Betting on a better life among the ruins
In his simple story about a bullfighting tournament, the Japanese writer Yasushi Inoue captured a nation left shaken by war
Remarkable literary career: Yasushi Inoue in 1987. Photograph: Marc Gantier/Gamma-Rapho via Getty
Sponsoring a bullfighting tournament strikes Tsugami, a world-weary editor, as a way for his new newspaper to make its mark. Japan is still shaken after the end of the second World War, and Osaka is in ruins, yet Tsugami believes in the project – or, rather, he wants to believe in it, as he appears to have lost interest in everything else.
Separated from his wife and children, he is now caught up in a stalemate with a war widow. He appears to have little interest in her, and she is uncertain whether she loves him or loathes him. Still, little else is going on in her life, either.
This intense, brilliantly paced narrative made Yasushi Inoue famous and marked the beginning of a remarkable literary career. First published in 1949, it is as much about a state of mind as it is about a sporting spectacular.
The story appears almost too simple: a sporting spectacle guaranteed to draw crowds. Tsugami seems to have been in the kind of mood, detached and drifting, that made convincing him to agree to the project peculiarly easy.
Inoue’s masterful novella triumphs through a series of perceptive character studies that balance optimism and pessimism.
Within Tsugami festers the soul of an existentialist anti-hero worthy of Camus. Once a good reporter, he has risen to become editor in chief largely because of his aloofness: he gives little away. He gives the impression of being a shrewd and attentive listener, although his thoughts are racing and he can watch Tashiro, a local entrepreneur, ramble on like a boy, outlining his dream, with some amusement, while also being aware that he himself “probably had a lot more bad inside him than Tashiro”.
The description of the businessman proves peculiarly endearing: “A thick-set and broad-shouldered man of average height, Tashiro was bundled from head to toe in a heavy leather overcoat; he carried a somewhat aged but still stiff alligator-skin Boston bag – the sort of thing that had become rather valuable of late. Every so often as [Tsugami and Tashiro] hurried along the largely-deserted, bombed-out street . . . he would stop in his tracks, anxious that the wind hitting their faces was preventing Tsugami from hearing him, and stand there with his head lifted, talking to his taller companion.”
The businessman is full of ideas, and he proposes that the editor buy the 22 competing bulls. Tsugami has no intention of doing this. Yet Tashiro, undeterred, proceeds to tell the editor about a friend, Okabe Yata, another entrepreneur, who operates on a far higher scale and whom he admires.
Inoue’s prose is understated but speaks volumes: within paragraphs the reader is aware that, aside from the staging of a bullfight, his novella is really about the rekindling of a defeated nation’s morale.
It could be set anywhere. Inoue is also making the point that, in times of hardship, people look towards the local. It is as if the bullfight, with its history of old family rivalries, will lift the spirits of the onlookers as well as the participants – “perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling . . . Set up some random event for people to bet on, and everything would take care of itself . . . Just imagine it – tens of thousands of spectators betting on a bullfight in a stadium hemmed in on every side by the ruined city.”
An insight into the small world of the bullfight is vividly sketched during a visit to one of the bull owners: “Atomiya, who was the most successful farmer in the region, was almost maniacal in his devotion to bullfighting; already in his 70s, he had the robust, hearty air of an aged warrior. Evidently, he had inherited his craze for bullfighting from his father . . . whose last words as he lay on his deathbed had been, ‘I made my fortune, I built this house, so I have no real regrets. The one regret I have is that my bull always lost to Tasmura’s. Avenge me, son.’”
Elsewhere, the president of the newspaper, Omoto, is described as being so fat that he “looked like a somewhat poorly trained fighting bull himself”.
In contrast to the cold, calculating journalist are the warmth and passion of the little entrepreneur who describes himself as a country showman. Such is his enthusiasm that the editor begins to feel “mildly excited”. This response is balanced with the cool detachment he reserves for his girlfriend, whose reading of his character is astute.
Yet Inoue also conveys her internal struggle as she realises that she would like to end their affair but is unable to leave him. She emerges as more doomed than pathetic. In her, Inoue has created a woman who is not only lost but also aware that, after the death of her husband, who was a friend of Tsugami’s, a perverse sense of honour – mainly her need to justify her involvement with such an unfeeling man – keeps her with him.
Further possibilities, more backers eager to be involved, materialise. A young salesman attempts to persuade Tsugami to sell all the tickets to his company before the event. Tsugami wishes to retain his control. As the event approaches, the excitement builds, even before the bulls arrive in town.
Before the bullfighting, though, there is much winter weather to endure – and there is a sense of the characters battling the chill. As the tournament weekend dawns, a real enemy has arrived: the rain.
At a little more than 100 pages, Bullfight is a classic novella. Inoue consolidates his story through his feel for character and the complexities of human behaviour. It is a wonderful book, ironic yet sympathetic, and the perspective cleverly shifts between the players and their expectations, some complex, some relatively simple.
In an extraordinary afterword that Inoue wrote in 1988, almost 40 years after Bullfight’s initial publication, by when he was a major writer with a vast body of work, he expresses his gratitude to a book that made him a writer.
He also offers a profound statement about an artist’s view of the landscape he created: “No matter how it appears to me, though, this untamed garden is me. No one else but me, all there is to me.”
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent