An Evening Conversation
by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
"One can't be too careful these days. Even Wada's taken up with a geisha."
Fujii, a lawyer, drained his cup of laojiu, and, with an exaggerated flourish, looked around at the faces of his listeners. Sitting at the table were the six of us, middle-aged men who had once lived in the same school dormitory. It was a rainy evening in June, on the second floor of the Tototei in Hibiya. I need hardly say that by the time Fujii had made this remark, his cheeks, as well as our own, were ruddy with drink.
"Having made that shocking discovery," he continued to declaim, apparently warming to the subject, "I was struck by how times have changed. Back in the days when Wada was studying medicine, he was a judo champion, a ringleader in the room-and-board protests, a great admirer of Livingstone, and the sort of stoic who could go coatless in the dead of winter. In other words, he was quite the dashing young man, was he not? The very idea that he would become acquainted with a geisha! And apparently she's from Yanagibashi and goes by the name of Koen."
"Have you changed your drinking haunts?"
This shot from the dark came from Iinuma, a bank branch manager.
"Changed drinking haunts? Why do you ask?"
"Didn't you take him to wherever it was? Wasn't it then that he met this geisha?"
"Now let's not jump rashly to conclusions! Who said anything about taking Wada anywhere?"
Fujii haughtily arched his eyebrows.
"It was - let me see - what day last month? In any case, it was on a Monday or a Tuesday. I hadn't seen Wada in some time. He suggested going to Asakusa. Now, mind you, I'm not that keen on Asakusa, but as I was with an old friend, I immediately agreed. We set out in broad daylight for Rokku . . ."
"And you met her in the cinema?" I interrupted.
"That would have been preferable. As it happened, it was at the merry-go-round. And to make matters worse, we each wound up astride a wooden horse. Looking back, I'm struck by the absurdity of it all! I didn't suggest it, but he was so eager . . . Riding a merry-go-round isn't easy. Someone like you, Noguchi, with your weak stomach, should stay off altogether."
"We're not children. Who at our age would ride a merry-go-round?" remarked Noguchi, a university professor. He laughed scornfully, his mouth full of Songhua eggs, but Fujii continued nonchalantly, glancing occasionally at Wada, a look of triumph in his eyes.
"Wada sat on a white horse; mine was red. What is this? I thought, as we began to go around in time with the band. My rump was dancing, my eyes were spinning, and it was only quite fortuitously that I did not go tumbling off. But then I saw that outside the railing there was a woman in the crowd who appeared to be a geisha. With pale skin and moist eyes, she had a strange air of melancholy about her."
"At least you were in such a state as to understand that much," interjected Iinuma. "Your claim to dizziness sounds a bit dubious."
"Am I not telling you what I saw in the midst of it? Her hair was, of course, drawn up into a ginkgo-leaf bun, and she was wearing a pale-blue striped serge kimono, with some sort of multipatterned obi. In any case, there she stood, a woman as delicately lovely as one might imagine in any illustration from a novel set in the demimonde.
"And now what do you suppose occurred? She happened to catch my eye and offered me an exquisitely demure smile. Uh-oh! I thought to myself, but it was already too late. We were still riding our horses, and before I knew it, we had turned, so that all I had in front of my red wooden mount was that blasted music band."
We all burst out laughing.
"The next time round, she smiled again - but then was gone. And after that it was nothing but the jumping horses and the bouncing coaches - or else the trumpeting bugles and banging drums . . . I turned the matter over in my mind and thought that this was a fitting symbol of life. Our all-too-real humdrum existence puts us on a merry-go-round, and when perchance we encounter 'happiness,' it passes us by ere we can grasp it. If we really wish to seize the opportunity, we should jump off . . ."
"Jump off? Oh, surely not . . ."
This was said mockingly by Kimura, head of engineering at an electric company.
"Don't be ridiculous!" protested Fujii. "Philosophy is philosophy; life is life . . . But now imagine that as I was mulling it over, I came round the third time, when it suddenly dawned on me, much to my astonishment, that it was not, alas, I at whom she had smiled but rather, yes, that same room-and-board protest ringleader and Livingstone admirer, ETC. ETC: Wada Ryohei, M.D."
"Still, it's fortunate you weren't so philosophically consistent as to leap off after all."
Normally taciturn Noguchi chimed in with his own joke. Fujii, however, was zealously forging ahead.
"And when the woman appeared before that Wada, he took great delight in bowing to her, though as he was still astride his white horse, he could only do so timorously, so that it was really only his dangling necktie that did the honors."
"Nothing but a pack of lies!"
Wada had at last broken his silence. For some time now he had been imbibing laojiu, a wry smile on his face.
