Ian Buruma reviews The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata, and Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, catalog of the exhibition at the Japan Society in New York, edited by Murakami Takashi. From the New York Review of Books:
The Casino Folies, named after the Folies Bergère in Paris, was not especially wild, although it was rumored— apparently without any basis in truth —that the dancing girls, sometimes in blond wigs, dropped their drawers on Friday evenings. But it spawned not only talented entertainers, some of whom later became movie stars, but great comedians too. The most famous was Enoken, who appears in Kurosawa’s 1945 film They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail. Everything that was raffish and fresh about Asakusa between the wars was exemplified by the Casino Folies, a symbol of the Japanese jazz age of “modern boys” (mobos) and modern girls (mogas). The cultural slogan of the time was ero, guro, nansensu, “erotic, grotesque, nonsense.” Kawabata Yasunari was one of the writers whose early work was infused by this spirit, and it was his book that made the Folies famous. He hung around Asakusa for three years, wandering the streets, talking to dancers and young gangsters, but mostly just walking and looking, and reported on what he saw in his extraordinary modernist novel, The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, first published in 1930.
The novel is not so much about developing characters as about expressing a new sensibility, a new way of seeing and describing atmosphere: quick, fragmented, cutting from one scene to another, like editing a film, or assembling a collage, with a mixture of reportage, advertising slogans, lyrics from popular songs, fantasies, and historical anecdotes and legends.