101 Weird Writers #41 — Hagiwara Sakutarō

Hagiwara Sakutarō’s “Cat Town”: Seeing Things in Prose and Poetry

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Hagiwara_SakutaroHagiwara Sakutarō (1886 – 1942) was a Japanese writer known primarily as one of the foremost poets of the Taisho and early Showa periods, movements substantially influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire, and others within the Decadent and Symbolist movements. Hagiwara also published criticism and aphorisms, co-founded multiple magazines, and created a mandolin orchestra after having received one of the instruments from his parents in his teens. Many of these avenues came about against the context of struggling in and dropping out of university, as well as battling ill health and alcoholism. 

The 1917 publication of his poetry collection, Tsuki ni hoeru (Howling at the Moon), is considered by critics to have broken ground for new, freer forms by using language that had a notable contrast to the intellectual, traditionally structured verse that dominated Japanese poetry. Hagiwara published numerous other collections of poetry and criticism until his last major collection in 1934, after which followed ‘The Town of Cats” (1935), his only short story. He taught at Meiji University from this period until his death in 1942 of “acute pneumonia,” which, however, may have been misdiagnosed lung cancer.

With ‘The Town of Cats,’ Hagiwara examines disorientation and the illusory nature of reality, an intersection of related topics that he explored throughout his career. Madness, hallucinations, obsession, and abnormal psychology often figure in his works, and he conveyed these themes using techniques he’d pioneered in his poetry: a rejection of naturalism, colloquial language, impressionistic images, a sense of personal intimacy, and subject matter contemporary to the time period. The concepts and problems that drove much of Hagiwara’s writing continue to resonate with today’s readers and writers, such as Thomas Ligotti, who has cited ‘The Town of Cats’ as among his favorite stories.

— Christopher Burke, editor of 101 Weird Writers

It’s a landscape as melancholy as a cat
a lonely balloon rises straight up
and see, there’s a flicker of personages wearing linen.
Already for quite a long while
nobody thinks about a wharf like this.
And from the sea-corner with stunned cranes
many various organism-consciousnesses have faded
Besides, the sailing ship gets loaded with cotton
and it’s in the offing fluffy and plump thinking isn’t it.
These are all indescribable
memories that make your hair stand on end   give you
Ah God   there’s no way of getting it back anymore
and for worm-eaten recollection like this   I’ll always
    be weeping like an infant.

Hagiwara Sakutarō, “A Melancholy Landscape” (Trans. Hiroaki Sato)

Welcome to Japanese writer, poet, and critic Hagiwara Sakutarō’s cat-prowled grounds. Today we circle the Weird-collected tale of “Cat Town”. Hagiwara’s literary world is an assortment of marginal places, “a landscape as melancholy as a cat.” But this isn’t a kind of anthropomorphic feline world enmeshed within everyday human affairs such as Sōseki Natsume’s I Am a Cat (1905−6) or E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr (1819−1821). Nor is it akin to the viral web media popularizing Japanese “cat islands” Tashirojima and Aoshima. Such spaces displace the human from socio-political vision; they certainly seem like fascinatingly inhuman communities. However, “cat islands” are no posthuman utopia, just as Hagiwara’s “Cat Town” is no fable for the future. In any case, technocultural utopias are too sleekly silvered for the weirdly inclined. Give us the blood’s recoil, the ineffable terror, the cat’s piercing eyes.[1] Unlike these places and tales, “Cat Town” conjures up a history of weird displacement in which the Anthropocene finds its conceptual feet by confronting an abyss of the real. As it does so, it offers a way for us to see the constructed symbolism of the contemporary world: a world of cats!

Written after a prolific career in which he published many books of poetry and criticism, “Cat Town” is Hagiwara’s only short story. His vision of a world inhabited by cats reveals something other than clickbait-chum. Here are some lines from his earlier poem, “Blue Cat”:

What’s asleep in this large city night
is the shadow of a single blue cat
the shadow of a cat that speaks of the sad history of mankind. (Sato 75)

The cat’s shadow displaces specifics of urban colors and forms but also “speaks” of history. What lurks in a cat’s shadow? What is “the sad history of mankind”? To begin answering these questions, this instalment of the Weird Fiction Review’s 101 Weird Writers series will examine Hagiwara’s “Cat Town” and its later echo in Haruki Murakami’s “Town of Cats”. To complement these sites of prose exploration, I will also look at Hagiwara’s poetry and criticism. A modern city’s nightmares yield strange sights. Cats, squids, and even a dog will appear as we travel through Hagiwara’s melancholic landscape.

