MODERN GIRLS, SHINING STARS, THE SKIES OF TOKYO by Phyllis Birnbaum

MODERN GIRLS, SHINING STARS, THE SKIES OF TOKYO

Five Japanese Women
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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. (5 b&w photos)

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 1999
ISBN: 0-231-11356-0
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1998