In the Slender Margin Between the Real and the Unreal

Naoko and I stood outside Uno Chiyo’s apartment door. My stomach lurched. Desperate to shore up my flagging confidence, I listed all I had done to prepare for this interview. I had read Uno’s works. Gone over my interview questions until I knew them by heart. And even bought a new dress. I was ready! Kind of….

The door swung open. Fujie-san ushered us into a large, tatami-matted sitting room. It was sparsely furnished and full of natural light.

In one corner, I saw the nearly life-size ningyō puppet that Uno Chiyo had described in her novella The Puppet Maker Tenguya Kyūkichi. The venerable puppet maker had sent it to her in 1943 after their interview. The puppet was standing in a glass case wearing a grey-blue kimono Uno had designed herself.

Against the wall was a large framed print of an Edo-period figure, possibly a courtesan or maybe a wakashū boy. I was too distracted to pay it much attention.

Because, in the middle of the room, leaning against a low writing table, was the famed writer herself.

When she stood to greet us, I caught my breath.

Uno Chiyo and the puppet Oyumi

Uno Chiyo and the puppet Oyumi

She was much smaller than I had imagined. Barely five feet, I guessed.

Her hair, dyed a reddish brown, was pulled into curls atop her head. She wore a cobalt blue kimono patterned with small white dots, slightly resembling that of the puppet. Magnified behind her thickly lensed glasses, her eyes twinkled.

When she smiled, her face radiated strength and a touch of curiosity.
What did she think of this tall stranger looming over her in an ill-fitting free-style summer smock of crisply wispy material?

Fujie-san directed us sit on one side of the table. She and Uno Sensei sat on the other. Out of nowhere a woman appeared with a tray of tea and cakes. She disappeared with the bouquet I had brought, only to return a few minutes later with it brilliantly arranged in a large ceramic vessel.

I asked Sensei if I might record our conversation.

When she approved I pulled out my tape recorder and set it on the table between us. Then I unfolded my list of questions, opened my notepad and got down to business.

Sensei, when did you know you wanted to become a writer?

In your stories, you often describe your father as strict and difficult. Has your opinion of him changed over the years?

What was your relationship like with the modernist writer, Kajii Motojirō You spent a lot of time with him at the hot springs of Yugashima.

During the war, many of your friends went to the war front but you never did. Why was that?

What inspired your novel, Ohan?

Of all your husbands and lovers, who was your favorite?

My questions were bold. But having spent time reading through Uno’s collected works, I had grown accustomed to her own frankness. I went down my list and Uno Chiyo responded diligently, at times with a touch of amusement.

Naively, I had thought that she would “spill the beans” to me. Tell me all the little secrets she never admitted in any of her many, many memoirs.

Instead, her replies were nearly word for word exactly as she had written them. I began to get the impression that her scripted memories had taken the place of anything I might have considered “the truth.”

“Sensei, you write that you decided to meet the famous painter Tōgō Seiji because you were serializing a newspaper novel and you wanted to add a scene about a suicide.”

Artist Tōgō Seiji

Artist Tōgō Seiji

“Oh yes,” she began immediately launching into the narrative she had told countless times before. “He had just survived a love suicide attempt and I was eager to hear his experiences.”

“And then,” I continued, “when you spent the night with him, you say you slept on his futon which was still stained with the blood from that attempt.”

“That’s right! When I saw that, I was all the more inclined to stay with him as a result. You see, I was that sort of woman.”

“But Sensei, according to the timeline, his suicide attempt was on March 30, 1929 and you didn’t start serializing your novel until December of that year. You met Tōgō in the spring of 1930. Are you saying he kept the bloody futon for over a year?”

“Rebecca-san!” Fujie-san interjected sharply. “Uno Sensei is a shōsetsu-ka, a shōsetsu-ka! She’s a novelist!”

And so ended my quest for the “truth.”

In that moment I was reminded of something the great eighteenth-century playwright, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, had said: “Art is something which lies in the slender margin between the real and the unreal.”

The “truth” was irrelevant. What I needed to appreciate was Uno Chiyo’s creative genius and the way she positioned her fiction between the real and the unreal. As long as I was doggedly picking at facts and timelines, I would never find her art.

Now I understood why she had resisted meeting me for so long. Sitting there with my questions, notebook, and tape recorder, I was performing to a T the tenacious “woman scholar” she had so hoped to avoid.

I snapped off the tape recorder and took a sip of tea. The interview ended and our conversation began.

Rebecca Copeland and Uno Chiyo with the Oyumi puppet, June 21, 1984

Rebecca Copeland and Uno Chiyo with the Oyumi puppet, June 21, 1984