One of the finest literary descriptions of a nation caught in the grip of martial hysteria was produced by Ishikawa Jun (1899-1987), a Japanese writer widely read in modern European, Edo period Japanese, and classical Chinese literature, and translator of Andre Gide, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and others. Winner, in 1936, of the Akutagawa Prize for a story about intellectuals living on the fringe of Japanese society, Ishikawa was an unaffiliated leftist with the anti-authoritarian temperament of an anarchist. It was thus fitting that his short story Marusu no uta (The Song of Mars), published in the January 1938 issue of the literary journal Bungakkai, was banned on the grounds of “fomenting antimilitary and antiwar thought.”
In finely wrought sentences, by turns flowing and concise, The Song of Mars tells of a season–autumn 1937–usurped by militarism, presided over by the nationalistic incarnation of Mount Fuji, and dominated by the implacable blaring of a war song, “Mars.” Beginning and ending at dusk, it is largely a story about sanity’s twilight. An agent and the symbol of the ascendant lunacy is the ubiquitous song whose hypnotic effect on the populace transforms them into enthusiastic instruments of state power. Representing governmental ability to sway emotionally a majority of the governed into supporting its policies, the belligerent anthem replaces reason and intellect by patriotic frenzy. Its very mention provokes a conditioned response, reducing those affected to feverishly babbling automata. Presented literally as a loathsome air pollutant, the militarist song is a noxious miasma “blasting trees throughout the city, asphyxiating chickens and dogs,” and sapping the human will to resist officially decreed madness.
One of the seemingly few who remain impervious to the siren song is the story’s narrator, a novelist struggling to preserve his sanity against a deranged environment. Revolted by the mindless euphoria and acquiescence to regimentation which surround him, he is equally disgusted by his own powerlessness to offer forceful and effective resistance. With his active opposition limited to spasmodic shouts of angry defiance, a refusal to act as a moral watchdog, and an exhortation to a conscript to return from the war alive, he is painfully aware of the inadequacy of his response to the crisis but can manage no other. A refractory intellectual clinging to thought when relinquishing it is mandatory, he finds his only relief from spiritual suffocation in escape, retreating into both spatial and temporal isolation. This he achieves by doing his best to cut himself off from the surroundings whenever “Mars” and the concomitant drivel come within earshot, and by engrossing himself in the comic poetry of the Edo period masters, men who lived unvanquished in a similarly oppressive era.
Paralleling and underscoring the figurative suffocation that pervades the narrative is an incident of literal asphyxiation which takes the life of Fuyuko, a young woman fond of toying with danger. Infatuated by the Western dramatic narratives she loves, Fuyuko indulges in seemingly safe adventurism which unexpectedly ends in self-inflicted death. In the absurdity of her morbid playacting a reader may discern a satirical allegory of Japan’s own reckless course of action, while the inadvertent suicide may be seen as a prognostic warning that emulating Western adventurism will lead to self-destruction. Just as Fuyuko never suspects that playing with kitchen gas will kill her, so the population fails to perceive the menace inherent in the intoxicating atmosphere symbolized and stimulated by the song of Mars. The link between the two equally pernicious fumes is confirmed by a loquacious guest speaking of Fuyuko at her funeral:
Placed into a certain situation, individual will and emotions are rendered powerless. Even if those affected should desire to break free, they might well find themselves unable to. A popular song sweeping through the streets is a case in point. Within the swirl of its popularity, everyone is strung together.
