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.

38 thoughts on “Fumiko Enchi: Masks – Onnamen inaudita (1958)

  1. I had heard about Enchi but have not read her. The way that you describe the depiction of nature over everything else sounds like an intriguing device.

    • It’s very subtle. You have to py attention to tose small elemenst but the are really wonderful. I found the book by chance and I’m really glad I discoverd it.

  2. I really do like Boileau-Narcejac novels, so I may well keep an eye out for this one. I love the theme of magic and possession. I’ve been reading and writing about Shirley Jackson so I’m really into that at the moment.

    • I’m pretty convinced you would like this. The twist at the end is mean and surprising.
      I haven’t read Shirley Jackson yet. Another author to discover.

  3. This title has been on my radar for some time, but despite loving both Japanese literature and psychological works AND having a penchant for seeking out female authors I haven’t read, I’ve managed to never yet experience this book. Your review has made me aware of just how remiss I have been!

    • I came across the title in an older article in which it was quoted to be a great example of a very literaray but readable book making wonderful use of metaphor. It was all that and more.
      If you like Japaanese literature and unususal twists you might enjoy it.

  4. This author is completely new to me and I’ve not read the others you mention either, so will have to look them all up. I do like dark suspenseful sorts of stories–this one sounds ver complex, too. As my library has a good collection of earlier 20th century fiction I thought we might have this, which we don’t but there are some stories by her in a few anthologies–maybe that’s the way to go to give her work a try. Thanks for the heads up!

    • I hadn’t heard of her before stumbling upon an older article and I’m really glad she was mentioned.
      I always see the same Japanese authors mentioned which is too bad as there are hidden gems.
      I hope you will review one of her short stories. Hard to say how good she is in the shorter form.

    • It is fascinating. Now that you mention it, there is a bit of Liaisons Dangereuses in it as well. The outcome isn’t as fatal but it surely is uncanny.

  5. I have never heard of this author before…she must have skipped my eyes everytime I came to the library. I am sure her book is there judging from what you have written above.

    I will definitely look for this the next time I visit the library.

    I kept thinking about the tittle…I need to check my dictionary after this. I know Onnamen but never heard of inaudita.

    Anyway, great review Caroline.

    • Thanks, Novroz.
      I just relized that people on blogs who read Japanese literature read far more male writers while there must be so many women who are excellent as well.
      I thought she was amazing. It’s sad and eerie at the same time. And the end has such a great twist. Nothing is said, you have to work it out for yourself but when you do you’ll go “Oh wow…”.
      I copied the Japanese title from the inside and was a bit stunnend.I would have said inaudita is Latin. But would a Japaneese author use a half Latin title? Inaudita in Lating or Spanish would mean “unheard of”. Does that make sense together with Onnamen?

      • I like two female writers from Japan, I can easily call them as one of my fav writers…both of them are thriller and mystery writers. They are natsuo Kirino and Miyuki Miyabe.

        Hmm…I wonder why the mix language. Onnnamen is woman mask.

  6. This is one I’ve had on my radar for some time, especially as there isn’t much classic J-Lit by female writers. Mind you, with JLC7 coming up, perhaps you should have saved this review for June 😉

    • I noticed that there were far more reviews of male writers but that seems to be for a reason.
      I’ll be very interested to read what you think, should you get to it. I feel it’s the type of book you’d enjoy even more when you know more about Japanese, literature…
      June? And you will host it again next January too? I haven’t done well last January but it simply wasn’t possible. I got still a small pile of unread Japanese novels, so there is hope.

      • No promises, but there’s a good chance I’ll do it again in January 😉

        As for male v female, that’s a current topic in translated literature. If not much by women is being translated, then not much will be read and reviewed. I touched on that in the post I just published, a review of this year’s IFFP proceedings.

        • You’re so right, of course. Far less women are translated and… a vicious cycle really. Maybe you should do a week dedicated to female writers only … That would be so interesting.

          • In January 2012 I had a whole month on female writers (not all translated though). I have to say, it was a hit-and-miss experience…

            • I followed it and saw the result. But it’s hit and miss with male authors too. I just think that the choices are made on another level. I know far more female German writers and those I like the most, with the exception of Vanderbeke, haven’t been translated. Btw – I tried to find your Anna Funder review. I wanted to add the link to my readalong next week. It didn’t come up. Maybe you can add it to a comment. I’ve read 120 pages so far and am underwhelmed.

  7. I love the sound of this one. I haven’t read the other authors you suggested so I may add all of them to my list. Currently I’m reading Kafka on the Shore and I would love to explore more Japanese authors. Thanks for the review.

    • My pleasure. 🙂 I could imagine you’d like it. Try to find Yoko Ogawa’s short story collection “Revenge”. It’s very dark – You could read it for RIP – if you want to wait that long. I’m curious to see how you will like the Murakami.

      • So far I’m really enjoying it. I got it at the airport in Malaysia and finished half of it before we landed. Unfortunately I haven’t had much free time since getting home and I’m hoping it doesn’t ruin the flow of the story. Hopefully I’ll finish it this weekend.

        • I find I can read Murakami rather quickly. Some ideas may be surreal but the writing as such is very accessible.
          I read a lot when I just came back from Morocco as I had not time during the trip.

  8. Nice review, Caroline! I haven’t heard of Fumiko Enchi before. Other than contemporary Japanese women writers like Yoko Ogawa, Banana Yoshimoto and Natsuo Kirino, I haven’t heard of Japanese women writers from the early or middle part of the 20th century. (The only other older Japanese woman writer I know is Murasaki Shikibu who wrote ‘The Tale of Genji’). So Enchi must have been a real pioneer during her era. This story looks very interesting and probably dark. I love the fact that the main characters all have something to do with literature and poetry. How can one resist such a book 🙂 Your comparison of Enchi’s work with that of Ogawa’s makes me want to read it. It looks like it is a bit dark and so I will wait for the right mood to pick it up. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks for the nice comment, Vishy. I hope you will like it should you read it.
      It dark but in a very subtle way. You don’t even see it at first, it’s more like an undercurrant. Ogawa is more outspoken.
      Enchi was a pioneer in many ways, yes. I loved the importance of literature in the book. I’m sure someone more versed in Japanese literature would uncover a lot more. My contains an interview with the author and it’s very interesting. She didn’t have an easy life as a female writer in a society and literature dominated by men. I’m sure she enjoyed creating Mieko.

  9. I’ve never heard of her but it’s not surprising, I don’t know much about Japanese literature. It sounds fascinating and multi-layered.

    Do you think it’s difficult to read if you don’t know much about Japanese culture?

    PS: this cover scares me like a little girl. I find it creepy.

    • I agree, the cover is creepy. These masks are creepy.
      I don’t know all hat much about Japanese culture and it worked very well for me. I just assume I would have been able to make even more of it.
      I could imagine you’d like it. She has written a lot maybe some has been translated into French.

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