narrator in the opening passages notes, “the cherry trees bloom, people feel lighthearted and happy, and wander around under them, drinking sake, eating cakes, exclaiming how beautiful' what a glorious spring!” The narrator then asserts that “actually, if you took all those people away from there, you would feel a dreadful atmosphere.”
Put simply, hanami in Japan, is a widespread excuse for having outdoor parties in spring beneath the sakura during daytime or at night.
Hanami became famous during the Edo period (1603-1868 AD), due to the celebrations of cherry blossoms by emperors, empresses and the higher castes of Japan spreading to the rest of Japanese society.
The narrator’s visceral reaction against the supposedly misplaced gaiety at this festival is portrayed with vivid (and almost livid) bitterness but also very briefly as this is all just a set-up to give way for a story about a mountain bandit.
The opening also dwells on the sense of dizziness, maddening lostness one will feel when walking underneath the cherry trees as they are in full bloom, their petals silently falling to the ground leading one to lose their mind. My immediate thought at this was, ‘come on Ango, you must be pulling my leg, how bad can it be? After all they are only flower petals...’
To shore up support for his view the narrator claims that this danger of cherry petals was evoked in previous Japanese folklore like in a Noh play. It sounded to me like the narrator was implying that people started to hold festivities under the cherry blossoms together to forget how scary it would be to be there alone.
It is debatable whether any of this is true, as even as far back as in the Nara period (710 to 794 AD) there were reports of people going to see the cherry blossoms as a leisure activity. This story is fiction more rooted in Ango’s experience during the second world war rather than anything rooted in the distant past. The story is flavoured in folklore but the opening isn’t folklore-like.
Coming from a Buddhist and Shinto Country, and having had contact with the teaching of both (Sakaguchi studied the former in school as a student), Sakaguchi would have been well aware of the symbolic affinity between the beauty and caducous state of the cherry blossoms and of human life, which flares up and then is vanquished so suddenly and silently. So perhaps this attack is another attempt of a “literary rogue” to jolt, rouse and revive the spirit of his people, like he did with his “Thesis on Decadence”, which predates “Under the Cherry Blossoms”.
The choice by the author to be a contrarian about hanami, be it done consciously or not, is the strong point and the weakness of this opening: by being so vehemently “against the grain”, by opposing this common usance, he both makes himself unique and yet dates himself at the same time: such is the nature of any attempt to criticise a customary public event which survives its critics. Then again, as long as cherry blossoms remain popular in Japan this story will remain relevant.
Adding to this, the rest of the short story has to do with the tones, opaque lessons and bitter ironic tones of the fairy tale, of the folk narrative, of the “tale of olden”, which has both clear and cryptic messages, which speaks on different levels and has a sort of simplicity in which our mind can find solace and fill in the blanks with our own memories.
The mountains of Japan are just sketched enough for us, no matter the nationality, to see them in their most refined details, showing the masterfulness of such simple words linked in the most meaningful of ways, and here is where Sakaguchi’s talent shines the brightest, and one can forgive that oddly violent outburst at the beginning where he had lounged in such harsh tones against his own Nation as it partook and still partakes in this celebration of Spring (which indeed can then turn into an excuse to share a meal, a few songs and a glass too much of sake underneath the trees, with all the consequences that such behaviours can lead to if not controlled by moderation).
From there, the narration moves to the typical form and even the tropes of a folktale, with unnamed characters with strong “signifiers”: the bandit, the beautiful wife, the crippled servant, the people of the city, and the cherry trees themselves .
The story came out in 1947, after the war, and after Ango’s publication of Darakuron: Japan had lost its Empire, and the Emperor had been humbled into a position of a purely human ruler, as he gave up the titles which gave him a divinity status.
Sakaguchi attempts to once more cause a sort of “shock” with the intro and themes of the story, going against whatever is still a certainty in the fabric of Japanese society, in this case the “hanami”, the cherry trees viewing, and by this “dislocation” he hopes to cause a sort of rebirth of the Nation: he expressed many times in his essays and non-fiction how he believed that one of the ways to truly value life is to be the closest as possible to complete defeat, loss and destruction of oneself; speaking of the real worth of fairy tales, he declares:
“The beauty, the chilling beauty of this kind of tale is due to the feeling of helplessness it conveys, because the loneliness of life is so complete that only when we realise its helplessness, darkness, and cruelty, can we begin to have hope.”
This concept can be seen in the short story too, as the story ends in tragedy, and at the moment when, even if in a strange way (and not due to “justice” or divine punishment), the cruel duo of the bandit and his new wife ends up dead. Almost as impartially as an American bomb falling on a Japanese city.
This little short story was popular enough to get a 2 episode anime adaptation and a 1 hour and 34 minutes film adaptation. The anime wastes its two episodes whereas the movie runs out of content from the source material and so has some filler in the last arc. The tldr of it is that the anime is a farce because it barely captures the mood of the story but the film is worth watching though it runs out of material to adapt and creates its own arc/sub-plot which you may or may not like. Neither the film nor the anime capture the violence of the short story adequately.
Episodes five and six of Aoi Bungaku, a short series of anime adaptations based on famous Japanese literature, are dedicated to this story. Most of the story remains intact here though additions and key character changes were inserted; at the beginning when we are introduced to the bandit for example, the adaptation adds a scene in which he decides to rob an old man.
In response to this the old man goes ‘Super Saiyan’ in an attempt to defend himself but ultimately fails to do so and is killed by the bandit. This was not a terrible attempt at humour but is indicative of the rest of the adaptation. It is possible that the animation studio wanted to edit the story so that it was more lighthearted and so more accessible to younger audiences but what was sacrificed was much of the tone and meaning of the original text.
What they did get right was the ending, when the woman takes the shape of a monster causing the bandit to panic, throw her off his back and then strangle her to death. For this scene the anime wisely decided to closely follow the description given in the story though, as said before, the entire adaptation could have been more faithful.
The choice to change the crippled woman for a young girl was overall a negative one, her only purpose was to help inject some humour into the anime (we see a couple of scenes with her and the boar for example) but ironically turning the bandit’s crippled wife into a little girl implies something much darker. The amount of gore depicted in the story was also played down too, with the heads looking more like dolls heads than the description of rotting flesh we get in the original as well as all the deaths such as those of the woman’s husband and the bandit’s wives being kept off screen or largely toned down, again it does not hurt the tone of the story too much, the bandit still seems like a believable character and the woman is still monstrous but the point here is to point out that the characters shown in the anime haven been made blunt. The character design for the Bandit could be better as he came across as more of a wrestler than a hunter but the design for the woman was quite good, it captured the frigid, cruel and refined beauty of the woman.The rest of the designs were innocuous with the exception of one of the Bandit’s wives being american.
The final key point is how the characters were given too much character. The original story, written like a simple fable, gave each of the side-characters passing descriptions or just merely acknowledged their relationship to the bandit whereas here the thoughts and emotions of the characters are expressed explicitly, this can be seen most clearly with the bandit’s other wives where the way they interact with one-another wouldn’t be far off from what you see in a stage production; how each of the wives are feeling at any moment is clearly televised. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a drawback however in this instance a more impersonal or ambiguous tone like that found in traditional fairy-tales would have been the most desirable and the most consistent with the original text.
To conclude this section, the anime adaptation should not be considered as vital viewing or even as a way to better understand the text. One upside for the existence of this adaptation is the fact that it is included in a larger anthology series (Aoi Bungaku) not only has this broadcast presumably brought more attention to the short story itself but also more eyes to other stories and authors too1.
The 1975 film adaptation had an extra subplot about reformed criminals being recruited as a police force; later on it’s shown they too are corrupted and still a bunch of robbers, even if now under an appointed officer of the city. The adaptation gets, due to these scenes, both too “grounded”, but also too “surreal” due to the bandit becoming a ‘villain’ with a title (the Beheader); due to these added elements, it loses part of the “folk tale” charm and vibe the original short story has.
The actors and actresses portray the characters well, giving them a lot of personality in their mannerisms, movements and expressions; the camera work is relatively simple, but well executed and effective in portraying the story and the time laps; the costume and city design give out a quite authentic feeling, which work in favour of immersing the viewer in the story and setting.
The main weakness of this adaptation lies in the fake heads used to display the voracious and morbid passion of the woman the bandit took as his new wife: she keeps them as gruesome dolls to play and interweave stories with, but while in the short story their “human factor” is kept well intact by the graphic description of their rotting away and festering with maggots and finally turning into white skulls, the ones used for the movie are too clearly made of wax, and it weakens the “horror factor” of this cycle in which the bandit find himself, having to gather heads as if it were but a job like another, a daily routine; some of the shots with the crippled servant among the skulls, however, add an artistic flare and even flavour to some of the scenes and events in the city.
As previously noted the casting was on point and when I think of the characters now what comes to mind are those in the film. If you have any doubts about what the characters or the mountain or the city looked like, the movie is worth a watch.
