“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.