Issue 16, Spring-Summer 1957
These things happened at a time when that noble virtue, frivolity, still flourished, when today’s relentless struggle for existence was yet unknown. The faces of the young aristocrats and squires were not darkened by any cloud; at court the maids of honour and the great courtesans always wore a smile on their lips; the occupations of clown and professional teahouse wit were held in high esteem; life was peaceful and full of joy. In the theater and in the writings of the time, beauty and power were portrayed as inseparable.
Physical beauty, indeed, was the chief aim of life and in its pursuit people went so far as to have themselves tattooed. On their bodies, brilliant lines and colours were ravelled in a sort of dance. When visiting the gay quarters, they would choose as bearers for their palanquins men whose bodies were skilfully tattooed, and the courtesans of Yoshiwara and Tatsumi gave their love to men whose bodies boasted beautiful tattoos. Frequenters of the gambling dens, firemen, merchants and even samurai all had recourse to the tattooer’s art. Exhibitions of tattoo were frequently arranged where the participants, fingering the tattoo-marks on each other’s bodies, would praise the original design of one and criticise the shortcomings of another.
There was one young tattooer gifted with an outstanding talent. He was much in fashion and his reputation rivaled even that of the great old masters: Charibun of Asakusa, Yakkôhei of Matsushimachô and Konkonjirô. His works were greatly prized at the exhibitions of tattoo and most admirers of this art aspired to become his clients. While the artist Darumakin was known for his fine drawings and Karakusa Gonta was the master of the vermilion tattoo, this man, Seikichi, was famous for the originality of his compositions and their voluptuous quality.
Previously he had achieved a certain reputation as a painter, belonging to the school of Toyokuni and Kunisada and specialising in genre paintings. In descending to the rank of tattooer, he still preserved the true spirit of an artist and a great sensitivity. He declined to execute his work on people whose skin or general physique did not appeal to him, and such customers as he did accept had to agree implicitly to the design of his choosing and also to his price. Moreover, they had to endure for as long as one or two months the excruciating pain of his needles.
Within this young tattooer’s heart lurked unsuspected passions and pleasures. When the pricking of his needles caused the flesh to swell and the crimson blood to flow, his patients, unable to endure the agony, would emit groans of pain. The more they groaned, the greater was the artist’s indefinable pleasure. He took particular delight in vermilion designs, which are known to be the most painful of all tattoos. When his clients had received five or six hundred pricks of the needle and then taken a scalding hot bath the more vividly to bring out the colours, they would often collapse half-dead at Seikichi’s feet. As they lay there unable to move, he would ask them with a satisfied smile, “So it really hurts?”
When he had to deal with a faint-hearted customer whose teeth would grind or who gave out shrieks of pain, Seikichi would say, “Really, I thought you were a native of Kyoto where people are meant to be so courageous. Well, please try to be patient. My needles are unusually painful.” And glancing from the corner of his eyes at the victim’s face, now moist with tears, he would continue his work with utter unconcern. If, on the contrary, his patient bore the agony without flinching, he would say, “Ah, you are much braver than you look. But wait a while. Soon you will be unable to endure it in silence, try as you may.” And he would laugh, showing his white teeth.
For many years now, Seikichi’s great ambition had been to have under his needle the lustrous skin of a beautiful girl, on which he dreamed of tattooing, as it were his very soul. This imaginary woman had to meet many conditions both as to physique and character; a lovely face and a fine skin would not in themselves satisfy Seikichi. In vain had he searched among the well-known courtesans for a woman who would measure up to his ideal. Her image was constantly in his mind, and although three years had now elapsed since he started this quest, his desire had only grown with time.
It was on a summer’s evening while walking in the Fukagawa district that his attention was caught by a feminine foot of dazzling whiteness disappearing behind the curtains of a palanquin. A foot can convey as many variations of expression as a face, and this white female foot seemed to Seikichi like the rarest of jewels. The perfectly-shaped toes, the iridescent nails, the rounded heel, the skin, as lustrous as if it had been washed for ages by the limpid waters of some mountain brook—all be-spoke a foot of absolute perfection designed to stir the heart of a man and to trample upon his soul. Seikichi knew at once that this was the foot of the woman for whom he had searched these many years! Joyously he hurried after the palanquin, hoping to get a glimpse of its occupant, but after following it for several streets, he lost sight of it around a corner. From then on what had been a vague yearning was transformed into the most violent of passions.
