Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale

Overview

Originally published in 1918, Rivalry is regarded as the masterpiece of Nagai Kafu, a Japanese novelist known for his brilliant renderings of Tokyo in the early years of modern Japan. Stephen Snyder offers the first English translation of the complete, uncensored text, which has long been celebrated as one of the most convincing and sensually rich portraits of the geisha profession.

Rivalry tells a sweeping story in which sexual politics compete with sisterly affection in a ...

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Overview

Originally published in 1918, Rivalry is regarded as the masterpiece of Nagai Kafu, a Japanese novelist known for his brilliant renderings of Tokyo in the early years of modern Japan. Stephen Snyder offers the first English translation of the complete, uncensored text, which has long been celebrated as one of the most convincing and sensually rich portraits of the geisha profession.

Rivalry tells a sweeping story in which sexual politics compete with sisterly affection in a world ruled by material transaction. Komayo is a former geisha who, upon the death of her husband, must return to the "world of flower and willow" to escape poverty. A chance encounter with an old patron, Yoshioka, leads to a relationship in which both lovers hope to profit: Yoshioka believes Komayo can restore his lost innocence; Komayo plans to use Yoshioka's patronage to compete in the elaborate music and dance performances staged by her fellow geisha.

Yoshioka is eager to ransom Komayo, but as she considers his offer, Komayo falls in love with Segawa, a young actor who promises to turn the talented geisha into the finest dancer in the Shimbashi quarter. Though her feelings for Segawa are genuine, Komayo is eager to use her lover's position to become the lead performer among her peers. Her ambition even tempts her to take on a third patron known only as the "Sea Monster," a repellent but wealthy antiques dealer whose deep pockets promise to shoot Komayo to the height of celebrity.

Though she finds herself at the pinnacle of a glittering career, Komayo nevertheless becomes the target of a bitter rivalry between her three lovers that leaves her both thrilled and exhausted, both brutalized and redeemed. Kafu's compelling tale takes readers from the intimate corners of the geisha house to the back rooms of assignation, from the dressing areas of the great kabuki theaters to the lonely country villa of a theater critic and connoisseur of Shimbashi women. His lush depictions of architecture and costumes and his incisive descriptions of urban life and individual motive provide a vivid backdrop for Komayo's struggle-one woman's absorbing quest to find fame, affection, and financial security in the refined but ruthless theater of Shimbashi.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Nagai's Udekurabe, translated as Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale, may not be as famous in the West as Snow Countryor Memoirs of a Geisha, but it is just as powerful as Yasunari Kawabata's story and far superior to Arthur Golden's. Set in the entertainment district of Shimbashi, Tokyo, during Taisho-era Japan, this work, originally serialized in 1918, follows the varying fortunes of Komayo, a talented geisha who must navigate the complex world of rival geisha houses and their patrons. Nagai writes with surprising frankness and an impeccable eye for detail, drawing outsiders into the ritualized and esoteric world of the geisha while simultaneously showing the degradation the women must suffer for their profession. This new translation by Snyder (Japanese, Middlebury Coll.) successfully transforms Nagai's Taisho-era Japanese into flowing modern English. Based on an unexpurgated version of the Japanese text published in the 1950s, this version contains passages and scenes not previously available in English. Unfortunately, general readers will have some trouble because the book lacks a glossary defining specific Japanese terms that Snyder does not translate. Nonetheless, this is a good choice for literature in translation or Asia collections at larger public and academic libraries.
—Andrew Weiss

