Enchi Fumiko (1905-1986) was the most famous Japanese female writer of the 20th century. Translated as Masks , her fifth novel Onna Men (1958) was the first one published in English (in 1983, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter; her novels before and after it have also been published in English as, respectively The Waiting Years and A Tale of False Fortunes ).
Most of the way through reading Masks, the view of women, specifically the widow Togano Yasuko and her mother-in-law Togano Mieko seemed male ones: if not quite misogynistic at least very negative and suspicious. The men, Ibuki and Mikame, are both in love with Yasuko and suspect that the older woman is manipulated as if they were puppets.
Mieko is a poet and editor of a magazine for which Yasuko works. Yasuko is also continuing research on spirit possession in Heian-era Japan (the time of Tales of Genji ) and the men who are friends also interested in spirit possession also suspect that Yasuko is possessed by her mother-in-law’s spirit… or maybe just fulfilling Meiko’s intentions.
As the book winds forward, Meiko’s history reveals surprises. Yasuko accepts the embraces of one of her suitors (the one with a wife and children) and seemingly is going to wed the other (the unmarried one). I’m certainly not going to reveal what Meiko wants from the tangle of amour. (I would not label “revenge” on men, either in general or particular ones as pivotal, but she definitely considers them instrumentally. They are not reprehensible; it’s just that what they want is not important to Meiko or to Yasuko.)
The book is crammed with even more references to Japanese art (Nô masks, performers, and plays) and ancient literature (Tales of Ise , and other works) than anything I’ve read by Kawabata. A pre-WWII essays by Mieko about spirit possession in Tales of Genji (by he Rokujô lady) is included and I wonder if the novel makes sense to someone unfamiliar with Tales of Genji (I reread that earlier this year, though many of the other allusions are lost on me).
I would not recommend the novel to anyone without considerable familiarity with Japanese culture (and, especially Genji) and the twisted passions represented in fiction by Kawabata, Tanizaki, and Mishima, as well as the connoisseurship of figures in them.