A dash of drama, a bit of yearning, et voilà — you’ve got The Tales of Ise! Calling all art lovers and lovers of Japan, this literary piece is a must-read.
The Tales of Ise is a classic collection of waka poems from the Heian period (794-1185) that revolve around the affairs of Ariwarano Narihira, a handsome aristocrat and poet. The dramatic tales stitch together a riveting narrative about how the encoded play of proximity and exchange constitutes courtship — in other words, seduction mechanics. The poetic exchanges are persistent, unalloyed in adoration and angst, and of course, sensitive to the seasons. When in Japan, notice and articulate the seasons.
A delicate juxtaposition exists in the waka form. Elaborate writings tend to be liberal with their word count and grand adjectives but these poems are short and concise. Yet, they are able to convey a wide breadth of emotion. The Tales of Ise demonstrate how a laconic expression of interest serves as an important stage of development or kindling of love. The feel of a person’s character is enacted entirely through their choice of words. The poems are bold; what is written down is, in a sense, engraved. As for how seduction is mediated, a servant would deliver the poem and act as the messenger of their exchange. Physically, this form of seduction is sent — an exchange embodying the movement of coming and going that is reminiscent of the changing of the seasons. Literally and figuratively, love is perceived at a distance.
Having my mother act as a proxy in order to measure compatibility with a potential suitor is a remote fear of mine. It seems, however, to be a common avenue for courtship in these poems. In episode 10, a mother serves as the interface for the courtship of her daughter and a nobleman. The mother says of her daughter: she “wings her way / eagerly to where you are / my lord, crying she is yours.” Tears are a sign of emotional relief that the daughter is home; he is where she belongs. Another characteristic is that social standing determines eligibility for contact and courtship. The crossing of the boundaries where characters reside, such as the capital versus the provinces, accentuates class tension between the high-born and commoner. Corollaries of this seem to be protective family members and arranged marriages to militate any unsavory unions.
The geographic features also help to frame the seduction. The courtyard walls, gates, and curtains contribute to the setting of which seduction occurs purveys secrecy and concealment. Ironically though, the most prominent sensory input appears to be sight. Interactions involve one or more persons unaware that someone is watching them — an espial that seems to have birthed many a poet in the Heian period. In episode 1, for instance, a man spies on two sisters through a crack. He writes, “who then is to blame / for so tangling my heart.” This seduction technique playfully insinuates blame which might, in turn, provoke a response.
In episode 24, we have the most melancholic play of hard-to-get I’ve ever encountered. The husband and wife reference time to appeal each of their individual cases; him loving her and her leaving him. She tells him, “three long years came in, then passed / while I waited still.” He mentions their history to establish himself as a man who has treated her well. “[T]o make all those years, / I was very good to you.” Having properly coaxed his wife into turning back to him, she attempts to eradicate all doubt that her love for him had waned. Nevertheless, he leaves; perhaps an attempt to draw out the seduction? The wife pursues him but, unable to catch up, she commits suicide. His love lured her into believing — by letting her go to be with another and then leaving her despite her return — that a life without him is not worth living. Lulled her into an internal sleep, it did.