Fumiko Enchi (pen name of Fumiko Ueda) is regarded as one of the most important female Japanese authors of the twentieth century, although, sadly, only a few of her novels and plays have been translated into English. One of the best-known of her novels is Masks, published in 1958. Masks is suffused with the literature and arts of Japan, and this is no surprise – Enchi (1905-1981) was the daughter of a linguist and philologist, and was introduced to both literature and traditional theater as a youth. She had some early writing successes, but her real fame waited until after World War II. Spirit possession and shamanism, especially shamanism among women, became a focus of her work in the late 1950s and 1960s, including Masks.
As Masks opens, Yasuko’s husband Akio, a professor at Tokyo University who studied spirit possession in ancient literature, has been killed in an avalanche on Mount Fuji. Yasuko has decided to carry on her husband’s research while continuing to live with Akio’s mother Mieko, who edits a poetry magazine. Both Ibuki, another professor who is married, and Mikame, a psychologist and bachelor, are in love with Yasuko. While much of the novel is told from the perspectives of Ibuki and Mikame, it is clear that Yasuko and Mieko are the central characters and drive the action.
Each of the three chapters of Masks takes its name from that of a mask from No (or Noh), the ancient theater of Japan. The first chapter’s “Ryo no onna,” a mask of a dead woman or ghost, represents, according to one website, someone “whose beauty has been destroyed by the suffering she has experienced in hell for her passionate attachments.” The mask seems to represent Mieko. All the other main characters come to feel that they are under her spell. As Yasuko says of her, “She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face on a No mask, wrapped in her own secrets.”
An old article written by Mieko is uncovered. “An Account of the Shrine in the Fields” tells of the Rokujo lady, a former wife of the Crown Prince who has an affair with Prince Genji in Murasaki Shikibo’s famous The Tale of Genji (between 1967 and 1973, Enchi translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, a huge project encompassing ten volumes). The Rokujo lady is also a shamaness whose spirit kills one of Genji’s wives. Mieko sees her as “an archetype” of woman as the object of a man’s “eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions.” It becomes clear as the book goes on that Mieko in some way identifies with the Rokujo lady. Whether consciously or not, Mieko is projecting a spirit that is influencing the lives of the people around her.
The “Masugami” mask of the book’s second chapter, according to Toyoichiro Nogami’s No Mask Commentary that Enchi cites, represents “a young woman in a state of frenzy.” This seems to refer to Akio’s twin sister Harume, who was born with severe learning disabilities and now lives with Yasuko and Mieko. Ibuki has begun an affair with Yasuko. One fateful night, after his rival Mikame has announced his surprise engagement to Yasuko, Ibuki goes secretly to Yasuko’s home. They sleep together, yet when Ibuki wakes at one point, he mysteriously finds Harume next to him, her face twisted in the manner of the Masugami mask.
Mikame has done some research on the mysterious Mieko. He finds that Mieko’s late husband Masatsugu had a maid, and his mistress, Aguri, living with him when he married Mieko, and Aguri continued to live there after the marriage. When the pregnant Mieko later fell down some stairs and lost her child, it was apparently because Aguri had strategically placed a protruding nail near the stairs on which Mieko’s clothing got hooked, causing her to topple. Later, Mieko has her own affair, and she admits that she really wrote her article on the Rokujo lady for just one person to see – her lover, and, as it turns out, the secret real father of Akio and Harume.
According to the Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, the third chapter’s “Fukai” mask represents “a middle-aged woman torn by separation from a loved one,” a face “filled with a melancholy that comes from experience and feeling.” Ibuki continues to carry on his clandestine affair with Yasuko, even as it has been discovered that Harume is now pregnant, likely by Ibuki. The family housekeeper Yu speculates that Mieko, or Mieko’s spirit, is somehow taking revenge on Akio and Harume, as well as her late husband Masatsugu because he was not their father. One article, though, speculates that what Mieko actually wants is a substitute for the dead Akio, a child with her lover’s and Akio’s blood. Harume, Akio’s twin, is to be that child’s mother, Ibuki the father, Yasuko the bait, and Mieko the manipulator of all. At the end of the book, Mieko receives as a gift the Fukai mask, and the final image is of Mieko contemplating it: “The mask seemed to know all the intensity of her grief at the loss of Akio and Harume – as well as the bitter woman’s vengeance that she had planned so long, hiding it deep within her…”
Enchi’s descriptions of places and moods are not only careful and precise, but also sensual. All the book’s characters are intellectuals to one degree or another, and so they, like the author, tend to see their situations and actions in the context of Japanese history, theater, and literature. While Enchi possibly presupposes some knowledge of these on the part of her reader, there is sufficient information to provide context for those who are unacquainted. Masks is a most mysterious novel, with fascinating characters and motivations that are rooted in and haunted by the past, yet come to inevitable, painful manifestation in the present.