Due to the limitations of special effects the killing and gruesome scenes don’t look real. Crucially if you hadn’t read the short story you might not get that the characters turn into cherry petals at the end because the characters just disappear.
Similarly to the anime, the addition of more characterisation robs the story of the folk-tale/fable-like feeling.
He represents the savage side of humanity. He does not seem to enjoy killing, and does so more out of necessity, simply to steal what he wants, rather than sadism. He is certainly more savage than noble and he wouldn’t appear innocent if he were robbing you but in his animalistic simple-mindedness he comes across as less macabre than his counterpart’s refined evil. He will kill you but he won’t stay around to play with your corpse.
He boasts a lot about his strength and physical prowess, but his will and mind are weak: he finds himself being easily manipulated by the woman, entranced by her refined beauty and her demands.
He wishes to confront his (to be fair, well-founded) fear of the cherry blossoms, but he keeps postponing, even keeping his fear of them as the only thing he hides from the beautiful woman he took to his mountains.
Once in the city, he finds himself unable to be happy, like a caged animal forced into a loop of violence to please the greedy, selfish and morbid desire of the woman he took as his new wife.
In an ironic twist, he ends up seeing the cruelty and ugliness of the woman when under the cherry trees which, when in bloom, drive him mad: seeing her as a shapeshifting witch who turns into a grinning ogre while carrying her onto the mountains to which he belongs, he frees himself of her and kills her, before both of them vanish into cherry petals.
The bandit’s whole existence is one of violence punctuated by death; it’s how and why he has to resolve to them to survive: in the mountains, he’s a robber and murderer more out of necessity, while in the city he has to do so to please his trophy wife, and then he kills one last time due to the cherry blossoms he always wanted to face but never had the courage to, and it’s this one act of pride which leads to the death of the woman and himself.
The beautiful wife could represent refined but hollow civilised humanity. All she does is try to fulfil her selfish desires, her petty fantasies, and even dies due to her scheming (even if it is out of her control and more due to the same weakness which allowed her to control the Bandit). She could also represent the devastating side of a materialistic society, which can indeed cobble together beauty from apparently disjointed elements, but has a voraciousness for all things onto which it can lay its hands, regardless of the costs or effects onto others.
Her indifference towards the death of his husband, and her desire to control the bandit makes her into a real monster, but she keeps getting away with all this due to her beauty, able to tame and control even a brutal man like the bandit, almost closer to one of the beasts he claims to be stronger then.
The sole survivor of the massacre which
the Beautiful Wife causes at the hand of the bandit, claiming “You
killed my husband, now you must kill your wives!”, and she
seems to be spared because, being a cripple, she could be easily
manipulated and controlled by the new “head of the household”;
she seems to enjoy the city, even if in a shallow way.
The most passive of characters, and the one who seems to survive more due to her weakness turning her into an item, something in the background which cannot cause harm or rouse any emotions; she could represent, in a way, the defectiveness of passivity, of accepting things without any thought about them.
The cherry petals (obviously): Humanity, fleetingness of life. Under the cherry blossoms the chaos, hopelessness, and lack of control over our fate is revealed.
The heads: decapitated victims of the bandit, playthings of the beautiful wife, they may represent how people’s lives are often “toyed with” by those who can and wish to assert power over them (the woman plays matchmaker and storyteller with them, making up convoluted stories of love, betrayal, suicide attempts and commitment).
The bird in the sky: The woman’s desire is limitless, there is no end to it, like the forests on the mountains, and then, as a sort of mirror to it, the freedom the bandit enjoyed; it is the only image conjured up by the protagonist in the city as he’s thinking to flee the place and the woman he took for himself.
The woman’s treasured ornamental combs, hair-ribbons, lipsticks and such things: The woman treasured ornamental combs and hair-ribbons and lipsticks and such things and it made her angry to see the bandit touch them with his dirty hands. She gave orders for the house to be cleaned and furniture arranged in it. She even made the bandit make a chair and armrest for her. “What she wore was not one piece of cloth and a belt: she used many pieces and many strips: she added ornaments, until the whole was unified and perfected.” He was mesmerised by how a piece of beauty could be formed out of meaningless fragments being put together and how once disassembled, they are again meaningless fragments. This he understood, as a kind of superb magic.
The story doesn’t linger on events, even violent ones like murder, for too long and lets the story itself deliver the message rather than using long and detailed sentences examining the characters’ psychology. The vocabulary used is also rather simple. If the translator is to be believed then this was the case in the original Japanese too.
