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Book Review: Vita Sexualis (Tuttle Classics) by Ogai Mori

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The very first thing that is mentioned about Ogai Mori’s 1909 published novel, Vita Sexualis, is that it was banned three weeks after publication. I find this amusing since the book is bereft of sex, and more about the burgeoning curiosity about it. All this is fine, and actually makes for an interesting read, albeit readers looking for steamy scenes are likely to be disappointed. Yet, those who know where to find them are not going to be sifting through a Japanese novel published in 1909.

Vita Sexualis has much in common with Ogai’s other novel, The Wild Geese, in terms of execution — both books are spare in their storytelling and focus on small moments of insight to resonate both character development and the narrative. As the book opens, we are informed of the narrator: “Mr. Shizuka Kanai is a philosopher by profession.” While the opening chapter is in third person, the book then shifts to the first, and interestingly Ogai follows a format where each chapter begins with every age of the professor, starting at six. The chapters are short, and more like scenes, similar to what Evan S. Connell uses in his excellent character novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge.

There are also humorous moments present, as when the professor reaches the age of ten he describes looking at several erotic drawings:

“While I kept glancing at them over and over again, some doubts occurred. One part of the body was drawn with extreme exaggeration. When I was much younger, it had been quite natural for me to think that this part of the body was a leg when it actually wasn’t.” 

Much of the sexual references are imbued throughout the text, and the narrator never actually speaks the name of any specific body parts that piques his curiosity. Granted, the humor doesn’t compare to the best of Soseki (Botchan, Sanshiro and I am a Cat are all hilarious) since Ogai doesn’t sustain it throughout most of the narrative. But perhaps what some will find odd is the narrator’s disinterest towards all things sexual. He notices, and he comments, but he never really participates in it — or if he has, he is not going to share it with the readers.

Like all first person accounts, readers must assume that the narrator is perhaps not completely unreliable, but clearly someone who slants things in his favor. For example, when Kanai is sent away to school at the age of 13, he learns of the different types of groups males are lumped in — the “mashers” and the “queers.” And whenever speaking of sexual desire, it always done in a distant way, rather than personal:

“When I consider the question of sexual desire, my fellow students in those days consisted of the ‘mashers,’ who were dandies and affected elegance of dress and manner, and the ‘queers,’ who were more manly and casual in their dress. The mashers belonged to that group which enjoyed looking at those strange drawings I’ve already mentioned.”

Given when this novel is published, the homoerotic undertones likely played a role in the banning of the book. Whether or not this is a force behind the character isn’t really said, but implied. He eventually graduates without having had any sexual encounters with women, but he continues to speak of women and what they represent, even in a more distant manner than one might expect. (He even at one point addresses his thoughts on marriage, but does so without any sentimentality.) And while there are moments of philosophical observation, one would think there would be a bit more from a philosophy professor. As example, he has an interesting digression on “self-vindication” and how it relates to writing and art: “I don’t believe any work of art can escape the label ‘self vindication.’ For man’s life is his attempt at vindicating himself. For the life of each and every living creature is a self-vindication.”

Vita Sexualis is not a great novel, but one can see how it helped pave the way for later (and better) works by Tanizaki and his many recurring male protagonists with foot fetishes. Vita Sexualis succeeds at showing the “moral struggles” during the decline of the Meiji Era — a decline which resulted in the eventual shift towards a more Westernized thought and influence throughout Japan. Yet despite its title, Vita Sexualis is more a novel about inhibition and observation than exploration. In other words, while it might have been risqué in its day, it is far from that now.

As noted in my review of The Wild Geese, Ogai is an important writer to pursue, especially for those looking to the early influences of later writers like Tanizaki and Kawabata. From what I have seen thus far, I would still rank him below Soseki, but hopefully in time more of his works will become available in English.

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