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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden"
Part One: An Ill-Considered Jest

Kyokutei Bakin

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To purchase Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden"

Title: Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden"
Author: Kyokutei Bakin
Genre: Novel
Written: 1814/16 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 327 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" - US
Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" - UK
Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" - Canada
directly from: Cornell University Press
  • Part One: An Ill-Considered Jest - chapters 1 through 14
  • Japanese title: 南総里見八犬伝
  • Translated by Glynne Walley
  • Previously translated by Edward Greey as A Captive of Love (1886)
  • With numerous woodprint illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : grand fun, both as far as the story goes and stylistically

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Wall St. Journal . 15/10/2021 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)f its length appears daunting, other aspects of the epic are surprisingly accessible. (...) Bakin's didacticism has suffered from age: What may well have been meant as solemn instruction now just seems goofy and unintentionally ironic. (...) There is a certain amount of accidental comedy in the prose, as well. (...) Happily, these effects have been used in the jaunty service of nonstop dramatic action, and it is Bakin's pure storytelling gusto that accounts for his smash success in the 19th century and his continued readability today" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Kyokutei Bakin's 南総里見八犬伝 (Nansō Satomi hakkenden) was published in serial form over twenty-eight years, and the complete novel has one hundred and eighty chapters. Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" is a translation of the first fourteen chapters -- less than a tenth of the whole work. (Somewhat confusingly, Hakkenden was originally published in nine volumes (containing multiple books), but while the first eight volumes were of roughly equal length, the ninth volume alone is about as long as the previous eight combined.) Translator Glynne Walley notes that this is: "the first volume of what is intended to be a complete translation of Hakkenden"; one hopes English-speaking readers will not have to wait as long as Japanese readers did to read the complete work, but given its length it will no doubt take quite a while until it is available in its enormous entirety in English.
       Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" consists of volume one and then four chapters of volume two of the original, which together, as Walley notes, make for: "something of a prologue to the story as a whole" -- and indeed is: "perhaps the only really self-contained unit in the book", making this a section of the work that can reasonably stand alone. Author Kyokutei Bakin agrees, the fourteenth chapter (which is also the end of Book II of Volume II) concluding with an Author's Note in which he sums up that: "everything from the 1st Book of the Inaugural Volume through to the end of the present Book constitutes but the opening stage of the whole".
       The story opens with Satomi Suemoto suffering defeat in a hopeless battle, ordering his son, Yoshizane, to: "Make your escape, bide your time, and then restore our house !" The young man -- not yet twenty -- is already wise beyond his years, both learned and a master of military strategy; he is reluctant to leave his father to the inevitable battlefield-fate, but dutifully obeys.
       Yoshizane escapes to Awa, two districts of which are controlled by Jin'yo Nagasanosuke Mitsuhiro, a dissolute leader who is fooled by the clever sycophant, Yamashita Sakuzaemon Sadakane, who amasses more and more power. Recognizing how bad he is, several locals plan to ambush and kill him, but Sadakane learns of the plot and turns it to his advantage -- neatly mapped and played out by Kyokutei Bakin, and giving a taste of the kind of exciting adventure on offer throughout the novel. Sadakane comes to power -- and among the trophies he takes is Tamazusa, who had been Mitsuhiro's concubine and whom he now takes as his: "main and proper wife".
       Young Yoshizane approaches two other rulers of districts in Awa, and while one of them argues: "let him be chased off at once", the other wants to at least hear him out. They try to intimidate him when they summon him, but Yoshizane can hold his own; still they don't treat him much better than a pawn -- though he soon shows himself to be a commanding figure. Sadakane thinks he can use all this to his advantage, but finds his match in the wily Yoshizane.
       Sadakane is defeated -- but that still leaves his concubine, Tamazusa. Yoshizane is at first inclined to spare her, but those who suffered under her argue she deserves the harshest punishment -- and Yoshizane let's himself be convinced: "I was wrong -- mistaken. Out with her now, and off with her head !" But before she is executed she has her say, too -- and it includes a curse:

