Shoyo Tsubouchi's main critical work, The Essence of the Novel, published in 1885, was the first comprehensive analysis of fiction in Japan. Shoyo's purpose in writing the critical work was two-fold, to improve the standard of Japanese authors and to encourage the production of a more western-style psychologically realistic novel.
Shoyo's contribution to the field of literature and the Arts in general is vast. In order to get a good idea of his productivity, it is wise to breakdown his works by categories. First and foremost, due to his influential critical work, The Essence of the Novel, one is tempted to review his novels with a critical eye. In fact, Shoyo wrote and published nine novels, of which only six were fully completed. None of his novels stand out as exemplars of his new method of writing the novel. Shoyo's own attachment to the syrupy gesaku style was too strong. Although all his novels broach greatness, none of them achieve it.
Shoyo first made his name on the literary scene with his translation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Shoyo's connection with Shakespeare was to be a lifelong one. During his lifetime, and especially his last ten years, he completely translated, unaided, all of Shakespeare's plays. In 1928, he published the whole collection, an impressive forty one volumes. His dedication to Shakespeare was so immense that in the last two years of his life he revised the entire collection for prosperity's sake.
Perhaps his greatest works then are in the field of drama. Inspired by Shakespeare and determined to maintain a cultural connectedness to his native land, he produced several Kabuki plays. Shoyo translated a number of Shakespearean plays into Japanese and he also adapted them for the Kabuki stage using the battles between Tokugawa Ieyasuand Toyotomi Hideyori. He presided over the "Literary Association", a group devoted to the reform of theater, which, in a historical perspective, had the effect of carrying the reform of the modern Japanese theater into the technical field.
Branching from "regular" theater, Shoyo produced several Japanese operas. Based on his own renovated style, his works established a new standard in Japanese opera. In Japan, his classic The New Urashima (Shinyoku Urashima) is still considered a masterpiece, and many critics say, one of his finest achievements.
Shoyo's impact is most profoundly felt in his influence as a critic. Determined to reform no lesser subjects then the novel, drama, and criticism, Shoyo is most remarkable in that he was successful. It is his own criticisms that renovated all three of these fields in Japan and left an undeniable impression.
Born towards the end of the Edo period, Tsubouchi Shoyo was the son of a samuri father and a merchant-class mother. The Confucian influence of his father, a government official in the Tokugawa system of government, and his popular literature and theater-loving mother provided two important and permanent influences on Shoyo's literary attitudes. As a boy, Shoyo was enraptured by the pleasures of gesaku fiction. Shoyo claims to have read well over a thousand such books even before having graduated from college.
Shoyo graduated from the Nagoya English School and went on to Kaisei Gakko, which would later become Tokyo University. At college, he made an extensive study of English. Although Shoyo would go on to become Japan's greatest Shakespearean Scholar, he failed his final examination in English literature, because he wrote a poor essay about the character of Gertrude in Hamlet. Spurred by his defeat, he searched the library for works of Western literary criticism so that he might understand his teachers low marks. His failure at this final, where the professor asked him to describe Gertrude's psychological character and he answered merely describing the outer actions of Gertrude, spurred his interest in psychological realism.
After graduation, Shoyo accepted a position at Tokyo College, the forerunner of Waseda University. Shoyo's role in the establishment of Japan's second most prestigious university can not be over-stated. He lectured, administered, founded the literary magazine, Waseda Literature (Waseda Bungaku) , edited the literary section of Yomiuri Shimbun, an influential newspaper, was the Headmaster of the Waseda Middle School. Having moved from the university to Middle school, he was keenly impressed with the vital bearing popular education had on the future of the nation. All of this was achieved in addition to his immense output of novels, critical works, dramas, and operas.
It is important to note that Shoyo lived during and right after Japan's Meiji period. Duplicating the model of other World powers, Japan sought to impose it's will upon other nations. In concrete terms this resulted in the Russo-Japanese. The spiritual havoc that modern warfare wrought upon Japan, much like World War I in the West, was immense. Shoyo, adhering in the healing ability of art, believed this was a chance to use literature to repair the ravages done to men's minds. Shoyo even strove to prevent the introduction of Nietzsche's ideas into Japan, fearing the bias they might add to the already dangerous state of contemporary affairs in imperialistic Japan.
Shoyo Tsubouchi's impact on the Japanese world of Literature has been immense. Rightly acclaimed as the founder of modern Japanese literature, Shoyo's Essence of the Novel called on Japanese writers to use elements of Western psychological realism. This call did not go unheeded and several generations of novelists produced works following his guidelines. This became a formative influence on twentieth century Japanese fiction.