Weird literature and poetry’s febrile expression often react in a crucible shaped by madness and illness. Intense periods of mental disorder interrupted Hagiwara’s writing, most evidently from 1913 – 1915 in the years immediately before his first book of poetry was published in 1917. He even attempted suicide during this time. “I clearly see and hear with indescribable terrible memories the lips of a faintly white woman who laughed after copulation and my abominable act and language that I uttered while drunk,” Hagiwara wrote to a close friend in 1915. He continues, “each time I have the terrible pain that seems to tear up my nerves, because I dashed my head against a column many times yesterday it still hurts this morning, I even thought I was going mad” (qtd. in Rothenberg and Joris 159). Parsing the images of reality become nearly impossible when everything seems too real — hyperreal. Perhaps this “terrible pain” sensitized Hagiwara to the “metaphysical problem” that his protagonist in “Cat Town” later describes, namely, “that a given phenomenon can possess a ‘secret, hidden side’” (Angles 235)? Tracing the disappearing edge of the chasm between images reveals the fracture that the weird often takes as its familiar guise.

The conspiracy between madness and the weird invokes a history of art’s opposition to reason. Names such as Cervantes, Bosch, and Bruegel should provide sufficient evidence. But this is also a very modern relationship that continues to influence contemporary ideas about identity and subjectivity. In many ways, the modern person continues to be a Romantic subject, someone thought of as individual, emotional, and confessional but also as an ill or ailing body. Susan Sontag points out that, for the German Romantics in whose time this tendency became apparent, “[s]ickness was a way of making people ‘interesting’ — which is how ‘romantic’ was originally defined” (35). Think Novalis, Friedrich Hölderlin, or even Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work upholds an “extreme and passionate defense of the romantic image of the creative soul as a thing apart, a solitary, suffering, and preternaturally sensitive organism” (Scott 75).

Without question, Hagiwara’s poems are written in the shadow of a past that was, as their author writes in the preface to his first collection Howling at the Moon, “a painful memory […] an ominous nightmare of frustrations, inaction, and a suffering body and flesh” (1917 [Tsuki ni hoeru], Sato 7). Wilson links German Romanticism with Hagiwara by observing that the Japanese poet’s work demonstrates a similarly “pure but desperate lyricism” (16−17). How to then proceed? When the narrator in “Cat Town” asks readers for their trust, we can recognize that he, like his author, knows his hallucinations. Illness has given him insight. The story is no delirium; it is something else — something more real. That’s why it’s so weird.

We must be careful not to fetishize madness, especially since, when it comes to weird fiction, the parallel discourses of weird aesthetics and biographical madness or illness are often accompanied by patronizing assumptions of literary training and merit. Japanese poet Hinatsu Kōnosuke, for instance, observed that “Hagiwara has no literary training, that’s the fellow’s strength more than anything else” (qtd. Sato xxi).[2] To say that an author’s work is powerful because it is the product of madness, illness, or idiot savantism debilitates critic and author alike, but we can certainly recognize the influence of madness. Along these lines, more generously than Hinatsu, Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Loris observe that while “poetry & illness were not the same for [Hagiwara], there was a constant interplay between them [in his work]”, lending his language a jagged immediacy and vivid power of imagistic fervor (159).

I leave for another time the topic of how weird writers negotiate their literary territory against the mental and physical illnesses that sometimes mark their lives — we could discuss Leonora Carrington, H.P. Lovecraft, or Unica Zürn.[3] At present, it is enough to say that, when words such as “hallucinatory” are applied to Hagiwara’s work, readers recognize not only how he keenly understood reason and hallucination, but also that he aimed for more than symmetrical alternations between the two. In Howling at the Moon, Hagiwara wrote that the “purpose of poetic expression is not simply to express an atmosphere for the sake of atmosphere […] Nor is it to describe a hallucination for the sake of hallucination” (2014: 3). At its best, the weird dispenses with an alternating play of realist description and fevered hallucination.