Kill me if you will ! I shall lead your descendants along the way of beats -- I shall make them dogs of the passions of this world !
       Yoshizane settles in quite comfortably as ruler of his lands. He marries, and has two children. The older child is a girl, named Princess Fuse; the younger a son named Jirotarō -- who would eventually: "carry on his father's work and be known as Yoshinari, Lord Protector of Awa". Walley already noted in his Introduction about Hakkenden as a whole that: "most of the novel takes place during the reign of Yoshizane's son Yoshinari", but he gets short shrift in these first fourteen chapters, barely playing any role -- indeed, barely appearing. Princess Fuse, on the other hand, plays a central role in Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" .....
       Princess Fuse seems to be an unhappy baby, colicky to the extent that: "even at the age of three she refused to speak or smile, but merely cried". They manage to cure her of that -- a mysterious old man gifts her a necklace with a string of eight crystal prayer beads, which helps -- and she matures into a beautiful and studious girl:
All day long she worked at her copybooks, her attention never flagging; deep into the night she played at her music, her interest never wavering. By the age of eleven or twelve she was well versed in the reading of tomes both Japanese and Chinese, and assiduously sought to apprehend principles and reasons
       Along the way, Yoshizane also adopts an unusual (and very large) dog, naming him Yatsufusa .....
       One year the harvest is bad in the districts ruled by Anzai Kagetsura, and he asks Yoshizane for a loan of rice to help feed his people; Yoshizane obliges -- but when the next year's harvest is poor in his territories, and ample in Anzai Kagetsura's finds that Kagetsura isn't eager to repay his debt. Not only that, Kagetsura seeks to take advantage of the Satomi's weakened position, laying siege to their two castles. It looks bleak for the soon starving Yoshizane and his followers.
       Among their desperate attempts to turn the tide is a plan hatched by young Yoshinari:
Choose you someone who can produce a great noise and send him up to the top of the tower, to denounce Kagetsura's immoral behavior: the crimes he has committed by breaking his oaths, returning enmity for charity, and starting an unrighteous war. Instantly overcome by shame, his officers and men will lose the will to attack.
       Ah, yes, the good old days of chivalry and honor ...... It's a plan -- and it might even work -- but the conditions make it impossible to see it through effectively.
       Seeing no way out, Yoshizane is already preparing his suicide when the dog, Yatsufusa, comes to his attention, and he jokes with the pooch:
I shall try you: how well do you know your ten years' debt of gratitude ? If you know it, then make your way by stealth into the enemy camp and bite the enemy general Anzai Kagetsura to death -- you will be saving everyone in my castle from certain doom. How about it ? Will you do it ?
       It's all in good fun, with Yoshizane then also suggesting how he will reward the dog if he is successful. Neither the offer of treats nor rank or land get the desired reaction from Yatsufusa -- but he wags his tail at Yoshizane's final offer, meant in jest but taken oh so seriously by Yatsufusa, who then also turns out to be very capable, showing up soon later with the trophy that assures Yoshizane and his followers are saved.
       Yoshizane finds himself in quite the bind. Only now does it dawn on him that the character in his daughter's name, Fuse, -- 伏 -- "consists of the character for human followed by that for dog". He realizes:
She was fated to this catastrophe since she was in swaddling clothes. Well might it be said that the name names the thing.
       Dutifully Princess Fuse accepts her fate: she marries the dog. She does set some conditons, however, and so the novel doesn't veer off into the entirely too creepy: she insists their relationship remain chaste, and so they become and remain, in their mountain-wilderness exile, mere soulmates rather than, um, actual mates. Princess Fuse makes the best of the situation -- finding here the path to the kind of enlightenment she seeks and ready to pass on into the next world and life. The devoted Yatsufusa has also earned great merit, and eventually they're both more or less ready to move on, spiritually if no longer physically.
       There is one slight inconvenience and oddity: it seems Princess Fuse is pregnant .....
       A stirring and dramatic finale has Princess Fuse give birth, as it were -- via seppuku-Caesarean, no less. To everyone's (not least the reader's) relief, she does not give birth to eight puppies; instead, it basically amounts to: "a harbinger of the appearance, years later, of the Eight Dog Warriors who would ultimately gather under the Satomi roof". That's pretty much as much as we get about the 'Eight Dogs' of the title -- basically an origins-story, and little beyond, as we learn essentially nothing of who they are (or will be).
       At the chapter's end we do see Kanamari Daisuke Takanori, whom Yoshizane had intended Princess Fuse should marry, taking the eight-bead necklace that the princess had always worn and promising:
Henceforth I shall make a pilgrim's progress through every land, seeking the place where each of the eight beads that flew has fallen, and I shall not return to this country and enter into audience with Your Lordship until I have strung those eight back with these, until the full tale of one hundred and eight is complete.
       This suggests the future course of the novel, but, again, is also only stage-setting (or plot-initiating).
