Fumiko Enchi: Masks – Onnamen inaudita (1958)


Mieko Togano, a highly cultivated, seemingly serene, but frustrated and bitter woman in her fifties, manipulates for her own bizarre purposes the relationship between her widowed daughter-in-law and that woman’s two suitors.

I just finished Fumiko Enchi’s Masks. Enchi was one of the most important Japanese women writers of the so-called Shōwa period (reign of Emperor Hirohito). The role of Japanese women was an important aspect of her work. Most of her figures are still old-fashioned, very obedient, even subservient figures. Nevertheless they try to fight their oppressors, sometimes, like in Masks, using rather unusual methods.

Masks is a mysterious novel. Looking at Masks superficially you could call it the tale of a vengeance. It’s a dark, mean, unfathomable story. The German edition I’ve read even calls it a crime story. A very unconventional crime story. Although nobody commits a murder, I was reminded of the work of Boileau-Narcejac, notably The Fiends – Diaboliques.

Mieko is a widow and a famous poet. She lives together with her equally widowed daughter-in-law, the beautiful, young Yasuko. Ibuki, one of Yasuko’s suitors, suspects the relationship to be sexual. The two women are very close. Yasuko pretends, she wants to break free but doesn’t make any attempts to change her situation.

Yasuko continues her late husbands studies of possession and necromancy. The two women, together with Ibuki and Mikame, form a literary and spiritualistic circle. Ibuki, a professor of literature, and Mikame, a doctor who dedicates his free time to anthropological research, are both specialized in the belief in ghosts and possessions.

Both men are attracted to Yasuko and feel as if they were under a spell. The mysterious thing however is that it’s not Yasuko who cast the spell but her mother-in-law Mieko.

Later in the book we learn a lot about Mieko’s tragic life and how badly she had been treated by her late husband. Her role as dependent wife who was at the mercy of a cruel man, turned her into a vindictive woman. The only man she really loved was her son Aiko, Yasuko’s late husband but he died on mount Fuji.

The story of her vengeance is pretty uncanny and the end is more than a little surprising. Both men are used like puppets and one of them pays a considerable prize for getting too close.

The novel bears great similarity with a black and white painting on which just a few, small details are highlighted in colour. The story and the people are black and white, with some shades of grey, while the descriptions of nature stand out in a most descriptive and colorful way.

What I loved about this book was the combination of many different aspects. It combines dark erotic elements, beautiful small descriptions of nature, a fascinating story and a complex symbolism. Many aspects of traditional Japanese culture like the No-Masks, the Tale of Prince Genji, the firefly festival and many more, build an interesting backdrop.

Masks is a haunting book, full of mystery, darkness, beauty and with an ending worthy of a psychological thriller. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes Boileau-Narcejac, as well as to the fans of Yoko Ogawa.