Weird #23: “The Town of Cats'” by Hagiwara Sakutarō (1935)

Hagiwara Sakutarō

Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “The Town of Cats” comes as a slight change of pace. There’s no cosmological horror. No gruesome murders. No existential despair (well, maybe a little), and no ghosts either. There’s a mood of uneasiness, but it’s the uneasiness you feel when you’ve lost your way during a pleasant summer walk.

“The Town of Cats” is Sakutarō’s only short story. The author is known as an innovator of colloquialism and free verse in Japanese poetry, and although I have no acquaintance with the rest of his work, I can guess how “The Town of Cats” might express some of his ideas regarding the poetic imagination. For instance, “The Town of Cats” gives a sense of Sakutarō as a poet with definite metaphysical leanings: “All philosophers must … doff their hats to the poets when they discover that the path of reason only takes them so far. The universe that lies beyond common sense and logic–the universe that is known intuitively to the poet–belongs to the metaphysical” (236).

The narrator of this story is a poet and a drug addict who is currently recovering at a hot springs resort. Every day he takes a walk for his health. However, due to a condition of his inner ear, he has almost no sense of direction. He is even liable to get lost within a few meters of his own home.

One day, he happens upon a cheerful town that seems unreal, projected on a screen. Then he realizes this town is merely his own, familiar neighbourhood, but seen from a perspective where the compass points have all reversed. This change in perspective completely changes the way he imagined this space, leading to him seeing the boring old town in a new way.

All this is setup for his encounter with the Town of Cats. In a nearby town, he hears legends and folktales of two secretive towns: one said to be possessed by dog spirits while the other is possessed by cat spirits. Only a few have ever seen the okura, the spirits’ true form. The narrator does not believe the legends, but listens intently for “anthropological” purposes (235).

However, while on one of his walks, he loses his way and finds himself in a Borgesian “labyrinth of countless paths” (236). Searching for civilization, he stumbles upon a town beyond his wildest dreams: a marvelous town that is a picture-perfect image of a prosperous Japanese town, with a barber shop, photography studio, and an observatory, and plenty of shady, narrow streets. The town has a hushed, tranquil silence, a certain grace and sense of absolute harmony.

The town is described in terms resembling a poem. The narrator says it is “an artificial creation whose existence relied on the subtle attentions of its inhabitants,” just as a poem relies on the subtle attentions of the poet. “It was not just its buildings. The entire system of individual nerves that came together to create its atmosphere was focused on one single, central aesthetic plan” (238). This decadent description of the town reads like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, especially the meticulously designed chambers of Prince Prospero’s mansion in “Masque of the Red Death.” Poe once said that a short story should strive to produce one single effect in the reader, which sounds quite similar to Sakutarō’s insistence that every element in this town contributes to one aesthetic plan. Of course, this leads to the unanswered question of who’s aesthetic plan it is.

However, as with any poem, this rigid form of harmony is delicate and can be easily shattered into a million pieces by a single disruption. The sense of extreme uneasiness the narrator feels is the threat that it could all become undone if so much as one element drops out of place. This “extreme anxiety” causes the “serenity of the town [to] become hushed and uncanny. I felt as if I were unraveling a code to discover some frightening secret” (238). The smell of corpses fills the air. One senses an air of dystopia to this town, where everyone is made to confirm to a perfect ideal of not only aesthetic, but social harmony–an ideal that is impossible to sustain without a revolution threatening the sense of order.

After a sound like a kokyū, the truth of the town is revealed. A black rat appears in the middle of the street and then the universe stops “dead” (239). Cats appear everywhere: in windows, on the street. There are no longer any people in the town, just “cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, cats, and more cats!” (239) This eruption of the underlying, spiritual reality of the town lasts as a brief sense of chaos and mischief–what John Clute might call a Revel (“The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror”).

When he regains his senses, the narrator sees that the town is just the same, boring town with “the same tired, dusty people who live in every country” (239). The narrator remarks that “an entirely separate world had appeared, almost as if a playing card had been turned over to reveal its other side” (239). There are other dimensions beyond the one we see every day, and this riddle has haunted the narrator since childhood.

By becoming lost during his walk, he crosses into another dimension and sees the cat spirits rise. Like Zhuangzi, who did not know if he was a man dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man, he does not know which town was the “real” town. All he’s willing to say in the end is that the Town of Cats does exist, that it is not simply the delusion of a drugged poet.

Sakutarō defied the conventions of his time to become a poet of free verse. If the Town of Cats was a poem, it could be one of the meticulously crafted, but rigidly conventional Japanese poetry forms against which he was attempting to rebel. The existential fear felt by the narrator at contemplating the collapse of that perfection was an anxiety that must have haunted his experiments in free verse–a desire to sustain the harmony of form, while knowing such a thing is impossible.

In Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” such aesthetic perfection is desirable, but its static, corpselike lifelessness is all too suggestive of death, its very harmony merely presaging its inevitable collapse. Like Poe, Sakutarō evokes the same decadent sense of aesthetic harmony and lifelessness in his description of the Town of Cats.

Next week, I will be examining Hugh Walpole’s “The Tarn” (1936).

Weird #13: “The Hell Screen” by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1918)

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa is credited as the father of the Japanese short story, and his short story “The Hell Screen,” translated in The Weird by Morinaka Akira, is, like much of his fiction, a blend of Japanese and Western literary influences.

As a weird tale, “The Hell Screen” shares features in common with many of the decadent writers I’ve written about so far, particularly “The Man in the Bottle” by Gustav Meyrink. This is especially true with regards to how “The Hell Screen” examines the relationship between cruelty and art.

The greatest artist of his age, Yoshihide receives a commission from the High Lord of Horikawa to paint a scene from hell (see images of the Japanese Buddhist vision of hell). Yoshihide is not like other artists. Where other artists depict beautiful plum blossoms, Yoshihide has become famous for his ability to paint corpses so vivid you can smell the death on them. He learns to paint so well by impersonally, emotionlessly sketching real-life corpses on the street. His paintings therefore have the force of authenticity to them, making him the perfect artist to execute such a commission.

The narrator reports court gossip, explaining that Yoshihide had one human emotion: his love for his daughter, Yuzuki, who becomes a lady-in-waiting for the Great Lord. However, gossip has it that the Great Lord has romantic designs on the artist’s daughter.

When he is handed the commission, Yoshihide devotes himself completely to the task. He tortures his apprentices by binding them in chains and letting an owl peck at their faces, while he stands by and sketches the agony written on their bodies. He is not moved to pity by their pain, and is more concerned with getting a perfect sketch to add to his portrait of hell than he is with the lives of his apprentices. Rumours of his inhumanity make the rounds of the court.

Eventually Yoshihide runs into an obstacle: he cannot complete the painting, which revolves around the central image of a noblewoman burning alive in a flaming carriage. So he approaches the Great Lord with a morbid request. And the Great Lord grants it.

However, to punish him for his crimes, the Great Lord of Horikawa orders that Yuzuki should be the noblewoman who dies to fulfill her father’s monstrous request. After completing the painting based on his horrified memories of his own beloved daughter burning alive in a flaming wooden carriage, he hangs himself.

Despite the extreme depravity of Yoshihide, it is difficult for me not to imagine him as an analogue, to some extent, of Akutagawa himself. His famous short story “Rashōmon,” for example, is as bleak as one of Yoshihide’s paintings. In addition, the extreme emotional coldness with which Yoshihide takes charcoal sketches of corpses and men being tortured reminds me a little of the modernist injunction of impersonality–the rule that an author must sacrifice their expressionism and personal emotions in favour of objectivity and realism. Akutagawa, a modernist who published translations of Yeats in his literary journal Shinshichō, was likely well aware of this injunction.

Structurally, the story follows the pattern of kishōtenketsu, a Japanese form of structuring stories, poems, and arguments. The closest analogue in the West would be Aristotle’s Three Act Structure.

Rudy Barrett in “The Skeletal Structure of Japanese Horror Fiction: Digging into the Guts of Japanese Folklore” explains that while the Three Act Structure is based on a protagonist with desires, in Japanese narratives, things “happen” to the character, prompting reaction. Less emphasis is placed on motivation and personal desires. In a Buddhist culture, desire is understood to lead to suffering, meaning characters who have strong overriding desires are more likely to be seen as “evil,” while characters without apparent desires are seen as “good.”

This contrast between Japanese and Western forms is interesting to think more deeply about. Is it really true that all, or most, Western literature is defined by a protagonist’s goals? Under examination, this idea appears to be resilient. For example, Odysseus desires one thing: to return home to Ithaca. The gods help or hinder him and in some ways control his destiny, but the story is still determined by his desires. It is also true that the desire of a character is what fuels many fairy tales (though chance also plays a role).

(I am not familiar with Japanese literature, so I cannot identify an Japanese Buddhist counter example to the Odyssey. However, Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in the importance of setting aside human desires, and this is the case in the Ramayana, a Hindu epic (which I am presently reading for the first time). Here, the hero, Rama, puts his own desires aside when he first decides to go into exile from his home to fulfill his destiny. Rama does not seek to return to Ayodhya, as Odysseus seeks Ithaca; Rama puts aside his own desire for home, embracing life in the jungle. Rama is heroic because he forsakes his desire for home; in contrast, Odysseus is heroic because he is driven by his desire for home.