"What? How should I be telling lies?" retorted Fujii. "And that was the least of it. When we finally got off the merry-go-round, I found Wada chatting with her, as though suddenly quite oblivious to my very existence. 'Sensei, Sensei!' she kept saying . . . And there I was, left holding the sack."
"Indeed!" said Iinuma, extending a silver spoon into the large pot of shark fin soup as he glanced toward Wada sitting next to him. "A most curious story . . . Look, old man, in light of what we've heard, I'd say that you're the one to be treating us all tonight!"
"Nonsense! That woman is the mistress of a friend of mine."
Wada was leaning on both elbows as he spat out these words. As seen from across the table, he was more swarthy than the rest of us, and his features were hardly those of an urbanite. Moreover, his closely cropped head was solid as a rock. In an interschool competition, he had once felled five opponents despite a sprained left elbow. For all of his accommodation to current fashion, with his dark suit and striped trousers, there clearly lingered something of the titan from days gone by.
"Iinuma! Is she your mistress?"
Fujii posed the question with a tipsy grin, though without looking Iinuma directly in the eye.
"Perhaps she is." Iinuma coolly parried the thrust and turned once more to Wada. "Who is this friend of yours?"
"The businessman Wakatsuki . . . Isn't there someone here who knows him? He graduated from Keio, it seems, and now works in his own bank. He's about our age. He's light complexioned and has a gentle sort of look. Sports a short beard . . . In a word, a handsome man with, one may expect, a keen appreciation for the finer things of life."
As I had just been to a play with that same businessman four or five days before, I now entered the fray myself.
"Wakatsuki Minetaro? The haiku poet who goes by the nom de plume of Seigai?"
"That's right. He's published Seigai-kushul . . . He's Koen's patron - or rather was until two months ago. They've now made a clean break of it."
"What? So this Wakatsuki fellow . . ."
"He and I were classmates in middle school," said Wada.
"Well, well," exclaimed Fujii merrily, there's more to you than I thought. Quite behind our backs, you and your middle-school chum have been off plucking the flowers and climbing the willow tree!"
"Nonsense! I met her when she came to the university hospital. I was simply doing Wakatsuki a bit of a favor. She was having some sort of operation for sinusitis . . ."
Wada took another sip of laojiu, a strangely contemplative look in his eyes.
"But, you know, that woman is an interesting one . . ."
"Are you smitten with her?" asked Kimura, quietly teasing him.
"Perhaps I am indeed - and perhaps not in the least. But what I should like to talk about is her relationship with Wakatsuki."
Having provided his remarks with this preface, Wada issued what was for him an unusual burst of oratorical eloquence.
"Just as Fujii has said, I recently ran into Koen. I was surprised as we talked to learn that she had ended her liaison with Wakatsuki some two months before. When I asked her why, she gave me nothing that could be called a reply, though she said with a lonely sort of smile that she had never been the person of refinement that Wakatsuki is.
"I had already pried enough and so took my leave. But then just yesterday . . . in the afternoon . . . It was raining, as you all remember, and just as it was coming down hardest, I received a note from Wakatsuki, asking me whether I might come round for a bite to eat. Having some time on my hands as well, I arrived early at his house and found him, as always, in his stylish six-mat study, quietly reading.
"I am, as you see, a barbarian, with not the slightest notion of refinement. Yet whenever I enter that library of his, I get some sort of inkling of what it's like to live the artistic life. For one thing, an old scroll hangs in the alcove - and the flower vases are always full. There are shelves of books in Japanese and, next to these, shelves of books in Western languages. To top it off, next to an elegant desk, he sometimes displays a shamisen. And then, of course, there is Wakatsuki himself, cutting a dashingly sophisticated figure, as though having stepped forth from some sort of up-to-date ukiyoe print. Yesterday too he was wearing a strange garment, and when I asked him about it, what do you think he called it? A chanpa! Now I can lay claim to a wide circle of friends, but I don't suppose there is anyone other than Wakatsuki who wears such a thing . . . Anyway, that certainly typifies his entire way of living.
"As we were filling each other's cups before dining, he told about Koen. She had, it appeared, another lover, but that was, he said, not particularly surprising. No, but the man in question, it turned out, was a lowly ballad recitation apprentice.
"Hearing this, my friends, you will find it impossible not to laugh at Koen's folly. At the time, not even a bitter smile would have passed my own face.
