Kernel of the Future: Hirato Renkichi’s Spiral Staircase, Translated by Sho Sugita

Reviewed by Jordan A. Y. Smith

Hirato Renkichi-Spiral StaircaseSpiral Staircase, an engaging collection of poems and works by the dynamo of Japanese futurism, Hirato Renkichi, ably fulfills the translator and editor’s declared mission: “providing English-language readers a focused survey of Hirato’s life-long literary output” (8). Considering the brevity of his life (1893-1922), Hirato accomplished much, experimenting with a number of styles as he worked to energize the Japanese avant garde and stimulate their relationship with modernist arts abroad. Sho Sugita’s solid (if brief) introduction, his fine translations of Hirato’s poetry and famous “Manifesto of the Japanese Futurist Group” [i], are capped by tidy and suggestive remarks by veteran translator and scholar Eric Selland. Read in conjunction with Sawako Nakayasu’s recent translations of Sagawa Chika, this volume contributes a critical voice to a steadily growing base for understanding modernist Japanese literature in English.

For general poetry fans seeking an interesting read, all you need to know is here: this superb collection works deftly around moments of rhapsodizing the technological, engaging nature as source of beauty and mystery, and grand thinking on the human condition at a historical juncture when modernity was a sufficiently familiar condition that it could be questioned from many angles. Decidedly but not obliquely taken with futurity, the volume gives a view into an alternative modernism, one with enough enthusiasm to override unthinkingly traditionalist rejections and enough poise to embrace technological advance while reigning-in its potential for abuse.

Some poems find Hirato in ebullient apostrophe:

O, the future! The future!
Birthing future!
Awakening future!
Rising future! (50)

But this is praise not only for the future as a time yet to come, but for the futurity of the present moment, one rendered all the more visible through eyes born several decades earlier and grounded in a historical sensibility. Hirato certainly fixates on newness—as evidenced by the first section title in the sequence “New Voice,” “Four Developments in My New Poetic Movement of 1921,” and in the poem, “New Moon”—but one seen as part of a continuum with the past rather than as pure novelty. Interestingly, though this past is treated as markedly different from the new/now, we are presented not with a grand rupture but with multiple fissure-lines in a more complex fabric of reality. In this sense, Hirato’s “futurism” creates room for the multiple, alternate modernisms that have drawn so much attention in academia over the past few decades.

One such exemplar is Harry Harootunian’s History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life [ii], which emphasized the temporal logic of modernity as being based on a generalized fascination with the “new.” According to Harootunian, literary luminary Kikuchi Kan, in 1927, was discussing this newness in terms of the rising cultural influence of the U.S., rather than of Europe: “Americanism marked the beginning of modernity and a new civilization in Japan” (66). Hirato’s poems show evidence of a vaguely American jazz-inspired interest in improvisation, but are part of a much wider shift in post-WWI Japan. Harootunian characterizes the period thusly:

While this effusive celebration of Americanism was usually an expression of desire more than an ubiquitous reality that was being lived, it nevertheless attested to an emerging historical situation dominated by the figure of modernism in the arts and an outlook that was repudiating an antecedent past for an endless present no longer distinguishable from the future. (66)

Hirato’s poems, in contrast, show much more of an affinity for Europe, using French as the base for imported terms relating to art movements (futurisme, cubisme, dadaisme), that had long since become international movements. Sugita leaves these in the French rather than adopting their English equivalents, underscoring the specifically continental Europeanness of Japanese futurism.

Some cultural historians have seen Japanese futurism as derivative of the avant gardist movements that entered Japan “with widely varying isms” [iii]. And it is true enough that “futurism” (miraishugi) was a term born in translation. However, Sugita’s introduction makes a crucial point in viewing Japanese futurism as distinct from Italian or Russian futurisms. The affinities are clear enough, and it is important to contextualize that “Japanese” futurism has continued to suture foreign futurism into its ideological metabolism. We might go so far as to trace lineage, or at least lines of affinity, between Hirato and the world of Japanese urban design and architecture, which from the 1960s departed from the international vogue for simple functionalism in order to incorporate traditional design aesthetics (or ethics) into structures conscious of the larger city as concrete context. (See Felix Guattari’s essay “The Architectural Machines of Shin Takamatsu” in his Machinic Eros, 2015.)