Targeting more than the ominous domestic impact of subservience and delusion, the author also expresses outrage at the closely related exercise of terror overseas where the same government that is manipulating minds at home is simultaneously carrying out murderous repression. This is most graphically shown in the description of a news film the protagonist stumbles upon in search of respite from the odious song:
I blinked up at the screen where a gigantic warship was thrusting its long gun barrels over the sunlit water: the guns seeming just to have fired, their smug muzzles coolly trailed soft wisps of whitest smoke which slenderly rose and dissipated. For an instant, the smoke impressed me as very tranquil, like puffs from the pipe of an old man basking in the sunshine, but I realized with a start it was precisely in such feigned innocence the bombardment’s ghastliness resided. The scene changed to a village by the waterside lined with willows and semidemolished farmhouses in front of which a troop of smiling young men stood around an older man seated on a chair, his ample beard swaying with laughter as he thrust both arms before him to press his sinewy hands over the small heads of two children whose nationality decidedly differed from that of the men. It certainly seemed a peaceable sight. And yet, the faces of the two children, surrounded by the native landscape and the aliens’ laughter, remained absolutely expressionless. In trapped silence, they were shrieking a categorical NO! Ah, faced with their NO! how feeble mine sounds.
In reproducing a few seconds of film, Ishikawa brilliantly sums up a war of indiscriminate destruction, savage pacification, and beaming amity staged for home consumption. The episode forms a trenchant critique of modern aggressive warfare which Ishikawa correctly perceives as entailing not only massive devastation but invariable efforts to present the slaughter and oppression as motivated by benevolence and love of peace. Under such circumstances it is not incongruous for smug victors to pose gleefully as protectors of the very people whose homes they have destroyed and whose relatives they have killed. Since the author, however, refuses to accept the convenient pretense that the conquered are children in need of paternal care, the spectacle of the officer’s muscular hands resting on native heads loses its benign aspect, becoming instead a potent image of gross offense against human dignity.
About the prospects of stopping the domestic and overseas madness, the author is less than sanguine. Although his last sentence quoted above suggests that both the Chinese and the narrator–an independent-minded Japanese intellectual–are confronting the same enemy, it also reveals the latter’s relative impotence to oppose the common adversary. Nor is there much sign of opposition from his compatriots, many of whom are sent with astonishing ease to kill and die:
A small slip of paper, a flimsy red strip of rough, low-quality paper, quivered between the fingers of his right hand. It was the fateful slip of paper by which at present the young men of this country are rounded up without distinction to be sucked up into the chorus of the Song of Mars and driven to faraway fields reeking of gunpowder smoke.
Those conscripted, like Fuyuko’s bereaved husband, typically respond with resigned acquiescence, directing their efforts merely toward tasting life’s joy for the final time. There is an eerie normalcy amidst the madness, causing many to behave as though nothing calamitous were going on:
The very fact that no one’s behavior was particularly eccentric, bizarre, inscrutable, or anything other than commonplace, made the strangeness of the resulting tableau all the more strange. Thrust into the season of the Song of Mars, did people’s shadows slip away from their proper places?
Divested of capacity for thought, people are demoted to the level of unreflecting animals: fish, dogs, dolphins. Nevertheless, a thirst for thought persists unextinguished in some quarters, and with it a hope of sanity’s recovery.
If despite its pessimism Ishikawa’s story remains largely free from gloom, this is thanks to the beauty of its style–a blend of late Edo and modernist idiom–and its humor. Amusingly mocking the official penchant for secrecy, references to “a certain newspaper,” “a certain girls’ school” and the like dot the narrative, leading up to the ultimate in confidential information:
“Listen, this is an absolute secret: know how many nails it takes to make a pair of infantryman’s shoes?”
Ishikawa Jun’s overt literary resistance began and ended with The Song of Mars. After its banning, he turned to less controversial writing and immersed himself in continued study of Edo literature. The Song of Mars, a wittily incisive expression of moral and aesthetic revolt against dehumanization and injustice, continues to be recognized as a splendid example of art striking at malevolent power through irony.
A final note: Although the late 1930s Japan was awash in the red white and khaki of flags and uniforms, and resounding with martial music (some of it strongly reminiscent of John Philip Sousa’s marches), none of the many patriotic songs was actually named after the Roman god of war. That was an invention of Ishikawa Jun.
Click here to read Song of Mars.
ZELJKO CIPRIS can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org