"You will, of course, not be aware of it, but Koen over the last three years has benefited greatly from what Wakatsuki has done for her. He provided not only for her mother but also for her younger sister. He saw to it that she was trained in reading and writing, in the traditional performing arts, and in whatever happened to strike her fancy. Koen had been granted a dancing name by one of the masters. She is also said to be preeminent among Yanagibashi geisha for the nagauta. She can compose hokku and is a skillful kana calligrapher in the Chikage style. And that is again thanks to Wakatsuki . . . As I knew all this, I could not help feeling, I am sure more than any of you, utterly dumbfounded by the absurdity of it all.
"Wakatsuki told me that he had given no great thought to the breaking of ties with the woman. And yet he said that he had spared no effort in supporting her education and shown understanding for whatever it was she wished to do. He had sought to train her as a woman of broad interests and tastes . . . Such had been his hopes, and now they had been dashed. If she had to take up with a man, it should hardly be a balladeer. If even after all manner of devotion to performance art, a person's fundamental character has not improved, it is truly a loathsome thing . . .
"Wakatsuki went on to say that over the last half year, the woman had also become prone to hysterical fits. For a time, she would exclaim - 'Today I have played the shamisen for the last time!' - or some such and then burst into childish tears. And when again he asked why she was weeping, she would argue quite irrationally that he did not love her and that that was why he was having her trained in music and dancing. At such times, she gave no indication of hearing anything he had to say but instead would merely bitterly and endlessly accuse him of heartlessness. Eventually, of course, such paroxysms would cease, the entire episode made a laughing matter.
"Wakatsuki also said that he had heard that Koen's lover, the ballad singer, was an unmanageable ruffian. When a waitress in a chicken-brochette restaurant with whom he had a liaison took up with someone new, he seems to have got himself into quite a scuffle with the woman, causing her considerable injury. Wakatsuki had also heard various ugly rumors about the man: that he had been involved in a failed double-suicide pact, that he had eloped with the daughter of an arts teacher . . . What possible discernment on Koen's part, he asked, could be seen in her willingness to become involved with someone like this . . .?
"As I have said, I could not help feeling disgusted at Koen's dissolute conduct. And yet as I listened to Wakatsuki, I felt a growing sympathy for her. Of course, it may well be that in him she had a patron of a sophistication that is quite rare in today's world. And yet did he not himself admit that separating from her was of no consequence to him? Even if we assume that in saying so he was endeavoring to spare himself humiliation, it is clear that he felt no fierce passion for her. Now 'fierce' is the word to describe the balladeer, who, out of sheer odium for the heartlessness of a woman, inflicted serious bodily injury on her. Putting myself in Koen's place, I think it perfectly natural that she would fall for the vulgar but passionate balladeer over the cultured but phlegmatic Wakatsuki. The fact that he had her trained in all the arts is evidence that he had no love for her. In all of this, I saw something more than hysteria: between the two, I detected a chasmic difference in perception.
"Yet I do not intend to bestow for her sake my blessing on the liaison with the balladeer. No one can say whether or not she will achieve happiness . . . But if unhappiness is the result, then the curse should fall not on the other man but rather on Seigai the Sophisticate for driving her into his arms.
"Now Wakatsuki, like the men of the world he personifies, may, as individuals, be charming and lovable. They understand Basho; they understand Tolstoy. They understand Ike no Taiga and Mushanokoji Saneatsu. They understand Karl Marx. Yet what is the result? Of fierce love, the joy of fierce creativity, or fierce moral passion they are ignorant. All in all, they know nothing of the sheer intensity of spirit that can render this world sublime. And if they are marked by a mortal wound, they surely also contain a pernicious poison. One of its properties is direct, enabling it to transform ordinary human beings into sophisticates; another works by way of reaction, making them all the more common. Someone such as Koen is a case in point, is she not?
"As we know from time immemorial, thirst will drive one to drink even from muddy water. That is to say, if Koen had not been in Wakatsuki's milieu, she might not have wound up with the balladeer.
"If, on the other hand, she finds happiness . . . Well now, I suppose to the extent that she has her new lover in place of Wakatsuki, she has already found it. What was it that Fujii said just now? We all find ourselves riding the same merry-go-round of life and, at some moment as we turn, encounter 'happiness,' only to have it pass us by in the very moment that we reach out for it. If such is truly our desire, we should jump off . . . Koen has, as it were, dared to do just that. Such fierce joy and sorrow is something that the likes of Wakatsuki and other men of the world do not know. As I contemplate life's value, I shall willingly spit on one hundred Wakatsukis, even as I honor and revere a single Koen.
"What say you all to that?"
Wada's tipsy eyes shone round the silent room, but Fujii at some point had put his head down on the table and was now blissfully and soundly asleep.
End of An Evening Conversation by Ryunosuke Akutagawa