Thanks to this volume, Hirato will easily be remembered as an active contributor to a pluralist understanding of the futurist movement. His Japanese futurist manifesto is a powerful piece, powerfully translated and waiting for you at the end of Spiral Staircase—yet it would be too simple to consider Hirato’s works only through the lens of futurism. Fortunately, Sugita and Selland do well to signal Hirato’s breadth and range of interests, with Selland citing a particularly intriguing comment by Hagiwara Kyōjirō on Hirato as a “realist poet of fulfilled life” (the reference culled from William Gardner’s excellent book, Advertising Tower: Japanese Modernism and Modernity in the 1920s [iv]). For a poet who died so young, this statement is surely testimony to the fullness of his engagement with the world around him, at the level of both the everyday and the macroscopic systems visible within that reality.

This either marks Hirato as unique among modernists or serves to refute one of the major critiques of Japanese modernism by intellectual giant, Yoshimoto Takaaki, “On tenkō, or ideological conversion” [v]. Writing several decades later, Yoshimoto declared: “I have somehow become fixated on an outrageously ambitious idea: that literary leadership is impossible to attain without first having a vision of the total society one confronts, and that achieving this vision must take precedence over the satisfaction of any creative desire” (103). This led him to critique modernism as a totalized ideology divorced from history and “the real structures of society” (112).

And Hirato does that at times in these poems. Through the smell of gasoline and the glorious sight of an automobile, we sense an exuberance about machines that is limited to aesthetics and the psychological thrill of pure novelty while lacking context, unable to access a macro view of the role that machines and automation—that is, both Ford cars and Fordism itself—would play within the shifting socioeconomic structures of emerging transnational capital. But that situated view is present in other poems, particularly in the later ones, which continually bring up the figure of the world, the past, history, and even socioeconomic class systems. Modernism is after all not proletarian or socialist literature, and the machine culture of futurism rests on the ambivalence toward machines that make daily life easier for the middle-class while robbing the poor and vulnerable of precious jobs.

In Japan, as in all nations involved in the World Wars I and II, this ambiguity led to tragedy in many forms, culminating in the catastrophes of machine warfare. Tragic facts are often the most heroic; or we might say, the subject of tragic facts is capable of becoming the most heroic. Hirato may be the perfect figure to embody Japanese futurism, not only as the author of its manifesto, but as one of the figures who did not live to see the rise of the fully-equipped Japanese war machine, the terrors committed by elements of the fascist imperial government, and the turmoil of ideological and aesthetic tenkō that Yoshimoto was primarily aiming to critique.

The post-WWI literary life of Japan is still ripe for further scholarship. Seiji Lippit’s groundbreaking study of the inter-war period literature, Topographies of Japanese Modernism [vi], emphasizes hybridization of poetry with other literary genres (particularly with Hayashi Fumiko’s “nomadic writing”), and hints at the importance of Hirato. However, this volume provides mostly indications of further directions for research, mentioning Hirato’s formal innovations, which stand out clearly in Sugita’s translation. Lippit also signals important traffic between avant garde poetry such as Hirato’s and the highly influential New Sensationist (also called Neo-Perceptionist) school, founded by Yokomitsu Riichi and later Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari, the former who saw futurism as “belonging to New Sensationism” (78). Sugita’s volume helps draw poetry even more completely into this mapping of inter-war modernism.

Hirato’s poetry breathes deeply of inter-war Japan, situated between the post-WWI boom and urbanization, and Japan’s rapid expansion of its empire through Asia. Despite not living to see the full form of Japanese military imperialism, Hirato did pay heed to the horrific, complex specter of war in his time, demonstrating heartfelt commitment to war-torn nations and the young soldiers who were their representatives. War memory is painfully present in poems such as “To the Young French Poets on the Battle Line”:

Between the dust of battle covered in blood
So deeply ablaze an attachment is your country’s
So beautiful a territory to protect in safety
That now what else could it be but the highest duty of you poets
For it is now that your poetry of silence
Is of a variety that shines above the entire nation. (138)

And others, such as “As the Siren Goes Off…,” depict bomb raids on Paris and London. Though some denizens of futurism had an ambivalent or even celebratory attitude toward the technologized battles of World War I, Hirato demonstrates that futurism as an international phenomenon must not be categorically labeled as in favor of the war.