Compared to Mishima, Ango’s style is rather fast-paced and allows one’s imagination to fill many of the blanks, and works effectively to “setting a stage” for the story and characters without “burdening” them with too many details, while also subtly showing us their mental and moral profiles.
With Mishima, it is undeniable that the words are chosen for their elegance and beauty, and they weave together a gorgeous tapestry of images; however, the clutter and heaviness of each individual word often tires and makes one lose track of the story if not read carefully, and this is something with which Sakaguchi seemed to have issues, while he did respect the effort on Mishima’s style to “revolt” against the current trends and norms of both literature and society by reverting to archaic and seldomly used characters for his stories about rebels and outsiders within the Japanese strata of pre-WWII Japan.
It’s a supernatural ending. Until they turn into cherry petals the story plays with the idea that everything could have been naturalistically explained. You could ask some silly questions like, ‘if there wasn’t anyone else around who could have seen them turning into cherry petals at the end then who wrote the story?’, but let’s not do that.
During the ending, ‘the beautiful wife’ takes the shape of a monster, her skin turns purple and her mouth stretches from ear to ear, it is unclear if the cherry blossoms send the bandit insane or reveal to him the true nature of the woman but, either way, the bandit experiences a moment of deep sorrow for killing her and then relief and liberation.
The message and intended effect of this story, taking into account Sakaguchi’s other writings such as Darakuron, is to make humanity stronger by first leading it to hopelessness… Not by leading it to suicide like Osamu Dazai.
According to Ango Sakaguchi, Dazai was a big puss-puss who chose suicide. Dazai could have at least done it in a based way like Mishima but I imagine Dazai would have trouble finding so many fit and youthful boys for his cause. Dazai preferred to find fit and youthful women for his suicide attempts rather than boys anyways.
The difference is made clear in Sakaguchi's essay on Dazai, "Christ and Juvenile Delinquents," in which he writes:
“Dazai called himself a comedian, but the fact is he never made it. In The Setting Sun he is close to it, but not quite. "Father," "Cherries," - oh, those are the things he should never have shown to the public. They should have existed only in his hung-over mind, and should have been forgotten as soon as his hang-over was gone. The pains and sorrows of self-reproach and reminiscence which one suffers with a hang-over should not be treated seriously in a literary work, or, for that matter, in life. ... Both Akutagawa and Dazai committed suicide as juvenile delinquents. They were the weeping, whimpering kind - weak. They couldn't win with physical power. Nor with intellectual power. Therefore they had to show themselves off under some authority. Both brought in Christ. ... What's so great in death or suicide? Those who are defeated die. If they win they won't die. Victory at death? Nonsense' ... For man to live is all. When you die you are no more. Fame after death? Art is long? Nonsense! I hate ghosts. I hate those ghosts that live, they say, after they die.”
Dazai and Akutagawa were writers of whose work Sakaguchi read in the past, and had fed on those works; there are many cases of later authors who, after enjoying the previous generation’s literature, end up finding umbridge and even attacking the masters of that close-by past for various reasons.
While Sakaguchi’s fierce criticisms are always interesting and show his passion and dedication to his ideas and ideals, there’s also reason to sort of scoff and almost laugh at some of his attacks, as they seem driven more by a desire to be “different” and a provocateur rather than create new ideas. In this regard, his writings may at times come off as an angry rant spurred more by emotions rather than any other deeper reason.
This article was co-written by Otaking/TGS, ChiasmoRoss, and Captain Erik.
Fahrenheit: short story 8/10, anime adaptation 6/10
Captain Erik: short story 9/10, anime/film adaptations 6-7/10
Otaking/TGS: short story 8.7512/10, anime 5/10, film 7.75/10
Chiasmo: the jarring intro does
not weaken what is, in essence, a great folk story about the nature
of man and of his fears, about the vices of men and women, and about
what could be a “liminal experience”, here represented by
the cherry blossoms themselves. The story has both the Gothic story’s
psychological angle, which reminded me of Hoffmann’s The
Sandman, and the eerie nature of the original versions of popular
short stories like Red Riding Hood, with their strange mixture of
violence, almost humorous bitterness and gruesome endings. Sakaguchi
does not soften the blows, and shows the violence and depravity of
the characters, while the light writing style conveys both elegance
and a sort of simplicity which allows the reader’s mind to put
his own colours and images to fill what is left vague on purpose.
