The Plum Rains and Other Stories
It was a pleasure to read this collection of informative and entertaining short stories set at the end of the 17th century. The hereditary warrior class, the samurai, abided by the laws of bushido; loyalty, frugality, mastery of martial arts, and personal honour and conduct. In the peace of a unified Japan these men were surplus to requirements but forbidden to work at any other occupation. Adrift in the changing times, many became hired swordsmen, whilst others became aesthetes, artists and poets.
The greatest Japanese haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, features prominently in this collection, which stylishly debates Buddhist philosophies. Introduced in the opening story, Basho is travelling with young, impatient Chibi-kun to the cottage bought by Kichiji, the silk merchant, who intends to make it the School of Poetry. They encounter the skeleton of an abandoned child tethered to a tree. Chibi-kun is outraged and disgusted, but as befitting those in the pursuit of wisdom, Basho remains calm and rational. A subsequent story describes what happened to the boy.
At the school, they are met by Ohasu, a little pleasure girl much given to melancholy and who secretly aspires to be a poet. Whilst working dutifully she listens and learns about the precise wording and use of metaphors used in the haikai link poems she writes. She cleverly evades Kichiji’s amorous intentions. Other stories involve Hasegawa, a rogue samurai, and the recluse Buddhist, Mugen Bonze, who defends an honour code that is dying. We meet an arsonist, a nun, a would‑be samurai, and Jirobei, the executioner wanting to make amends.
The writing is exquisitely detailed, capturing the language, culture, scenery, conventions, life, and brutal, horrific deaths of a time long gone. Recommended.