As with many modernist writers, it is the horrors of modernity itself that necessitate the search for higher meaning. Hirato explores both Buddhism, with repeated appearances of Shakyamuni, ānanda, sangharama, and nirvana, and Christianity, marked by sustained references to psalms, Matthew (15:13), and the Virgin Mary. Moreover, in line with modernist tendencies to seek spiritual enlightenment abroad, even in somewhat orientalist or exoticist modes, Hirato’s syncretic engagement with religion functions most powerfully when he writes about God in the general or abstract. Witness these lines from “A Sacred Pattern”:

Then God
As though receiving from an ancient Persian textile
As though reflecting off of an old piece of porcelain
decorated by two, three rough lines
Its softness, smile
Somewhere in this vast sky and terrain
Maybe filling the modest unglazed vessel
Beyond this what will I seek,
Beyond this I do not wish to know who I am
I will firmly embrace that vessel of smile (132)

Compared with Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Manifesto,” which makes no mention of God, Hirato’s declaration fixates on a highly unusual fusion: God has fused with the metropolis, and “God’s instinct has relocated to the city.” This God is decidedly gnostic and immanent, with reversals of Shintō’s animism and Christianity’s human created in the image of God: here, God dwells within or is breathed into the forms human create.

As with spirituality, Hirato’s writings also engage the sublime through magnificent art. These poems complete the cycles of the earliest (proto-)modernist engagements with Japanese artists like Hokusai, inspiration for that Western impressionism which later led to the more radical breaks with realism that defined modernism proper. Here, Hokusai is markedly Frenchified in “La vieillard fou de dessin,” reframed as a kind of early-modern version of a modernist with “everlasting new fascination of everything” engaged in “tearing apart everything, throwing out everything.” In this sense, Hirato’s work not only provides an “alternative” modernism, but spins modernisms back into their global eddies of meaning accrual.

These powerful, highly variegated poems present some challenges to the translator, who has met them with grace. Yet, there are certain problematic issues inherent in translating Japanese to English. Sugita points out some of the trickier literary features of Hirato he was able to preserve in the translation process, namely, the ambiguous use of possessive particles for complex subjects: it is never clear what is being modified. This is the famous conundrum for the translator of Kawabata Yasunari’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, titled in Japanese so that it probably means “Myself, of Beautiful Japan,” but could be taken to mean, “Beautiful Me, of Japan.” Ōe Kenzaburō riffed on this in his own speech some three decades later, titling his speech in parallel grammatical ambiguity: either “Myself, of Ambiguous Japan” or “Ambiguous Me, of Japan.” (Ultimately, Kawabata’s became known in English as “Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself” and Ōe’s as “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself.”)

Sugita’s translation is clever, accurate and innovative. I would like to signal one thing to be conscious of in some of the poems that rely on subject pronouns. Japanese is famous for not needing to specify the subjects of sentences, so that there can be a sentence with action that is attributed to no one. Sometimes the context will render the subject obvious; sometimes not—and poets rely on this for the panoplies of meaning their poems can present. Here, though, it means that in some instances where the original poem uses no subject, the meaning can become confused in English. One instance is the short poem, “Crown,” which opens: “No matter how poor one may be, / They still have a crown” (174). The general context of the poem should make it clear—poor people have metaphorical crowns (their multiple symbolic meanings left open). But the line may also give the impression of saying: while “one” may be poor, there are still other people who have wealth and power. The meaning of the poem would change entirely.

The volume presents very few such occasions to preoccupy a reader in translation, and overall is a delightful experience—it brings us back to a moment in some ways similar to our own, when literature and the arts found themselves in the important role of helping humanity negotiate the meaning of a technology that simultaneously offered to improve and destroy lives on unprecedented scale. In our even more precipitous contemporary condition one century after Hirato’s earliest writings, this volume offers the reader a powerful vehicle for determining what it means to be human.

Hirato, Renkichi. Spiral Staircase. Tr. Sho Sugita. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017.


[i] Previously translated and discussed by Miryam Sas in Cabinet)

[ii] New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

[iii] (“con tan variados ismos”) Tetsuo Nakagami, Arquitrave, vol. 46, 2009, p. 10. My translation.

[iv] Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

[v] Translated by Hisaaki Wake in Translation in Modern Japan, edited by Indra Levy, Routledge, 2011.

[vi] New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

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