Kanoko Okamoto’s 1937 novella A Riot of Goldfish, recently reprinted by Hesperus Press along with The Food Demon, is a story of the artist’s desperate quest for beauty. Mataichi, the scion of a goldfish-raising family fallen on hard times, is able to pursue serious studies in aquaculture thanks to a wealthy benefactor whose daughter he is in love with. When the woman, pregnant, marries another man, Mataichi is left with the perfect goldfish as his only dream to pursue.
It’s an unexpected place for him to have arrived, previously considering goldfish “just fragile, slovenly creatures covered in red rags, pulled through the scummy pond water with rough holes torn in their bellies by little water bugs.” He only pursues the family trade because his wealthy neighbor is so personally interested in it. But then, he’d also never been interested in Masako, the beautiful daughter, before one particular incident that stuck in his mind for life: after years of bullying by the bitter child Mataichi, Masako’s “fist shot out of her sleeve and opened to shower him with a face full of cherry petals. ‘How’s that for ladylike?’ —she said, hopping back slightly and then retreating in a burst of girlish giggles.”
A cherry petal remained lodged for a few moments in Mataichi’s throat, and he still feels it tickle him there whenever he thinks about Masako and his love for her. After he leaves Tokyo for his studies, he continues to think of her, “an unstoppable woman who simply blossomed like a beautiful butterfly.” He believes she has no personality, and that “her charm was only of a physiological sort,” like “a mechanical doll that spoke through a special talking apparatus.” But he finds that leaving this doll behind is not easy; at the same time he begins to think differently about goldfish, in which he now sees “the shape of life itself.” “They…blithely brought to bear the real meaning of manliness by swimmingly rearranging life’s priorities according to their own convenience.”
In his loneliness and removal from his old life, Mataichi takes his ideas to a new, more abstract level. Masako and goldfish have been connected in his mind forever, since she used to buy them from him as a child. They become only more inseparable as his thoughts about life and beauty coalesce.
Mataichi’s heart, free from all entanglements, began to think in the space between dream and reality. The half-sacred and half-human creatures of Greek myths are not imaginary. They actually exist. They are alive in the world even today. They are tired of reality and have lost their patience with its violence and vulgarity. Their sensitive natures have made them flee it, but they have too great a life-force to die. Yet they are too childlike and attached to everyday life to become gods or heavenly creatures. So they linger in our world and have their fun. The true home of Masako and those dazzling goldfish lies in the other world, and they just poke their heads into the real world from time to time. Otherwise those beautiful faces, somewhere between the real and the ideal, could never remain so serene.
The goldfish have lost their red rags in Mataichi’s mind. He suddenly understands the centuries-long pursuit of goldfish perfection in Japan. He begins to view goldfish as “seducing and exploiting the weakest of human instincts—the one driven by beauty.” It’s a particular weakness of Mataichi’s, and he at least has been seduced and will be exploited until he is a disliked, cranky old man. The perfect goldfish is even further from the artist’s control than the perfect painting or piece of music, but arriving at it might involve a very similar process.