The Essence of the Novel produced a more immediate impression on Shoyo's friend Futabatei Shimei, who, triggered by reading the Shoyo's critical work, produced Drifting Clouds (Ukigumo, 1887-88), Japan's first modern novel.
The Essence of the Novel also served to inspire a generation of Romanticists, Naturalist, and "I"-Novelists. His message echoed that of Oscar Wilde, that "Art", was simply "for Art's sake". One real impact that this novel had upon Japan was the concept that writing a novel was praiseworthy undertaking and not a lowly one. Intellectuals of the samuri class began to devout themselves to this previously despised profession. Thus was the status of the novel raised to a high art form.
Shoyo's influence has reached beyond the novel into drama, opera, and education. His influence in the theater world can be summed up in his role in the "Literary Association" and his critical works regarding the drama and his impressive production of several noteworthy dramas. Shoyo's influence has had and continues to have a profound effect upon the Japanese people. His influence continues to this day in his theories and the Tsubouchi Shoyo Memorial Museum of Waseda University.
The Essence of the Novel stands as Tsubouchi's most important work of criticism. In it he asserts that the novel is bijutsu (art) or, to wit, its artistic value is absolute and not dependent on its usefulness. Shoyo advocated the rejection of the previous commonly held literary principle of kanzen choaku, the idea of encouraging virtue and chastising vice. "An artist seeks only to give his reader an awareness of beauty and gladden his heart . . . ." Therefore the purpose of the novel, according to Shoyo, was to cause the reader to enter the realm of the profound and the beautiful. This is the fundamental identity of the novel. When man is moved to appreciate lofty thoughts and ideals, that is not the purpose of art, that is just a natural influence of art.
Shoyo states "The principle aim of the novel is human emotions. Society and customs follow next." Shoyo emphasized the realistic portrayal of the human being with all it's faults and foils. . It was not sufficient for the novel to mirror the surface of a being. These emotions must be depicted in depth and with intensity. Shoyo clarifies, "The novel reveals what is difficult to perceive, clarifies what is obscure, includes within a limited compass boundless human passions and, even as it gives the reader pleasure, causes him to reflect spontaneously on his own life."
Shoyo divided novels into two main categories, depending on their purpose: the first was didactic, the second was realistic. Didactic could further be broken down into the openly moralistic ones and those that treat the folly and immorality of the world. For Shoyo, these types of novels tended to treat human emotions and society unrealistically, the former drawing an idealized picture, the latter dealt only with passing foibles. The realistic novel seeks to portray society realistically, not distorted by any preconceived conceptions of morality. He further divided this category into social and historical novels. The main distinction between the didactic and realistic novels were, then, that the didactic novel violated literary principles in order to achieve nonliterary ends.
Shoyo's section on style is comparatively weak. This reflects Shoyo's desire to create a new vigorous literature, and his reluctance to completely break with the rich and varied literary tradition that already existed in Japan. At an impasse in his own heart, it was his theories that provided the foundation for his fellow writers to create the modern Japanese novel. Besides insisting that the novel should accurately reflect the condition of the world, Shoyo stated that, "the novel should have cause and effect. If a book does not have them, it should not be called a novel".
Stylistically, Shoyo describes two ways to represent the inner personality of characters, the bright way and the dark way. The bright way directly describes the personality of the character. The dark way describes the clothing, surroundings, behavior - this way the reader finds out for himself what the character personality is. Description by mood. Shoyo's new ideal writer would combine these two ways to realistically portray the characters and their psychological states.
In his novel, Shoyo addressed the issue of literary style. "In China and in the West, the written and spoken languages are for the most part the same, and there is no particular necessity to choose either as a literary form, In our country, however, the situation is different. There are several literary styles. Each has its flaws and its merits, its advantages and disadvantages, and they vary according to where they are used. This is why we must select a literary style for the novel." In fiction, Shoyo identified three categories, the rhetorical (gabuntai) style, the colloquial (zokubuntai) style, and a combination of the two (gazoku setchu buntai) . Until a new style could emerge, Shoyo advocated the last style. The difficulty in achieving this new style was overcome with the writings of Futabatei Shimei. A bright young talented student of Russian literature, Futabatei and Shoyo combined to create the now famous gembun itchi style. It was in this new style, that unified the written and spoken languages, that Futabatei wrote Ukigumo, in essence, Japan's first modern novel.