The lack of emphasis on desire is not all that defines traditional Japanese storytelling, however: there is also structure to consider. According to Barrett, kishōtenketsu is a four-act structure in Japanese literature (and arguments) consisting of an “introduction (起), development (承), twist (転), and resolution (結).” Such a structure in its outline is not wholly alien to the Western tradition. It sounds a lot like the Aristotle’s Three Act Structure or Hegel’s Thesis / Antithesis / Synthesis triad, except for the addition of the twist.

The characters and their relationships are introduced, followed by an elaboration, and then a twist that surprises the audience and changes the way the previous events are interpreted. Lastly, the resolution consists of reconciling the information dispensed in the first two sections to what you learn in the third (similar to the idea of a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis).

Statue of a Japanese Judge of Hell
Japanese Judge of Hell

“The Hell Screen” follows the kishōtenketsu structure precisely. The narrator initially presents the characters in a very matter-of-fact way, as people he has occasionally encountered directly and other times heard about from court gossip. We’re not in anyone’s point of view but the narrator’s. The story elements of the story are simply being told.

In a way, Yoshihide has no desires; he simply does what he always does, creating art, however cold-hearted his approach to art may be. However, his unusual devotion to his daughter is certainly an earthly attachment, and the gruesome nature of his character mark him for a destiny in hell in the opinion of many courtiers, according to the narrator. It may be possible to interpret Yoshihide as having a desire to create art at all costs, an overreaching desire much like Doctor Faustus’s desire for knowledge in the Western tradition. This desire results in his doom.

When the twist hits–the Great Lord’s decision to set a carriage on fire with Yuzuki inside so that Yoshihide can complete his painting–the story achieves its third stage: the shocking surprise twist. This twist prompts the reader’s assessment of all that came before. In the fourth act, the artist reacts to his fate by finishing his painting and committing suicide.

With regards to the third act, it is worthwhile to remember that the narrator describes the hell screen in detail early in the story, not after it is completed–including the image of the noblewoman burning alive in the carriage. The hell screen’s image is always in the equation, so to speak. However, the reader does not know the terrible truth of how Yoshihide was able to produce such an image of stark realism until the third act reveal. The third act triggers a reinterpretation, making it not merely a tragic ending, but a moment where the reader looks back and reassesses information provided earlier in the narrative.

I believe that it is precisely this twist that makes “The Hell Screen” accomplish the goals of weird fiction–a genre invested in forcing us to question our perceptions of reality. The twist destabilizes reality, forcing us to take a second look. It seems to me that this Japanese narrative structure is in a large part responsible for the weirdness of “The Hell Screen.”

N.B.: Another short story that “The Hell Screen” reminds me of is “The Prelate’s Commission” by Jeffrey Ford, about a Prelate who hires a man to go on a quest to hell to paint the devil himself. There are some parallels, including the fact the painter must commit a murder in order to accomplish his goal, much as Yuzuki must die to complete Yoshihide’s painting.

Next week, I’ll be writing about “Unseen – Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (a.k.a. Gertrude Barrows Bennett), a member of the Lovecraft circle and the first major female American writer of science fiction and fantasy.

Montreal poet recounts experience as war refugee

Recently, I interviewed Montreal poet Ilona Martonfi, an activist and arts organizer. I’ve known Ilona since I was an editor for Scrivener Creative Review, so it was a pleasure to interview her about her most recent collection, Salt Bride, for Cult Montreal.

As a young child towards the end of the Second World War, Martonfi fled Hungary with her family as a war refugee. Though no one talked about such things at the time, she has since since learned that the town in Bavaria where she went to school was filled with Nazis from Czechoslovakia. Her family endured the siege of Budapest and many other dangerous experiences during this time.

In Salt Bride, she recounts these personal events as a poet. In her witness poems, she puts herself in the shoes of the hibakusha (Japanese atomic bomb survivors) and people displaced by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster as well. She presents these and other subjects through her haunting, staccato-lined imagist verses, such as in this poem about victims of the atomic bombs:

“I played a piano
in a wooden house

and then I saw
my brother Akio digging me out
carrying me outside on his back,

laying me down under a ginkgo tree

flies and maggots
crawling on my body.


Like you, I forget.


We were children
who will die once again.”

From “The Fourth Panel: Ghosts” in Salt Bride

“I don’t like to shout in my work,” says Martonfi. “I don’t shout about Nagasaki. I don’t shout about those iron shoes [a Holocaust memorial site]. I tell it like it is, but always with empathy. Because I found empathy to be the most important thing.”

Read the article here.

Ilona Martonfi, author of Salt Bride