I was sitting in a local café with a mouthful of sublime soft-shelled crab in my mouth when Hoshimaru, the eponymous hero of The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi stepped into the attic of Ojika Castle to observe the ‘no-account’ women preparing the severed heads of vanquished enemies. The description is unblinking and graphic. I swallowed hard.

The severed heads of Japanese are part of my childhood mythology. There was an Australian man on Manus Island when I was a kid who was said to have gone around buying the heads of killed Japanese from the Dyaks during World War II. The family continued to visit Frank for many years when we were all back in Australia. The stories seemed far-fetched but the secrets ‘Z’ Special Force are out in the public domain now. The buying of the heads was on our behalf, part of the war effort.

Seems the collection of the severed heads of vanquished Japanese was not confined to their foreign enemies. Here in Junichiro Tanizaki’s entirely fictional work – which rests on concocted sixteenth century documents from the Period of Civil Wars – the defenders of the castle displayed the heads of the rival daimyo as trophies. The heads of samurai warriors received particular attention. They were cleaned, their hair washed, their top-knots retied, their faces painted and the final result properly labelled – the label attached through a hole punched in the ear lobe.

I picked up Tanizaki’s The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi because I know too little of Japanese literature. Last week Haruki Murakami was good odds to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the anticipation of which always piques interest. And though I have read some of his work (do have a look at his wonderful short stories) and Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (the original book to have this title), and some mind-bending Manga (including the work of Mohiro Kitoh, Ryōko Kui, Abe Youichi, Morohoshi Daijirou who are all well worth tracking down), I know there is so much I don’t know about Japanese writing. Just as I thought this, the times they were a-changin’ and Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize.

Still, I’m glad I had the impetus to read Junichiro Tanizaki’s intriguing novella from the 1930s. It reads as fresh, post-modern and of course, shocking.

The sensuality of the descriptions of the severed heads in the attic are entirely deliberate. One of the beautiful young women painting the face of a man who is without a nose, smiles enigmatically, and the twelve year old Hoshimaru is transported. And this is how, apparently, a sexual fetish is made.




The image is not of severed heads! They are three images of one noh mask.


2 thoughts on “Severed Heads

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