How much of the message and how many of the symbols and ideas perspiring in the story are the results of the reader’s own views and experiences, how much of the concept of “the death of the author” which comes from Sartre’s writings can be used here to imply or justify certain readings of the story, I cannot fully tell; but I think Sakaguchi, being a skilled and witty narrator, did indeed play a bit with such concept, even if understood and expressed in other terms at his times and in his culture.
Fahrenheit: Under The Cherry Blossoms In Full Bloom is a short story that I appreciate and have gladly given a high score but I personally got very little out of the story. The story was written to be a short fable or something akin to a fairytale, if this will become a great artefact of that time or even eventually a well known tale is out of my hands but what I can say is that it contains deep messages and is interesting even without a deeper reading.
Ango has the capacity to create very detailed scenes using only simple words,this making his style superior to that of other authors such as Mishima is a conclusion I would disagree with but it is certainly not controversial to say that it is perfect for telling the story. I first listened to this story’s audiobook instead of reading it. I caution that if you are listening to this story, it is very easy to miss out on key details in the story; I missed the fact that the bandit killed his wives for example.
Captain Erik: The story shows how fragile the human condition is. We can see that within the main male protagonist. The bandit, even though he was physically strong, was a fragile and easy-to-manipulate mind, probably because of his savagery and his inexperience with the civilised world.
The woman depicts human materialism and emptiness. From the start, we know that her husband was a rich man and that she is a beautiful woman, she can get all she wants, but she still follows that urge of filling her selfish and sadistic empty hole that is, in my opinion, generated by the boredom of a material lifestyle (even though the story doesn't insist on this topic). This also shows how fragile the human condition is, because it depicts how humans can't get enough pleasure and that, eventually, everything will become boring or unfulfilling.
The ending shows exactly the same weak condition. We can see how the bandit was manipulated all along, and how it ended up, which proves that he was a weak and easy-to-manipulate savage. The same thing with the woman, she couldn't manipulate him anymore, the manipulation also this being the same thing that drove the bandit insane and led to the death of the woman, but she didn't realise that until it was too late because of her vanity.
Otaking/TGS: The text-to-speech audiobook for this story is just shy of 45 minutes so definitely give it a read if anything we have said piques your interest! There’s a couple of translations of Under The Cherry Blossoms available online but this one has a nice introduction too. Some of the stuff in this article, like the quote from Ango’s essay about Dazai, were lifted from that introduction.
This is the part where I talk about my personal experience with this work, you know the sort of thing that is better left unsaid and that youtube anime reviewers often put upfront despite the fact that nobody cares.
I came across this story about six or seven years ago when I was going through a phase where I used to idolise long stories with many deep characters and plots where everything made sense and where there was character development. Naturally I was not impressed by this short story, and in general I regarded short stories as inferior as they could not tell the kind of grand and detailed stories and character studies that I wanted to see.
Folk-tales and fables were even lower than short stories for me because the characters seemed like empty-headed puppets moved to make heavy-handed allegories rather than characters who were alive and grew.
I was struggling to justify why I liked what I liked and so I latched my tastes on to some vague notion of “realism,” wherein anything which was more like real-life, more life-like, was taken to be better. At some point I realised that if I truly believed in that then I might as well forgo fiction and art altogether and point the lens of my eyes at reality. Since then my standards have become less strict. I like what I like and I worry about why later.
As for the author Ango himself, I came across him through the Un-Go anime tv series which in turn turned me towards Darakuron which made me stumble upon Under The Cherry Blossoms. At the time it didn’t make sense to me why the materialist who wrote Darakuron would be writing a story with supernatural events. Un-Go is a detective series, true with a supernatural truth serum, but otherwise pretty grounded.
This goes to show how flexible of a writer Ango was. Apparently he wrote straightforward farces too. It is unfortunate that writers these days just write one type of fiction and then die and if they are essayists then they don’t even try writing fiction lest they be subject to the same criticism that they dole out.
For example, a fantasy writer will remain in his fantasy box and not write a murder mystery, and if he did dare do so his audience probably wouldn’t buy it. Didn’t something like that happen to the author of Harry Potter? No wonder they all become stale, making more of whatever worked for them once. On the other hand, I guess you could say they are simply perfecting their craft by focusing on a genre, and I am just being blinded by a romantic notion of a writer.
If and when I am ever in Japan participating in hanami, I’ll be thinking of this story or I’ll be too inebriated to do that.
1‘No Longer Human’ and ‘Run, Melos!’ by Osamu Dazai
‘Kokoro’, by Natsume Sōseki
‘The Spider’s Thread’ and ‘Hell Screen’, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa