The Game of Contemporaneity (Игры современников, 同時代ゲーム) by Kenzaburō Ōe

IgryOeThe title of Kenzaburō Ōe’s 1979 novel Dōjidai Gemu has been translated in a variety of ways. In Vladimir Grivnin’s Russian translation that I have read the book is called The Games of Contemporaries, but I have decided to keep The Game of Contemporaneity as the default title here for the simple pragmatic reason that it’s the one most often used in the English-language secondary sources. The Russian version of The Game is a mixed blessing. Of course, I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to read what is considered one of the Nobel Prize laureate’s best novels, but the fact that it was translated in 1987, when the Soviet Union still existed, inexorably means that a lot of “controversial” content (mostly related to sex) has either been toned down or left untranslated. To give you one telling example, let me get straight to the episode of the incestuous encounter between the narrator/protagonist Tsuyuki and his twin sister Tsuyumi. The narrator tries to rape his naked, drug-befuddled sister in the pantry room of the Shinto temple where the chief priest, their father, has been instructing them since early childhood. Tsuyuki has been sexually obsessed with his sister for a long time now, but there is more to his actions than the mere pursuit of gratification; by committing the ugly transgression, the brother hopes to avoid the destiny prepared for them by the father/priest: the boy is to record the myths and legends of his native village and the girl is to become the priestess of the supernatural entity known as the Destroyer, who is the culture hero in the local lore. It is hard to tell what exactly happens between them, but only if you read the Russian translation. The reader is left hanging with the following sentence: “ты вначале сопротивлялась исполнению моего постыдного плана, но в конце концов пришла мне на помощь” (“at first, you resisted the realisation of my shameful plan but, in the end, you came to my aid”). I have managed to find a more faithful translation in Michiko N. Wilson’s study The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo, which has been very helpful to me in writing this review. Only thanks to this brief quotation provided in a scholarly monograph did I learn what had really happened: “When you realized what I wanted, you changed the tactics of resistance. Extending one arm lithely behind, you held my penis gently in your hand and made me ejaculate.” As it turns out, she gives him a hand job, preventing him from having full-on incestual intercourse with her and thus inadvertently foiling his plan to release him and her from the obligations imposed by the father/priest. Although I promised you just one example, let me cite another quotation from Wilson’s book to cement my point. This is a description of the narrator’s sexual encounter with another woman: “As my belly touched her buttocks which were twisted slightly to the left, I inserted my penis. In a slow thrust my right hand stroked time after time the spot where the vagina held the penis in between and over the mound of Venus, the way a woman caresses her own vagina.” There is nothing even remotely similar in the Russian translation, of course. What is more, I have no idea who this woman is and when the main character has this affair because it is not to be found in the book I have read. Yes, the whole thing has been either removed from the final translation or not translated at all! It is on page 251 of a Japanese edition (I couldn’t find which one), so if you know Japanese and have the book, please tell me what’s going on there! Although the knowledge of having read a bowdlerised version of the text does not add much enthusiasm to my effort, I will try my best to write a passable review of this important novel. Fortunately for us, the detailed descriptions of sexual encounters are not paramount for its appreciation. It has a lot more to offer.

Dōjidai_GemuAs Michiko N. Wilson points out, the main inspiration for the novel came to Ōe when he travelled to Mexico in 1976 as a visiting professor and discovered the sophisticated grandiosity of Diego Rivera’s murals. The writer was particularly impressed by the 15.6-metre long Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central. The mural represents various characters from the 400 years of Mexican history strolling together through the Alameda Central Park in Mexico City. Among the historical figures participating in this outlandish walk are Hernán Cortés, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Benito Juárez, Porfirio Díaz, José Guadalupe Posada, Frida Kahlo, and the artist himself depicted as an adolescent. In the centre of the composition, the printmaker and lithographer Posada is walking arm in arm with his most recognisable creation that has become the staple of the Mexican Day of the Dead: La Calavera Catrina. The Japanese author found it fascinating that the historical events separated by centuries could be depicted simultaneously within a shared space. That’s what he himself said in the 1979 interview to the magazine Asahi Shimbun (translated by Wilson):

Those colossal murals depict Mexican history from ancient times to the present synchronically. I said to myself, can it be done in literature? If you consider The Game of Contemporaneity as a mural, it portrays the history of a village from ancient times to the present. Right beneath the mural is a giant sprawling and looking at the entire history as contemporaneity. Both the writer and the reader can also read the novel in that fashion.


Diego Rivera, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central, 1946–1947. Image Source

To read the novel as a giant who, from his frame of reference, can easily observe events from different time periods. Does that not remind us of the block universe theory? Actually, Kenzaburō Ōe makes the narrator of his novel describe this possibility in a joking manner as an amusing science fiction plot. (My translation of the Russian translation):

We’re going to visit on our spaceship the millions of worlds inhabited by humans or human-like creatures, and we’ll see that each planet has its own time, being a unit of space and time. And if it is possible to catch in one glance that infinite multitude of spacetime units, then the whole history of humankind on earth can be represented in one time slice. Then it would be possible to select out of this infinite multitude of spacetime units certain events and replay the history of humanity. … Perhaps the history to which we belong is one of such games!

At a certain point, the primeval forest that occupies the valley in which Tsuyuki’s village is situated becomes a model of block spacetime which allows the narrator (who is a kid at the time) to visit different historical events and the people involved in them as he takes a rambling walk along the route landmarked by globular capsules of light. In some of the capsules, he sees the characters from the village history, the past and the future alike. There are also empty globes, however. By passing through them, the boy carries out the symbolic task of collecting the dispersed body parts of the Destroyer, the mythical giant whose continuous presence has been haunting the history of the secluded village since its foundation in the Edo period. This bizarre tour of random incidents from the history of the village=nation=microcosm (which is what it is called most of the time), liberated from the fetters of linear chronology, serves as a mise-en-abyme of the novel itself whose reader, to use Ōe’s metaphor, acts as a giant simultaneously observing different historical events on the monumental mural worthy of Diego Rivera’s brush.


 Izanagi and Izanami in Eitaku Kobayashi’s painting Searching the Seas with the Tenke , c. 1885

One of the possible translations of the book’s title is The Game of Simultaneity, which even more emphatically expresses the author’s creative concept. That is how Sanroku Yoshida refers to the novel in his insightful article Kenzaburo Ōe: A New World of Imagination (Comparative Literature Studies Vol.22, No1). It is to Yoshida that I owe the plausible explication of the narrator’s incestuous passion for his sister, who does not yield to it completely yet stokes it from time to time by exposing herself to her ogling sibling. According to the scholar, the uncomfortable relationship between Tsuyumi and Tsuyuki has mythological roots: “This slight difference in the last syllables in their names undoubtedly alludes to the incestuous brother and sister, Izanagi and Izanami, in the creation myth.” Indeed, the story of the creator deities Izanagi and Izanami recounted in the Kojiki, the 8th-century compilation of Japanese sacred texts, has certain parallels with the story of Tsuyumi and Tsuyuki. Just as the union of the mythological siblings gives birth to the islands of Japan, so do the six letters of Tsuyuku to Tsuyumi conjure up into being for the reader the mysterious village=nation=microcosm. The fact that Tsuyumi has an abortion shortly before she is assaulted by her brother in the temple could allude to the firstborn Leech Child, whom Izanami and Izanagi reject on account of his malformity and set adrift in a reed boat. The cancer-suffering Tsuyumi’s mock death staged on a ferry brings to mind Izanami’s departure to Yomi no Kuni (the underworld) after succumbing to the burns caused by giving birth to the fire god Kagutsuchi. At least fleeting acquaintance with the Japanese creation myth makes the reading of Dōjidai Gemu a less shocking but definitely more informed and interesting experience.

As already mentioned, the text of the novel is made up of the six letters written by Tsuyuki and addressed to his twin sister, who has returned to their native village and is now staying in the temple with their father, also known as the father/priest. Tsuyumi is taking care of the Destroyer, whom she found in a mountain cave as a mushroom-like creature and has since raised to the size of a dog. Her brother writes the first letter from Mexico City, where he is teaching Japanese literature as a visiting professor, and the other five from Tokyo, the place of his permanent academic job. The fate they tried to avoid has caught up with them: he has assumed the role of the historian of the village=nation=microcosm and his sister has become the priestess of the Destroyer (unless the creature she is tending to in the temple is a child from her own father, which is something hinted at but never confirmed).

The story of the village is related in a loopy and repetitive manner in keeping with the simultaneity principle to which the narrator was exposed in the primeval forest as a kid. Quite often, we first learn about the aftermath of a certain event and only later, after several digressions, return to its origin and the way it unfolded. The mythological stories that sometimes have several alternative versions are randomly mixed with the narrator’s childhood reminiscences as well as with the account of the most recent events in his life. It is a game, after all, the Game of Contemporaneity, which he is playing with us. However, the disorganised manner in which the events are presented in the letters does not prevent us from restoring the sequential chronology of the village history since the Edo period (the exact year is not given) and until the 1970s. The village is founded in a mountain valley on the island of Shikoku by a group of renegade samurai who have escaped from the dictate of the Tokugawa Shogunate on a ship laden with food supplies and construction materials. The leader of the adventurers is the man in possession of dynamite who opens the way to the location of the future settlement by blasting the fragments of rock that block access to the valley. This man is the Destroyer. He suffers horrible burns as a result of the explosion, but, after fifty days marked by uninterrupted rain, he miraculously recovers and resumes his leadership of the community. According to one legend, he and the other founders of the village live to be a hundred years old and turn into giants. With time, the Destroyer becomes a ruthless tyrant forcing his former comrades to build the Road of the Dead, whereas their descendants, the ordinary folks of the village, are burdened with the colossal task of feeding them. The Road of the Dead leads nowhere: it starts abruptly on the mountain slope, runs along the edge of the forest, and ends just as abruptly as it begins. The narrator conjectures that the purpose of the mysterious road is to serve as a landing strip for aliens. Whatever the true motivation of the Destroyer may be, the absurdity of this enterprise brings to mind the useless forced labour to which millions of people were subjected by the totalitarian regimes of Stalin and Mao Zedong. Tired of the Destroyer’s despotism, the villagers kill him by adding to his food a decoction of the poisonous herbs that he grows in his garden. After that, they cut his body into pieces and proceed to devour them in a kind of grisly mass communion. But the Destroyer does not vanish for good. He keeps returning to the people in their dreams throughout the history of the village, and, according to some sources, he also reappears several times in a physical shape. The last such revival happens when he is discovered by the sister of the narrator in the cave as a withered, mushroom-like being. Shortly after the murder and collective consumption of the Destroyer, the village experiences a cataclysm which is a thinly veiled allusion to the Cultural Revolution in China. The valley is filled with a mysterious noise that causes great discomfort to the grown-up denizens but is pleasantly invigorating to the children. The men and women affected by the sound have to relocate to the places in which it is the least irritating, and since the noise affects each adult differently in a different spot of the valley, quite often spouses are compelled to live separately, whereas their children can decide with whom to stay. For the fifty-day period in which the sound blares in the village, the teenagers and kids take power and enforce collective resettlement. The families that refuse to move get brutally beaten and even murdered. The resettlement is followed by the great reforms of the movement in favour of the return to the old times helmed by the Destroyer’s last wife. As a result, all private property is abolished, the houses are burnt down, and the villagers, stripped to loincloths, begin tilling one common field, eating from the same pot, and raising their children collectively. Many believe that the strange noise, which has triggered this societal upheaval, was produced by the spirit of the dead Destroyer. As many revolutions, this one ends in a reaction: all the original leaders of the great movement are overthrown, the giant widow of the Destroyer is imprisoned in a cave, the land is redistributed among the new leaders, and the villagers start building individual homes again. The village continues to exist in total isolation from the rest of Japan until it gets embroiled in a peasant uprising against the neighbouring han, which is the same domain from which the founding fathers led by the Destroyer escaped several centuries before. In the aftermath of this conflict, the village=nation=microcosm loses its independence and is subjected to the direct control of the han. During the Meiji Restoration, which sees the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the dismantlement of the han system, the settlement in the valley becomes a subject of the Great Empire of Japan (as it is called in the novel). In a bid to reduce the burden of the Imperial taxation and conscription, the villagers come up with the family record book ruse: they begin to register two new-born babies as one, thus, with time, tricking the empire into believing that the population of the village is two times smaller than it really is. At some point in the twentieth century, probably in the 1930s, the Great Japanese Empire discovers the ruse and sends its troops to establish complete control over the insubordinate territory. The ensuing conflict, dubbed the Fifty-Day War, sees casualties on both sides and is striking in the way the outgunned villagers put up fierce and ingenious resistance against the Imperial forces. The whole population of the invaded village withdraws into the primeval forest and engages in guerrilla warfare using the firearms that a small military plant hidden in the thickets produces by modifying toy guns imported from Germany. An important role in the war is played by the Destroyer, who visits the locals in their dreams to give military advice. After fifty days of armed resistance, the villagers have to surrender because the Nameless Captain, the commander of the invading troops, threatens to torch the primeval forest. The surrender is followed by the mass execution organised by the Nameless Captain. He orders to hang one person out of each pair registered in the family record book as a single resident. As part of the Empire, the village lives through the Pacific War and Japan’s defeat in it. By the 1970s, the valley community is in decline as there hasn’t been a single birth in the village for the last twenty years. One of the last people to be born there is a young theatre director who intends to stage a play about the tumultuous history of his homeland shortly before the Meiji Restoration and asks the narrator to act as a consultant in this production. Although this endeavour does not lead to anything substantial, the narrator’s account of his involvement in this project provides lots of interesting facts about the history of the village=nation=microcosm whose chronicler he was destined to become since early childhood.


