“Goldfish were a force to be reckoned with!”

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.

3 comments to “Goldfish were a force to be reckoned with!”

  • I was just reading about this.

    “But, accurately speaking, no good wrok whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art

    “Of human work none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.”

    Both quotations from John Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic,” in Stones of Venice, italics in original.

    My understanding of Japanese aesthetics, or at least some of it, is that perfection requires imperfection – the flawed bowl is more beautiful than the flawless one. The imperfect work of art is closer to nature – that’s Ruskin, in part. The goldfish aesthetic seems like that of the bonsai trees or flower arranging – the aspects out of the artist’s control are as important as those under his control.

    What a curious book – I had not heard of the author.

  • I need to get on to Hesperus and do some ordering. I feel like I’ve read something by Okamoto before, perhaps a short story…but maybe I’m confusing her with someone else. In any case, this book sounds really interesting. I recently re-read Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which outlines the basics of Japanese aesthetics, it would be fun to read this novella alongside that essay

  • AR—The points you raise go amazingly well with the climax of the story. That’s all I’ll say; you and Michelle should both read this, and its companion that will appear in today’s post.

    Michelle—I’ve actually not yet read Tanizaki (and probably don’t really know enough about Japanese aesthetics to do a great job at Okamoto), but David Mitchell mentions him in his foreword to this as well, describing the “thematic turf” of “the life cycle of obsession” as similar to that “well-staked-out in the thirties by the youthful Tanizaki Junichiro, a classmate of Okamoto’s brother, and thinly veiled presence in her first story to win popular acclaim, The Dying Crane, a story about yet another writer, Akutagawa Ryuunosuke.” So, even more reason to you to read Okamoto, perhaps.