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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Nagai Kafu

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To purchase Rivalry

Title: Rivalry
Author: Nagai Kafu
Genre: Novel
Written: 1918 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 171 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Rivalry - US
Rivalry - UK
Rivalry - Canada
Rivalry - India
  • A Geisha's Tale
  • Japanese title: 腕くらべ
  • Originally published in a different version in serial form 1916-7
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Stephen Snyder
  • Previously translated by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich (1963)

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting look at the geisha-milieu, and the times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 14/10/2007 Donald Richie
The Japan Times . 8/1/2012 David Cozy

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though anything by Kafu is worth reading and any new translations are welcome, the full importance of the writer is to be more directly experienced in such later works as A Strange Tale from East of the River (.....) This full version of Udekurabe comes with a full-color image of a geisha on the cover and it is not perhaps too much to wonder if the present publication of the much-translated novel does not owe something to the current popularity in the U.S. of the geisha theme. At any rate, the publishers would seem to target this audience when they add, to Kafu's one word title: Rivalry: A Geisha's Tale. In the meantime, much late Kafu (including the Diaries) awaits translation." - Donald Richie, The Japan Times

  • "Snyder's fluent translation is the first time Rivalry, un-bowdlerized, has appeared in English, and the combination of Snyder's prose with Kafu's vision leaves one eager to return to the Edo that lives in the scribbler's fiction." - David Cozy, The Japan Times

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:

       Rivalry centres around Komayo, who returns to being a geisha after the death of the patron who had taken her in a few years earlier. Still young -- in her mid-twenties -- she prefers to return to Tokyo rather than live "an existence that would have been plainer than a nun's" in the countryside with his family. But she is also at an age where she has to start worrying about her future.
       She runs into an old client, Yoshioka, whom she had first met and gotten involved with when she was eighteen and he was twenty-five. Their short relationship had ended when he went abroad, but now that he's back he's interested in starting things up again -- and Komayo sees in him the potential sugar-daddy she needs. Still, she's wary of becoming a kept woman again, her fate dependant on the man in her life: "What she really wanted was to remain a geisha but continue to enjoy Yoshioka's patronage."
       Matters get more complicated when she falls in love as well, with the actor Segawa -- a relationship Yoshioka would hardly approve of. Things do not go particularly well for her in either relationship, and soon enough Yoshioka has his heart set on another geisha (and looks forward to taking "his time thinking about other ways in which to have his revenge on Komayo"), while Segawa also finds another woman he prefers. Just when she's almost entirely down and out Kafu does, however, offer her some hope for the future, and while there's apparently no escaping the geisha world for her, maybe that's for the best.
       Rivalry is hardly a romance: there's passion here, but most of it comes down to sex. The one apparently honest passion, when Segawa and Komayo first find each other, is quickly brought back down to earth by Komayo's other obligations. Most of the characters are used by -- and try to use -- the others: Rivalry is, indeed, a novel full of rivalries, along with deception and manipulation. The geishas compete for the men, the men want to have their fun (and care little about feelings), and much of the fun of all of this is that it this is played out by the strict rules of the geisha-world, with all its specific formalities and expectations, along with debts that have to be paid off, obligations that must be met, standards that must be kept up.
       Rivalry is most interesting as a sort of period-piece showcasing that milieu. Kafu's focus is on Komayo, but numerous other geishas also figure in it, as well as their clients and other local characters -- the writer Nanso, for example, who "found more and more occasion for indignation" in these rapidly changing times (and takes to devoting almost all his energy to writing about "bygone times"). It is a novel of the games people play, but Kafu also shows how very much at the mercy of the men these women are, with Komayo little more than a glorified prostitute. The concern she has for her future, and how she goes about trying to secure it, are almost universal -- in its roughest outlines Rivalry could just as easily be a 19th-century French novel -- but it's in the specific details (and strictures) of the time and world it is set in that Rivalry is more than just another variation on a theme.
       Kafu does a good job of showing what this geisha-world is like, both for the men and the women. Even here there is some change in the air -- there's a geisha named Ranka, "one of those 'New Women'" who doesn't even dance but rather: "just appears nude at banquets", posing in well-known-statue poses (leading some to worry that she could "hurt the reputation of the quarter") -- but for the most part everything remains very tradition-bound. However, in the focus on showing the geisha-world some of the narrative force is lost: Kafu is good on the details and with the set scenes (including the incidental ones, such as around Nanso), but it doesn't add up to as compelling a whole as the plot-outline might suggest.
       Stephen Snyder's 2007 translation is based on the unexpurgated 1956 edition while the 1963 Meissner-Friedrich translation was apparently based on the cleaned-up 1918 edition. However, even this version of Rivalry isn't especially racy or explicit -- indeed, in the case of one of Komayo's clients, "an enormous, swarthy man in his fifties, fat and round as the sea monster known as the Umibozu", Kafu does his best to show how unpleasant the demands of the men can be for the women (who have little choice but to put up with them). Sex is significant but ultimately also secondary to all the intrigue, manipulation, and rivalries.
       Not entirely successful as a novel, Rivalry is nevertheless of interest for its rich picture of the geisha-milieu and Japanese life in the early 20th century.

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Rivalry: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Nagai Kafu (永井 荷風; born Nagai Sokichi (永井 壮吉)) lived 1879 to 1959.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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