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This essay positions the 18th century writer Akinari Ueda as one of the most cutting-edge modernist writers in Japanese literature. In general, modern literature deals with the “individual” disengaged from the community. In contrast, Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain was the first in Japanese literary history to not only summon a “spirit” that is disengaged from the community, but a demon that threatens political legitimacy. Akinari’s modernism was realized through a narrative in which the “audience,” liberated from the community, encounters a “demon” that refuses reconciliation with said community. This essay argues that the “discovery of the demon” and “discovery of the audience” were important constructive elements for Japanese modernism.
The 18th century saw an accumulation of scholarship on the topic of spirits, starting with Norinaga Motoori’s hermeneutics. Although Akinari’s literature was also a part of this paradigm, Tales of Moonlight and Rain destroyed the traditional Japanese model of spirits. While in the medieval period Zeami envisaged a theater of religious salvation, Akinari composed a monstrous spirit that refuses salvation. Interestingly, while 18th century European philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant were engaged in the problem of the “sublime,” Akinari, too, went beyond the Rococoan beauty of Buson Yosa to arrive at a “sublime” spirit brimming with pathos. On this point, Akinari’s “modernist” literature represents the pinnacle of 18th century Japanese aesthetics.