Nature and Naturalism in Tayama Katai’s Juemon no Saigo

Tayama Katai’s Juemon no Saigo is frequently identified as an important work within Katai’s canon, particularly in the period preceding the “second phase” of Japanese Naturalism that began with the publication of Futon. It skillfully incorporates the complex blend of French Naturalism and German Naturalism, while negotiating the influence of Nietzschean philosophy. However, the role of Katai’s intense focus on nature often goes overlooked within the interweaving of these elements. Furthermore, it is not easily recognized where the Western Naturalism ends and the Japanese Naturalism begins. By the end of the novella, the narrator – becoming the direct mouthpiece for Katai’s Naturalist voice – explicitly works out the French and German Naturalist themes of the novella. However, there is – at no point – any such explanation given for Japanese Naturalism. Still more perplexing is the tension that takes form in the last three chapters of the novella: rather than follow the convention of the Western Naturalist tropes and conventions that inspired his work, Katai subverts the expected end in a radical way. Juemon, the eponymous character, does indeed suffer the fate destined for a Naturalist protagonist in that he loses at the hands of conventional society, but the villagers in turn soon suffer at the hands of a Nature turned Supernatural agent that terrorizes them with a firestorm. In so doing, the supernatural element ascribed to Nature ultimately overturns the depressing end and deals a comeuppance. It is this role of Nature, I argue, that comes to differentiate Japanese Naturalism from its Western counterparts.

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