Kirkus Reviews
The first complete English translation of Kafu's 1918 portrait of geisha life is historically gripping, if not quite dramatically so. Recently widowed Komayo has returned to Tokyo to take up the only livelihood she knows, the profession of geisha. Lovely, in her mid-20s, she hits on a bit of luck when she runs into Yoshioka at the theater. He's now a successful businessman. Komayo was Yoshioka's first encounter with a geisha back in his student days. Still enchanted with her, he wants to reestablish their connection. It is not long before Yoshioka becomes her patron, a euphemism tangled in the complex economic and social structure of geisha life. Though ostensibly hostesses, geisha are financially indebted to the house that represents them (for their costly wardrobes and board), and the only feasible way to be released from contract is to acquire a patron who will hopefully buy it. Sexual favors are traded for patronage, and the geisha will hedge her bets by having a number of patrons, hoping one will repay the debt, in effect creating a life of limited, genteel prostitution. Away on holiday Komayo meets Segawa, a rising star on the stage, and the two begin a love affair. She tries to keep Segawa a secret, but soon Yoshioka finds out and begins to plot her humiliation. Meanwhile, Komayo becomes involved with a grotesque antiques dealer, whose patronage helps pay for the increasing expenses Komayo incurs in gifts for Segawa. Into these complications come the rivals of the novel's title-other geishas who steal the attention of Yoshioka and Segawa. Originally serialized, the novel detours into the lives of those in the Shimbashi geisha district of 1912, offering for view the hangers-on, hackwriters, men of power and the waitresses and attendants who serve the geisha, in effect shaping a beautifully realized portrait of this significant Japanese subculture. There is a bit of the cultural expansiveness of Dickens or Zola here, and if Komayo's dilemma feels a bit light to a modern sensibility, Kafu creates a world around her that is fascinating to behold.
Booklist (starred review)
An awesomely economical and incisive writer, Nagai packs this short novel with incident and astonishingly thorough characterizations.
Taipei Times
Snyder is to be thanked both for translating this half-forgotten novel... and for doing it so compellingly.

— Bradley Winterton

Booklist
An awesomely economical and incisive writer, Nagai packs this short novel with incident and astonishingly thorough characterizations.
James Dorsey
Portraits of Japanese geisha most often present these women either as tragic victims of oppressive institutions catering to male sexual desire or as sexually empowered entrepreneurs navigating a harsh reality. In Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale, Nagai Kafu introduces us to an altogether different geisha. Because Komayo's story is not offered as an allegory for a woman's place in a man's world, she emerges as a vivid, complex character fiercely resistant to narrow-minded moralizing and simplistic glorification. Her tale pulls readers into a far more compelling world—that of messy, inconsistent, and irreconcilable human attitudes toward love, sex, power, and performance.
Ann Sherif
Nagai Kafu's novel is powerfully observed, exposing the tension between the elegant surface of the geisha districts and the sexual hierarchy that unfolds behind closed doors between the geisha and their patrons. Stephen Snyder's sensitive and smooth translation draws the reader into a sometimes outrageous, sometimes alluring world. An important corrective to the romanticized and exoticizing Hollywood versions of the geisha experience.
Ken K. Ito
Now we have a complete translation of Rivalry, Nagai Kafu's novel about the couplings and calculations in the world of geisha. The inclusion of the sexually explicit scenes left out in the prior translation makes this version funnier and infinitely tougher. Komayo's distress in the final chapters can only be comprehended if we know the full demands she faces as a geisha.
Taipei Times - Bradley Winterton
Snyder is to be thanked both for translating this half-forgotten novel... and for doing it so compellingly.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231141185
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 9/14/2007
  • Series: Japanese Studies Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 184
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) was a Japanese novelist whose translated works include Autumn Wind and Other Stories, American Stories, and Durgaing the Rains and Flowers in the Shades: Two Novellas.

Stephen Snyder teaches Japanese language and literature at Middlebury College. He is the author of Fictions of Desire: Narrative Form in the Novels of Nagai Kafu and coeditor of Oe and Beyond: Studies in Contemporary Japanese Literature.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents


Introduction     vii
Intermission     1
A Real Gem     8
Dayflowers     14
Welcoming Fires     22
A Dream in the Daylight     33
The Actor's Seal     43
Afterglow     48
Crimes in Bed     55
The Autumn Review     64
Box Seat     69
The Kikuobana     78
Rain on an Autumn Night     92
The Road Home     103
Asakusa     111
At the Gishun     119
Opening Day (I)     125
Opening Day (II)     131
Yesterday and Today     136
Yasuna     144
The Morning Bath     148
Turmoil     155
One Thing or Another     160
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