Yukio Mishima on the balcony of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s Eastern Corps Headquarters in Tokyo. Image Source

Unfulfilled potential and disappointed expectations are the major motifs in Tsuyuki’s narration about the rest of his family (besides the twin sister, he also has two elder brothers and one younger brother). Their stories are bleak and tragic. One of them, a promising baseball player, gets one chance to play for a major-league team and blows it. Another becomes a performer at the Shinbashi Enbujō Theatre in Tokyo, but his career is cut short when he dies after a botched gender reassignment surgery. Perhaps the most representative of the post-war frustration plaguing many Japanese is the fate of Tsuyuichi, one of Tsuyuki’s elder brothers. Conscripted near the end of the Pacific War, Tsuyuichi develops a mental illness in the boot camp and after Japan’s defeat spends twenty-five years in a psychiatric hospital. All these years he keeps thinking that he is still a conscript of the Imperial Army. In 1970, dressed in the obsolete uniform of the Empire of Japan, he travels to Tokyo and attempts to storm the Emperor’s Palace in order to persuade the monarch to grant independence to his native village. In reality, all he manages to do is to scare off a couple having sex in the park (after which he gets beaten by a bunch of frustrated voyeurs) and to loudly recite a poem in Esperanto in front of the palace before being detained and returned to the psychiatric facility. The escapade of the insane elder brother is an obvious satire of Yukio Mishima’s failed attempt at inspiring a coup among the servicemen at Camp Ichigaya on 25 November 1970. The passionate speech calling on the audience to overthrow the constitution and bring back the power of the emperor was drowned in the collective heckling, after which the snubbed nationalist saw no other option than to commit seppuku. In Kenzaburō Ōe’s parodic re-enactment of Mishima’s ill-advised and doomed act, the rousing appeal that was shouted down by the booing crowd becomes a poem in an artificial language, which, of course, nobody around understands.

