Here’s another scene from The Kimono Tattoo draft that ended up on the cutting room floor. Again, we have reference to Hiratsuka Raichō, but also to a controversial feminist painter, an ancient Japanese legend, and the politics of protest in postwar Japan. Why did this get cut? What do the references tell us about the main characters?
In this scene, also from “Chapter Four: Crows,” Ruth is conversing with her dance teacher who is based on Nishikawa Senrei Sensei, who choreographed her own, original dances, known as sōsaku in Japanese. When I studied with her in Kyoto, from 2004-2006, I saw her perform two of her original pieces. One was drawn from the life of Camille Claudel and the other a retelling of author Mori Ōgai’s encounter with a German dancer (upon whom Ōgai based his early work “Dancing Girl” or Maihime, 1890).
Here’s what was cut:
“Of course. They make excellent kimonos. Or at least they used to. I have a few myself. They are good for performance. A Tani Kimono is always supple and the colors are deep so they show up well on stage. Years ago the family was a great patron of the school and would donate kimonos for our performances. I even collaborated once with Satoko Tani, back when she was more involved in the business. But it’s been years.”
“You worked with Satoko Tani?”
“Once, yes. I choreograph my own dances, you know. And I worked with Satoko on creating a kimono for one of my pieces.”
“I didn’t know you choreographed your own works, Sensei.”
“Oh, certainly. That’s the only way to keep the art fresh. The one you’re learning, Ruth, is only a hundred years old or so. All of the dance masters create individual works at some point, and I’ve done quite a few. The last one I did was so controversial, though, I haven’t had the energy to take on another project.”
“Honestly, I don’t understand it myself. It was a fantasy piece about the dragon princess. She fell in love with the Japanese god, Hoori, and gave birth to his child. But she left him when he broke his word to her and spied on her in childbirth. That’s when he saw her true form resembled a crocodile. She was shamed, and so she left him and her newborn to return to her undersea world. Well, my dance starts at that point. What happens to her when she returns? I have her swimming the seas to unite with other Asian sea deities. You can imagine how magical the set would be for the dance. I had banners and screens set up with electric fans blowing behind them to make them waver and tremble on stage like water.”
“It sounds wonderful. How could that be controversial.”
“Oh, it’s just so annoying. The controversy erupted because the dragon princess—who is worshiped as the grandmother of Japan’s first emperor Jimmu—swims the seas with goddesses from Korea and South China and the message is that we are all born from the sea. We are all sisters. And at least for women, there are no national boundaries, no national languages, or identities. We are one in our multitude.”
“But that sounds fantastic.”
“Well, there were right-wing radicals who were offended that I had linked the grandmother of the Japanese imperial court with other Asians, particularly with Koreans. So they staged very boisterous protests in front of the theaters where we performed. At the last performance in Tokyo they even threw stones and trash at us as we went into the theater and a few of my young assistants were hurt.”
“We were all traumatized by it. Now I will only perform that dance overseas.”
“Did Satoko Tani collaborate with you on that dance?”
“No. I got off track, didn’t I? My collaboration with Satoko was much earlier than that. I was inspired by the life of Hiratsuka Raichō and decided to plan a dance to commemorate her.”
Two encounters with Raichō in one day. I felt somewhat smug with knowledge when I asked Sensei if she had planned her dance around the failed love suicide. The incident seemed tailor made for romantic reinterpretation.
“No, that was just the silly misadventure of youth. She wasn’t even really Raichō then. No, I was interested in the interaction she had with women in the licensed quarters. She and a group of her Bluestockings went to the Yoshiwara in Tokyo and spent the night with a famous courtesan there. I wanted to capture that encounter between the New Woman and the woman of the past. Only in my interpretation, both Raichō and the courtesan come to see they are not very different. Raichō isn’t all that new. And the courtesan defies the stereotypes about her.”
“Did you play the role of Raichō or the courtesan?”
“I played them both. I used a mirror and other stage techniques. But much of the success of the production depended on the kimono Satoko designed for me. I had to be able to change costumes quickly.”
“You mean like on the Kabuki stage where the actor slips out of one costume and steps into another right before your eyes?”
“No, Ruth, this is Japanese dance. We don’t rely on tricks like that! But I had to be able to switch from one kimono to the next in the matter of seconds it took me to walk from one side of the mirror to the other. I may have a video tape of the performance downstairs if you would like to see it.”
I could tell my teacher was ready to wrap up our conversation. But I needed to know more about Satoko. I played my “gaijin card” and pretended not to pick up on her cues.
“What was it like to work with Satoko?”
“She was brilliant. She knew exactly what I wanted—even before I knew what I wanted! She came to my studio with pattern books and sketch paper, and we roughed out the designs together. She had already read up on the “Yoshiwara tōrō” incident, or the Dalliance in the Yoshiwara. It had been sensationalized in so many of the newspapers of the day, she didn’t have any trouble finding information—most of it heavily critical of Raichō. And she knew almost intuitively the angle I was pursuing with this.
I was trying to get inside Raichō and the courtesan to understand how they felt meeting each other and how their hearts communicated to one another as women. She designed one two-sided kimono. And it was perfect. See, Ruth. That’s what I mean about doing things the old way. Satoko was not herself old-fashioned, but she understood how to listen to a customer—even when the customer wasn’t saying anything. Or wasn’t able to say what she really wanted.”
End of cut.
But why cut this scene? By this time, readers have already ascertained that the dance teacher in The Kimono Tattoo is a creative artist and a feminist. We do not really need such a long digression to drive the point home. If anything, the scene (as with the one cut in my earlier post) distracts the reader. Who is the main interest in this scene? Satoko Tani or Hiratsuka Raichō?
I absolutely loved the way one historical figure after another crept into my story—Raichō, the author Mori Ōgai, and the visual artist Tomiyama Taeko. I couldn’t stop them. As I was writing they pressed forward.
“That’s right,” I thought to myself as I wrote the conversation with the dance teacher. “If she created a sōsaku or original dance based on the legend of the Dragon Princess, wouldn’t it resemble one of Tomiyama’s paintings?” One idea led to another in an absolute torrent. I thought the deluge was good because I wanted the novel to read like layered fabric, with one story giving way to another. The torrent of ideas buoyed my layered design.
At some point, I came to realize, if you add too many fabrics, the ensemble becomes too heavy to wear. Whoever is clothed in such a garment will be unable to move. I needed to pull back, trim away some of the layers so that my novel could breathe.
I still have the scraps of fabric, the ideas, the conversations folded neatly away in my writer’s drawer. If I am able to use them later, I’ll know where to find them.