Mori Ogai was born Mori Rintaro in Tsuwano, in Iwami Province on February 17th, 1862. The eldest son of a family of army physicians, he carried on the family trade, learning medicine, Dutch and western philosophy. After the Meiji Restoration saw the abolition of the han system of feudal domains, Mori’s family moved to Tokyo, where he began to learn German – the language of medicine at the time. After enlisting in the army as a surgeon, he was sent to Germany in 1884. Upon returning to Japan, he began to publish medical journals, and also started to show an interest in Japanese literature, publishing short stories, editing a literary journal and producing translations of European classics by authors including Goethe and Ibsen.
His literary work is described as “anti-realist”, reflecting the emotional and spiritual rather than the actual. His early works, including The Dancing Girl and Seinen (The Young Men), bear a resemblance to the work of contemporary Natsume Soseki, with the added influence of Ogai’s time in Germany and his reading of European classics. Many of his own literary works act as critical studies of his own translations, particularly in his early career. His later work veered more towards historical fiction, set in the 17th and 18th century, as well as some biography and criticism. Takasebune (The Boat on the Takase River), one of Mori’s later works, tells the story of a boat carrying prisoners from Kyoto to Osaka for exile, and despite cold critical reception at the time due to its theme of euthanasia, it is now perhaps one of his most famous works.
Mori’s work in English translation is not easy to find – there are some stories in collections, and large libraries might have ancient copies of one or two of his novels, but if you can find them, they’re a great companion to Natsume Soseki and give a great insight into Japan as it was opening up to the world. Here’s my pick of the bunch:
1) The Dancing Girl, Mori’s first published story, describing an affair between a Japanese man and a German dancer, is a sort of Madame Butterfly in reverse. The Japanese man, in Berlin studying, must choose between his career and his feelings for the dancer, who he has made pregnant.
2) Mori’s most famous – or perhaps infamous – novel, Vita Sexualis, is an erotic tale of a philosopher coming to terms with his sexuality. Though banned almost immediately after its publication on grounds of obscenity, the novel actually doesn’t describe any sex, instead casting a philosophical eye over Meiji Period moral struggles with sexuality.
3) The Wild Goose (occasionally translated as The Wild Geese), however, is Mori at his best, and Finlay Lloyd’s beautiful edition of Meredith McKinney’s new translation, published in 2014, allows the subtle nuances of the original to shine. The Wild Goose is a sort of Meiji Period Lost In Translation, where an old moneylender sets up house for his young mistress, who, feeling empty, lonely and rejected in her new world, looks for companionship in a young medical student about to leave for Germany.