Review of Eight Dogs, or “hakkenden”: An Ill-Considered Jest, Being the First 14 Chapters of Nansao Satomi Hakkenden by Bakin Takizawa

“The Hakkenden” is the nickname for the longer titles by which this monumental novel has been known since it appeared in Japan in serial form. 

Bakin was one of the most prolific authors of all time, and wrote historical novels in a variety of styles. His work might be superficially compared to Alexandre Dumas: A hundred thousand pages of battles, drama, quick action, pithy dialogue, plot twists, page-turn inducing reversals. But this work is closer in spirit to the material by which the basic skeleton of the Eight Samurai Dogs was inspired: the Water Margin, one of the five superlative Chinese novels.

I compared Hakkenden to Tale of Genji while reading it. It felt like one of the proto or Ur novels of Japan. Genji, along with Heike and other poetic long works, borrowed much from Chinese literature, Confucius, Mozi and the like, but Bakin’s work boldly repurposes tropes in a grand and dramatic manner. It is more than twice as long as the Tale of Genji and similar in length to Remembrance of Things Past. Thus, this first volume only represents 1/12 th of the whole work. I need not mention that I am dying to read the rest. For the sake of my own sanity, I hope Walley and the publisher release the next volumes quickly. I fear we will be waiting decades before we reach the conclusion in English.

I have been waiting for this translation for about ten years. In the interim I read excerpts from the novel in translation in a few Japanese literature anthologies and an online fan translation. Walley’s translation in this volume is very impressive in a number of ways. Most clearly, in the copious footnotes. Dozens of woodblock illustrations from the original first and second editions are included, along with Bakin’s advertisements, prefaces, and glosses.

The book is written in a mélange of pre-modern styles, combining Chinese characters and idiomatic expressions with ancient Japanese and Chinese references. The convolutions of allusion within the work are labyrinthine. Like the incredible early vernacular novels of China, this book seems to be a culmination of wisdom, quips, and history, synthesized into a single, unified story. A cursory reading will reveal hundreds of characters, place names, conventions, and contextual differences between this work and the world of modern day. Not only did Bakin set his tale in the warring states period, he wrote it in a sneaky way, conjuring language reminiscent of Murasaki and other paramours of the poetic mode.

Bakin managed to internalize thousands of relevant proverbs and morals so that he could unholster them in his work whenever necessary. The book is a convoluted one. Far too intricate to easily summarize. If you have read Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) you may notice some parallels, though this volume barely begins the epic tale of the infamous band.

The translator provides a succinct overview of the work in his long introduction, along with a thorough explanation of the immense cultural gulf separating the work’s context and execution from the modern American reader’s. Thus, the majority of the audience for this work will likely be those with a scholarly bent. It is translated for people with a deep interest and appreciation of Japanese history. Reader’s should expect to encounter a panoply of archaic cultural references and an intricate layering of narration with moral commentary. Some of the footnotes will mean little to you, being so abstruse as to direct your attention away from the action. Bakin simply could not stop himself from lassoing in every idiom he could. But the overall effect does convey a grandiose sense of accomplishment and intimacy with the whole web of literature that makes up a great author’s opus. You might study this book as you study the plays of Shakespeare or the Divine Comedy. The density of the book is one of interconnectedness and allusion.

There is no lack of poetry here, and I found it more readable than Tale of Genji. Poetry has been a vehicle for moral argument, and Bakin is a didactic author. As the translator explains, he had his reasons for shoehorning commentary and didacticism in his epics. I can only pray that we see the remainder of the book published in the next decade, though the translator has clearly been compiling and supplementing his work since his graduate thesis. To read Bakin is to experience a raw exposure to early Japanese literature, while still taking part in a breathtaking and entertaining interplay of plotlines and twists. The common themes of filiality, fraternity, love, and perseverance take center stage, while deceit and spiritual consciousness move the story forward.