One morning a year later Seikichi received a visit at his house in the Fukagawa district. It was a young girl sent on an errand by a friend, a certain geisha from the Tatsumi quarter.
“Excuse me, Sir,” she said timidly. “My mistress has asked me to deliver this coat to you personally and to request you to be so good as to make a design on the lining.”
So saying, she handed him a letter and a woman’s coat, the latter wrapped in a paper bearing the portrait of the actor Iwai Tojaku. In her letter the geisha informed Seikichi that the young messenger was her newly-adopted ward and was soon to make her debut as a geisha in the restaurants of the capital. She asked him to do what he could to launch the girl in her new career.
Seikichi looked closely at the visitor, who though no more than sixteen or seventeen, had in her face something strangely mature. In her eyes were reflected the dreams of all the handsome men and beautiful women who had lived in this capital, where the virtues and vices of the whole country converged. Then Seikichi’s glance went to her delicate feet, shod in street clogs covered with plaits of straw.
“Could it have been you who left the Hirasei Restaurant last June in a palanquin?”
“Yes, Sir, it was I,” she said, laughing at his strange question. “My father was still alive then and he used to take me occasionally to the Hirasei Restaurant.”
“I have been waiting for you now for five years,” said Seikichi. “This is the first time that I have seen your face but I know you by your feet... There is something that I should like you to see. Please come inside, and do not be afraid.”
So saying, he took the hand of the reluctant girl and led her upstairs, into a room which looked out on the great river. He fetched two large picture-scrolls and spread one of them before her.
It was a painting of Mo Hsi, the favourite princess of the ancient Chinese emperor, Chou the Cruel. Languidly she leaned against a balustrade, and the bottom of her richly brocaded gown rested on the steps of the staircase leading to a garden. Her tiny head seemed almost too delicate to support the weight of her crown, which was encrusted with lapiz-lazuli and coral. In her right hand she held a cup, slightly tilted, and with an indolent expression, she watched a prisoner who was about to be beheaded in the garden below. Secured hand and foot to a stake, he stood there awaiting his last moment; his eyes were closed, his head bent down. Pictures of such scenes tend to vulgarity, but so skillfully had the painter portrayed the expressions of the princess and of the condemned man, that this picture scroll was a work of consummate art.
For a while the young girl fixed her gaze on the strange painting. Unconsciously her eyes began to shine and her lips trembled; gradually her face assumed a resemblance to that of the young Chinese princess.
“Your spirit is reflected in that painting,” said Seikichi, smiling with pleasure as he gazed at her.
“Why have you shown me such a terrible picture?” asked the girl, passing her hand over her pale forehead.
“The woman depicted here is yourself. Her blood flows through your very veins.”
Seikichi then unrolled the other scroll, which was entitled “The Victims”. In the center of the picture a young woman leant against a cherry tree, gazing at a group of men’s corpses which lay pell-mell about her feet; pride and satisfaction were to be discerned in her pale face. Hopping about among the corpses, a swarm of little birds chirped away happily. Impossible to tell whether the picture represented a battle field or a spring garden.
“This painting symbolises your future,” said Seikichi, indicating the face of the young woman, which again strangely resembled that of his visitor. “The men fallen on the ground are those who will lose their lives because of you.”
“Oh, I beg you,” she cried, “put that picture away.” And as if to escape its terrifying fascination, she turned her back on the scroll and threw herself on the straw matting. There she lay with lips trembling and her whole body shuddering.
“Master, I will confess to you... As you have guessed, I have in me the nature of that woman. Take pity on me and hide the picture.”
“Do not talk like a coward! On the contrary, you should study the painting more carefully and then you will soon stop being frightened of it.”
The girl could not bring herself to raise her head, which remained hidden in the sleeve of her kimono. She lay prostrate on the floor saying over and over, “Master, let me go home. I am frightened to be with you.”
“You shall stay for a while,” said Seikichi imperiously. “I alone have the power to make of you a beautiful woman...”
From among the bottles and needles on his shelf Seikichi selected a vial containing a powerful narcotic.
The sun shone brightly on the river. Its reflected rays threw a patten like golden waves on the sliding doors and on the face of the young sleeping woman. Seikichi closed the doors and sat down beside her. Now for the first time he was able fully to relish her strange beauty, and he thought that he could have spent years sitting there gazing at that perfect, immobile face.