       (Daisuke also changes his name, in reaction to the events surrounding Princess Fuse and Yatsufusa: "I shall take 'Chudai' [丶大] as my name in the Law, splitting the character for 'dog' [犬] in two while retaining the 'Dai' [大] of Daisuke, that was not equal to the dog's greatness". As Walley already noted in his Introduction, the 'Eight Dogs' the novel is ultimately about all have surnames that: "include the element inu [dog]".)
       Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" is an origin-story; clearly, other figures -- notably those 'Eight Dog Warriors' - have yet to come to the fore. (While only presenting the first four chapters of Volume II, Walley does reproduce the entire table of contents, the titles of each of the chapters presented in descriptive verse, so we get just the slightest hints at what happens in the next six chapters, to the close of Volume II.) It does stand quite well on its own, fairly self-contained -- and reaching some finality -- and while parts are a bit rushed, makes for a solid foundation, with some very entertaining episodes, suggesting what might follow. The twists and turns are quick and rather dramatic, but it's a fine adventure-story and good (which is often also specifically noble) is contrasted nicely with appealingly invidious evil.
       Hakkenden is a significant literary text as well -- immensely popular in its time (and, in countless variations, to the modern day), as well as remarkably accomplished. As Walley notes in his Introduction:
It was written in a (heavily modified) classical grammar and syntax, only a few decades before that language was rendered antiquated by Japan's modernization. And it was written for an audience that expected its fiction to be studded with allusions to and borrowings from the entire canons of poetry and prose of both Japan and China.
       The presentation here is excellent, beginning with the faithful reproduction and translation of seemingly every last detail -- notably including the advertisement with which the book opens, the author taking advantage of a blank page to hawk goods -- home remedies -- from the family business. Also reproduced are frontispieces from the volumes, as well as many woodblock illustrations (several in duplicate, to illustrate the changes made from one edition to another), helping to give a good sense of the original. (See also Adam L. Kern's fascinating Manga from the Floating World: Comicbook Culture and the Kibyōshi of Edo Japan for more on the evolution of Japanese book-culture in these times (as Kyokutei Bakin started out as a kibyōshi-author).)
       As Walley points out, Hakkenden is a remarkable work as far as its style goes -- indeed, arguing that: "Bakin is one of the great writers of the Japanese language -- he commands a staggering range of registers, moods, colors, and effects, and he knows how to use all this to keep the reader turning pages". Walley has tried to be particularly attentive to this in his translation, and shows a remarkable creative range herself. he helpfully describes the author's style(s) well in his Introduction, from: "his use of phrases and words drawn from vernacular Chinese fiction" to the use of kabuki-like dialogue. He also describes how he has handled various issues -- including that:
The longest limb this translation goes out on is the decision to render Bakin's meter into English meter. That is, when Bakin's prose slips into shichigochō, or seven-five syllabic meter, I have tried to translate it into unrhymed iambic pentameter. Just as Bakin's meter is left unmarked for the reader to discover as she will, so is the meter in the translation.
       Indeed, Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" does not read, stylistically, uniformly. Following Kyokutei Bakin, the translation constantly shifts -- one of the most remarkable aspects of the work, and fascinating to follow. At times it can sound stilted (as Walley acknowledges), but even that serves a good purpose, the language and approach varying with what the scenes involve. It makes for an unusual reading experience, but it works well; at its best, some of the scenes are quite sensational.
       It's hard to judge a work such as this on its own, since obviously it is only a part -- albeit foundational -- of a much larger whole. Unsurprisingly, it does not really feel complete (making very clear that the real action is yet to come), but even without more, yet, Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" is a very satisfying read. A considerable part of its appeal is purely literary: seeing what Kyokutei Bakin wants to do with language, and how he does it (and then also how his translator renders this into English), but much of the pure story-telling is very good and entirely gripping as well.
       Yes, there is a bit much (in part necessary) material introducing and explaining -- not least in what can seem to be quite the litany of place- and (often changing) people-names ... -- that can bog down parts of the novel. There is also a bit of a scaffolding-feel to the novel as a whole, Kyokutei Bakin erecting the various supporting beams to then place his larger story on, leaving, for the moment, vast unfilled spaces (not least in for now underdeveloped characters such as Yoshinari).
       Overall, however, Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden" is a very promising beginning, to a long-overdue translation of what looks to be an exceptional work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 September 2021

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Eight Dogs, or "Hakkenden": Reviews [* review of A Captive of Love]: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kyokutei Bakin (also: Takizawa Bakin; 曲亭馬琴) lived 1767 to 1848.

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© 2021 the complete review

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