The first complete English translation of Kafu’s 1918 portrait of geisha life is historically gripping, if not quite dramatically so.
Recently widowed Komayo has returned to Tokyo to take up the only livelihood she knows, the profession of geisha. Lovely, in her mid-20s, she hits on a bit of luck when she runs into Yoshioka at the theater. He’s now a successful businessman. Komayo was Yoshioka’s first encounter with a geisha back in his student days. Still enchanted with her, he wants to reestablish their connection. It is not long before Yoshioka becomes her patron, a euphemism tangled in the complex economic and social structure of geisha life. Though ostensibly hostesses, geisha are financially indebted to the house that represents them (for their costly wardrobes and board), and the only feasible way to be released from contract is to acquire a patron who will hopefully buy it. Sexual favors are traded for patronage, and the geisha will hedge her bets by having a number of patrons, hoping one will repay the debt, in effect creating a life of limited, genteel prostitution. Away on holiday Komayo meets Segawa, a rising star on the stage, and the two begin a love affair. She tries to keep Segawa a secret, but soon Yoshioka finds out and begins to plot her humiliation. Meanwhile, Komayo becomes involved with a grotesque antiques dealer, whose patronage helps pay for the increasing expenses Komayo incurs in gifts for Segawa. Into these complications come the rivals of the novel’s title—other geishas who steal the attention of Yoshioka and Segawa. Originally serialized, the novel detours into the lives of those in the Shimbashi geisha district of 1912, offering for view the hangers-on, hack writers, men of power and the waitresses and attendants who serve the geisha, in effect shaping a beautifully realized portrait of this significant Japanese subculture.
There is a bit of the cultural expansiveness of Dickens or Zola here, and if Komayo’s dilemma feels a bit light to a modern sensibility, Kafu creates a world around her that is fascinating to behold.