The only other novel by Bakin in English, The Captive of Love, tackles similar concepts in a surprising and satisfying way. Authors like Akutagawa place Bakin on a pedestal as the greatest Japanese novelist. While his books may not be visible in the West, his legacy endures in Japan, as you can see from the many anime, manga, literary, and film adaptations you can find of his most famous novel. I would love to collect and devour as much of his oeuvre as makes its way into English in my lifetime, which I fear, will be a very small percentage.

Review of A Captive of Love: A Romance from the Original Japanese of Kyokutei Bakin by Bakin Takizawa

Takizawa Bakin or Kyokutei Bakin is a truly remarkable Japanese author, little known in the West. 

He lived from 1767-1848 and according to online sources wrote at least 470 books, many of which were quite hefty, according to accounts from other Japanese writers, and the most famous of these works is The Chronicles of the Eight Dog Heroes of the Satomi Clan of Nansô, sometimes called The Chronicle of the Eight Samurai Dogs. It is a work rivaling Remembrance of Things Past in length. He was Japan’s first professional writer, and I can only imagine that he spent the greater part of his life writing. To some Japanese, including Akutagawa, he is considered the greatest Japanese novelist.

Like Dumas, he was incredibly prolific, and wrote “romances” in the olden sense, involving chivalry, warfare, love, and adventure. Judging from the one major work of his available in English, (this one) his style is extremely refined, on the level of Dumas or Jack London, and he captured characters and settings extremely well. I have discovered stray stories and chapters from his samurai epic online and through scholarly translations, and they are all of a similar quality. It is astounding to me that English speakers have access to less than 1% of this giant’s literary accomplishment.

Chronicle of the Eight Samurai dogs, composed in 106 chapters, over 28 years, is an established classic in Asia, and has inspired numerous movies, animes, and other books and adaptations. Glynne Walley has admitted online to having translated at least 70 chapters of this monumental work, but none have come to light, except his college thesis translation, which his University library won’t let me check out, though I have tried repeatedly. The only other chapters available are infrequent fan translations and Donald Keene’s four chapter selections. What a shame.

The reason Bakin was inspired to write novels of such length was due to the prevalence of the great epics of Chinese literature, which during the Edo period were the prime literary examples. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Dream of the Red Chamber were just the most famous. I don’t think it is possible for a non-Chinese speaker to comprehend the full scope of Chinese literature, given the paltry selection we have access to in this information age. Lu Xun’s “Brief” History of Chinese Literature opened my eyes. Like Pu Songling claims, even during the Ming dynasty, libraries containing over 10,000 distinct works were not uncommon…

But back to Bakin,
A Captive of Love is an extraordinary novel, and since it is available online for free, I highly recommend you read it.
The perspective, like many Edo novelists, is Buddhist, though Shinto still shows strong influence in the stories, more so than in this particular novel. You can expect Japanese folklore to make an appearance, like yokai and everything Lafcadio Hearn outlines in his works, but Bakin lends gravitas to his plot through forceful writing, though he is famously lacking in any trace of humor.

As a member of the samurai class, Bakin was qualified to write about protagonists from this stratum of society, and I gather that he wrote of them often. The morality of the characters and the author’s intentions are always clear. This is both an entertaining and a didactic work, but it is mainly a valuable testament of a time out of reach of modern novelists. It is hard to imagine a more effective historical evocation than this one, even if it is not an exhaustive study or soaring masterpiece. Even if this is one of Bakin’s less important works, what else do we non-Japanese have to work with?

The adventures undergone by the main character, dictated by class and fate, are wild, creative and picaresque. They are reminiscent of Don Quixote’s travails, without as much wit and just as much deep moral consciousness. I was sad to finish this novel, and found the need to reread Pu Songling’s stories to capture that graceful elegant, playful storytelling again. I may return to this work to relive its charming evocations, but I certainly, undoubtedly, will read anything else by Bakin that ever sees a proper translation. I’m looking at you Walley.