But the urge to fulfil his design overcame him before many moments. Having fetched his tattooing instruments from the shelf, Seikichi uncovered the girl’s body and began to apply to her back the point of his pen, held between the thumb, ring-finger and little-finger of his left hand. With the needle, held in his right hand, he pricked along the lines as they were drawn. As the people of Memphis once embellished with sphinxes and pyramids the fine land of Egypt, so Seikichi now adorned the pure skin of this young girl. It was as if the tattooer’s very spirit entered into the design, and each injected drop of vermillion was like a drop of his own blood penetrating the girl’s body.
He was quite unconscious of the passage of time. No one came and went, and the quiet spring day moved gradually towards its close. Indefatigably Seikichi’s hand pursued its work without ever waking the girl from her profound slumber. Presently the moon hung in the sky, pouring its dreamy light over the roof tops on the other side of the river. The tattoo was not yet half done. Seikichi interrupted his work to turn up the lamp, then sat down again and reached for his needle.
Now each stroke demanded an effort, and the artist would let out a sigh, as if his own heart had felt the prick. Little by little there began to appear the outline of an enormous spider. As the pale glow of dawn entered the room, this animal of diabolic mien spread its eight legs over the entire surface of the girl’s back.
The spring night was almost over. Already one could hear the dip of the oars as the row-boats passed up or down the river; above the sails of the fishing smacks, swollen with the moming breeze, one could see the mists lifting. And at last Seikichi brought himself to put down his brush. Standing aside, he studied the enormous female spider tattooed on the girl’s back, and as he gazed at it, he realized that in this work he had indeed expressed the essence of his whole life. Now that it was completed, the artist was aware of a great emptiness.
“To give you beauty I have poured my whole soul into this tattoo,” Seikichi murmured. “From now on there is not a single woman in Japan who can surpass you! Never again will you know fear, as in the past. All, all men will be your victims...”
Did she hear his words? A moan rose to her lips, her limbs moved. Gradually she began to regain consciousness, and as she lay breathing heavily in and out, the spider’s legs moved on her back like those of a living animal.
“You must be suffering,” said Seikichi. “That is because the spider is embracing your body so closely.”
She half opened her eyes. At first they had a vacant look, then the pupils began to shine with a brightness that the moonlight reflected on Seikichi’s face.
“Master, let me see the tattoo on my back! If you have given me your soul, I must indeed have become beautiful.”
She spoke as in a dream, and yet in her voice there was a new note of confidence, of power.
“First you must take a bath to brighten the colours,” Seikichi answered her. And he added with unwonted solicitude, “It will be painful, most painful. Have courage!”
“I will bear anything to become beautiful,” said the girl.
She followed Seikichi down some stairs into the bathroom, and as she stepped into the steaming water her eyes glistened with pain.
“Ah, ah, how it burns!” she groaned. “Master, leave me and wait upstairs. I shall join you when I am ready. I do not want any man to see me suffer.”
But when she stepped out of the bath, she did not even have strength to dry herself. She pushed aside Seikichi’s helping hand and collapsed on the floor, overcome by pain. Groaning, she lay there, her long hair draped acress the floor. The mirror behind her reflected the soles of two feet, iridescent as mother-of-pearl.
Seikichi went upstairs to wait for her, and when at last she joined him she was dressed with care. Her damp hair had been combed out and hung about her shoulders. Her delicate mouth and curving eyebrows no longer betrayed the pain of her ordeal, and as she gazed out at the river there was a cold glint in her eyes. Despite her youth she had the mien of a woman who has spent years in geisha houses and acquired the art of mastering men’s hearts. Amazed, Seikichi reflected on the change come about in the timid girl since the day before. Going to the other room, he fetched the two picture scrolls which he had shown her.
“I offer you these paintings,” he said. “And also, of course, the tattoo. They are yours to take away.”
“Master,” she answered, “my heart is now free from all fear. And you... you shall be my first victim!”
She threw him a look, piercing as a newly sharpened sword blade. It was the look of the young Chinese princess, and also of that other woman who leant against a cherry tree surrounded by singing birds and dead bodies. A feeling of triumph rushed through Seikichi.
“Let me see your tattoo,” he told her. “Show me your tattoo.”
Without a word, she inclined her head and unfastened her dress. The rays of the morning sun fell on the young girl’s back and its golden gleam seemed to set fire to the spider.
—Translated by Ivan Morris