Read The Tale of Genji also. Fumiko's novel has a lot to do with it.
"A woman’s love is quick to turn into a passion for revenge—an obsession that becomes an endless river of blood, flowing on from generation to generation."
Fumiko Enchi’s novel Masks uses allusions to Noh theatre and Heian literature to create a timeless atmosphere of revenge, ancestry, and repetition. References to Murasaki Shibiku’s The Tale of Genji and Zeami’s play “The Shrine in the Fields” link the story to Japanese history, establishing similarities between antiquity and modernity. Enchi’s message of female rage and retribution is framed by the history surrounding these allusions. The characters’ actions form a cycle that extends back into ancient times, as relevant and bloody now as it was then.
Masks, which takes place in the mid-twentieth century, follows the widow Mieko Togano’s machinations towards vengeance and resolution. Mieko’s complicated web of deceit is woven around her daughter Harume, her widowed daughter-in-law Yasuko, and the two hapless men in love with Yasuko, Ibuki, and Mikame. Just as The Tale of Genji focuses on Prince Genji while actually telling the story of the many women in his life, the thoughts and actions of Ibuki and Mikame form the bulk of Masks. Their stories, however, merely function to relate Mieko’s unfolding identities and intentions.
From what is read in the literature of the era, the Heian period in Japan (AD 794–1186) was a time of unusual autonomy for women.1 Power in the Heian court was attained not by coups d’état or waging battles but through excellence in the arts of poetry and prose writing. Complicated games of wit and favor surrounded the Emperor and Empress, and those who succeeded at these games found fortune in the court. During this time, women were literate and educated. Female writers produced some of the earliest known works of prose, including Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Murasaki Shibiku’s The Tale of Genji. Polyamorous behavior was practiced by both genders; men and women had many lovers, even after marriage. Virginity was not considered a virtue or an issue. The matter of bearing children—heirs to the family name—was often wrought with intrigue and mistaken paternity.
This history of feminine oppression enables the relevance of Masks. As a young bride, Mieko Togano suffers a miscarriage as a result of her husband’s mistress’s personal revenge against the household. The mistress leaves a stray nail where she knows it will trip Mieko, who falls and loses her first pregnancy. Mieko’s response is as subversive and secreted as that of a lady of the Heian court or a samurai’s wife. Instead of divorcing her husband—an option she is given—Mieko embarks upon a lifelong project of revenge and personal cleansing.
She conceives twins by another man, who is never identified in the novel. The male twin, Akio, is raised as the Togano heir; the female, Harume, mentally damaged by her brother’s feet in the womb, is sent away. As an adult, Akio marries Yasuko, and then promptly dies in a mountaineering accident. Harume returns to the Togano residence after her brother’s death and lives there with the widowed Mieko and Yasuko. The three women in the ancestral Togano home are linked only through Mieko—none of them are truly Toganos, although they all carry the name and live on the family money.
Each of the three sections of Masks is named after a mask used in Noh theatre, a highly ritualized Japanese traditional form. The first title, “Ryo no Onna,” refers to a Noh mask that Mieko, Yasuko, Ibuki, and Mikame view in the first section. The quartet are visiting the home of the Yakushiji family, viewing an extensive collection of Noh masks and costumes. The Ryo no Onna mask is brought out at the insistence of the absent, infirm father of the family. The mask, described as “a national treasure,” depicts a calm face wearing a mysterious expression. Afterwards, in conversation with Ibuki, Yasuko muses:
The sight of it rather frightened me. I couldn’t help thinking that the one person meant to see those Masks must be my own mother-in-law, not because she sees Noh performed so often or because she can appreciate the artistry of the Masks, but because of the look of utter tranquility they have—a deeply inward sort of look. I think Japanese women long ago must have had that look. And it seems to me she must be one of the last women who lives that way still—like the Masks—with her deepest energies turned inward (Enchi 26).
The Ryo no Onna mask is a face with a secret that it has no intention of revealing. It represents Mieko as she appears to those around her, as well as to the readers, in the first chapter.
The second section, “Masugami,” begins with a quote: “This mask forms a unique type, that of a young woman in a state of frenzy” (Enchi 61). The Masugami mask itself depicts a face with unfocused eyes and a mouth turned up into a hesitant smile that could easily become a wince. It is a look of constant confusion (nohmask.net). The Masugami mask is Harume, who becomes a major character in this section. In the first part of the book, Harume exists only in the conversations and memories of others, a beautiful, silent face alluring to men and upsetting to women. “Masugami” explores the inner world of the Togano household. Harume has returned to live with her mother and Yasuko. She drifts around the household, cared for by the maid Yu, sometimes turning violent but mostly placid. Harume is beautiful but empty, her moods are that of an infant. She possesses a unique melancholy magnetism that both repels and attracts those around her.
The final section, “Fukai,” is named after a mask that Yorihito Yakushiji’s daughter presents to Mieko after
her father’s death. Its appearance is sad and aged; it shows “the somber and grief-laden look of a woman long past the age of sensuality” (Enchi 138). When Yasuko asks about the meaning of the mask’s name, Toe Yakushiji replies that it translates to “deep well” or “deep woman” and that her father had his own interpretation of the Fukai mask. “He liked to think of it as a metaphor comparing the heart of an older woman to the depths of a bottomless well—a well so deep that its water would seem totally without color” (Enchi 138). Fukai seems a symbol for what Mieko has become at the end of the novel, and what Yasuko may be someday.
The three masks that form the structure of the book depict different characters; they also depict three stages in the life of a woman. The Noh masks are deceptively simple images of the complex emotions and experiences of a woman’s life. The secretive nature of the Fukai and Ryo no Onna masks contrasts sharply with the open fervor of the Masugami. By using these masks at the titles of her chapters, Enchi creates an atmosphere of illusion and layered identities, leaving the reader guessing about what lays under Mieko’s many masks.
Read more in the links below.