The stunning biographical portraits in Modern Girls, Shining Stars, the Skies of Tokyo, some adapted from essays that first appeared in The New Yorker, explore the lives of five women who did their best to stand up and cause more trouble than was considered proper in Japanese society. Their lives stretch across a century and a half of explosive cultural and political transformations in Japan. These five artists-two actresses, two writers, and a painter-were noted for their talents, their beauty, and their love affairs rather than for any association with politics. But through the fearlessness of their art and their private lives, they influenced the attitudes of their times and challenged the status quo. Phyllis Birnbaum presents her subjects from various perspectives, allowing them to shine forth in all of their contradictory brilliance: generous and petulant, daring and timid, prudent and foolish. There is Matsui Sumako, the actress who introduced Ibsen's Nora and Wilde's Salome to Japanese audiences but is best remembered for her ambition, obstreperous temperament and turbulent love life.
We also meet Takamura Chieko, a promising but ultimately disappointed modernist painter whose descent into mental illness was immortalized in poetry by a husband who may well have been the source of her troubles. In a startling act of rebellion, the sensitive, aristocratic poet Yanagiwara Byakuren left her crude and powerful husband, eloped with her revolutionary lover, and published her request for a divorce in the newspapers. Uno Chiyo was a popular novelist who preferred to be remembered for the romantic wars she fought. Willful, shrewd, and ambitious, Uno struggled for sexual liberation and literary merit. Birnbaum concludes by exploring the life and career of Takamine Hideko, a Japanese film star who portrayed wholesome working-class heroines in hundreds of films, working with such directors as Naruse, Kinoshita, Ozu, and Kurosawa. Angry about a childhood spent working to provide for greedy relatives, Takamine nevertheless made peace with her troubled past and was rewarded for years of hard work with a brilliant career.
Drawing on fictional accounts, interviews, memoirs, newspaper reports, and the creative works of her subjects, Birnbaum has created vivid, seamless narrative portraits of these five remarkable women.
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(203mm x 152mm x 16mm)
Columbia University Press
Publisher: Columbia University Press
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US Kirkus Review »
Brief biographies of five Japanese women who challenged national mores and cultural expectations in the years before WWII. Novelist Birnbaum (An Eastern Tradition, 1980) is an American fluent in Japanese (she also translated one of her subjects' novels, Uno Chiyo's Confessions of Love) and familiar with Japanese ways. Two of these studies were undertaken as assignments for the New Yorker. Astounded by the complex, self-contradictory lives of these women, Birnbaum found herself "left with only the humble feeling that the truth about another person is as hard to grasp as a single autumn leaf rushing down a swollen river." Her subjects are artistic and intense: actress Matsui Sumako, who brought Ibsen's Nora and Wilde's Salome to the Japanese stage but hanged herself after her married lover's suicide; painter Takamura Chieko, whose husband immortalized her in poetry after she was institutionalized for mental illness; poet Yanagiwara Byakuren, high-born and beautiful, who divorced her wealthy husband via a public pronouncement in a newspaper and went to live with a younger, poorer lover; the popular novelist Uno, who had a multiplicity of husbands and lovers and wrote all about them; and contemporary film actress Takamine Hideko, who began her career as a child star in the 1920s and continued in popular Japanese films until the late 1970s. All of these subjects represented Japan's first thrust at freedom for women, although none saw themselves as feminists. Birnbaum captures their individualism, which she sets in the restrained and disciplined context of Japanese society at the time. Curiously involving miniatures of five brave women who confronted, but did not always overcome, rigid social barriers. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Phyllis Birnbaum
PHYLLIS BIRNBAUM is the author of the novel An Eastern Tradition. She is also the translator of Rabbits, Crabs, Etc.: Stories by Japanese Women and Uno Chiyo's novel Confessions of Love, for which she won the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.