The village itself can be viewed as a satire and critique of Japan’s isolationist tendencies that did not quite end after the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854. The secluded settlement does not develop into a prosperous and equitable society but rather mimics on a smaller scale the history of the country from which it has isolated itself. Throughout its history, the village suffers from internal conflicts, tyranny, and obscurantist ideology. Some cultural activities of the denizens entail physical and sexual violence. Even children’s games are tainted with uncanny viciousness. For example, during the Game of the Destroyer, the participants wreak havoc and mayhem on purpose: they shit on the playground, devastate kitchen gardens, stab domestic animals. The game finishes when the boy who plays the role of the Destroyer comes out from a cave and metes out justice to the troublemakers. Limited foreign trade practised by Japan in the period of the isolationist policy known as Sakoku is parodically reflected in the export of plant wax produced in the village. The author’s skeptical view of the prospects of the development of an economy with an extremely restricted international commerce is expressed in the fact that the village’s greatest accomplishment based on the revenue from the sold wax is the construction of a large shed for its storage. The desire to develop in isolation from the rest of the world does not lead to much development. Here we could bring up now rather a hackneyed trope of a closed system in which entropy tends to increase. The protagonist’s chronicle of his native village and its legends also gets caught in a kind of closed circle. Although his position of a university professor would allow him to make the history of the village known to everybody if he chose to have it published as, for instance, an academic monograph, he does nothing of the kind. The paradoxical character of his narrative is in the intended audience, of course. The chronicle is haphazardly related to his twin sister who is an insider and already knows most of it. What makes the matter even more stifling, is the fact that we do not know for sure that Tsuyumi even reads the narrator’s rambling messages. We find out in the last letter that after the death of his father, Tsuyuki receives back all his previous letters. After carefully inspecting them, he discovers the traces of the deleted pencil marks left by the father/priest. It is likely that the only reader of the convoluted and fabulous story of the village=nation=microcosm has been the person who himself told this story to its future author! There is, however, a possibility that at least some of that story swallowed by the communication ouroboros created by Tsuyuki and his father will escape outside. For many centuries, an alien envoy that looks like an amorphous blob has been waylaying the people of the village in the primeval forest and making them speak to itself. The villagers have dubbed this creature from another planet “the Wonder”. What is remarkable about the Wonder’s activity is that it doesn’t require any specific information but just wants to listen to people talk on any subject. While listening, the creature takes different shapes and changes its colour as a reaction to each uttered word. During the Pacific War, twin brothers Apo and Peri are evacuated to the village. They are specialists in celestial mechanics, which is even suggested by their names (i.e. apogee and perigee). The twin brothers take a keen interest in the phenomenon of the Wonder and propose the theory that the alien civilisation that has sent the Wonder to Earth believes that the most important aspect of the human race worth studying is its ability to speak. The centuries-long mission of the Wonder is to absorb and analyse as many speech samples as possible. When it returns to its planet, it will assume the shape and colour the most accurately corresponding to the concept of the human word. This word made incarnate on the distant planet will certainly contain some bits of the fascinating and terrifying story of the village=nation=microcosm.

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6 Responses to The Game of Contemporaneity (Игры современников, 同時代ゲーム) by Kenzaburō Ōe

  1. Donato says:

    It appears to be translated into French as “Le jeu du siècle”. I haven’t read it, nor do I have it, but perhaps some of the “missing pieces” could be found there?

  2. Donato says:

    Ah, you’re right, I too quickly read and misinterpreted the “deux frères” description. Sorry for the noise!

  3. incognito says:

    It’s the same with Russian translations of Cortázar and Sartre.

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