31IrqvqUfxL._AC_UL320_SR206,320_Before we look directly at the material, a brief note on translations is necessary. In addition to Jeffrey Angles’s translation of “Cat Town” in The Weird, I am aware of two major translations of Hagiwara into English. Most recently, Hiroaki Sato has revisited Hagiwara’s work for the New York Review Books Poets series (Cat Town, 2014) and New Directions (The Iceland [Hyōtō], 2014). Graeme Wilson’s adaptations for the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works in 1969 remain the volume that introduced Hagiwara to many English readers.[4] Below, I cite Sato when referring to his NYRB translation, Wilson when referring to his UNESCO translation, and Angles when quoting The Weird. Poems will occasionally be given in each translation so that readers can draw their own conclusions.

Cat Town” to “Town of Cats”: Travelers in the Modern City

Hagiwara’s world is riddled with the decisions of urban travel — crossroads, intersections, meeting places, and so on (Sugimoto 31). It is also suffused with the ghosts and hauntings that constitute modern life and in their own right “make up the strange and immense silent vitality of an urban symbolics,” to quote French theorist Michel de Certeau (137). So, with the narrator of “Cat Town”, let’s get lost. In the forbiddingly massive Tokyo, arranged in compact units interpenetrated by mass and individual transit with competing “big picture” strategies for getting around, navigation becomes a challenge. But travel offers a way to perceptually map our surroundings and helps us understand the world in which we live. Walkers in the modern city observe and define its practical existence. As de Certeau elaborates in The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), walking around a neighborhood allows a person to read the symbols of urban culture from the ground up. If you become dislocated in networks of urban disarray while walking, you might see something new — perhaps something disconcertingly different to what the normal, everyday world usually offers. You might see something irreducible to reason.

Artificial aids have long offered the ability to redefine existence through “trips.” The narrator of “Cat Town” knows well the travels induced by drug-induced hallucinations. “As for the countries I traveled in the ecstatic dreams induced by narcotics, I don’t have enough room to detail them here,” he says, sounding much like a fellow flâneur, French poet Charles Baudelaire. (Baudelaire’s chosen drugs included opium, hashish, and wine; Hagiwara reputedly loved beer.) The narrator lingers on well-travelled dreams: “Even after returning to normal, I would cling to those visions and relive them again and again in the world of reality” (Angles 234). But be on guard for the explanations that return even courageous thinkers to normative life. William Tyler argues that Hagiwara’s narrator numbers among a turn of the century series of Japanese figures all “seduced by visual illusions” and “intrigued by tricks created by prisms, binoculars, mirages, illusions, and hallucinations” (328). If you need an escape hatch, this is it: morphine flashbacks cause the strange sights in “Cat Town”. Nothing weird to see here. Move on.

Such an escape does “Cat Town” an injustice, however. Hagiwara’s story describes the lived perception of urban spaces with great psychological clarity. For instance, the first half of “Cat Town” exemplifies the phenomenon of jamais vu, the eerie sense of seeing a familiar situation as so completely new that nothing can be recognized. When this happens in language, it is called “semantic satiation” or word collapse: all you can see are strange letters that look weird or wrong. Accordingly, linguistic stability dissolves when symbols become “hyperreal” and dislocated from their usual symbolic coordinates. Have you ever walked into your home and thought “this isn’t where I live at all”? In jamais vu, familiar perceptual reference points are lost and, as a result, you see something as if you’ve never seen it before. No hallucination necessary.

The phenomenon extends to navigation within the city. It starts with getting lost. The narrator explains that, while “walking through the usual area around my home, […] I slipped into an unfamiliar alley, and going the wrong way, I lost all sense of direction” (Angles 234). The result of becoming lost? He sees a neighborhood of dreamlike beauty. There are two easy explanations for this vision. First, the narrator writes, “a fox must have bewitched me”; or, second, he may have fallen prey to “a disturbance of the inner ear” that disrupted his “sensing direction” (Angles 234). Jamais vu produces at first mystery — an unexpected vision — and then a sudden deflation. Unpredictably dislocated by the hyperreal, the vision known as “real life” reasserts itself with disappointing regularity.

The narrator’s first loss of perceptual control functions as an interpretive prophylactic. Once his mistake is realized, he shows himself capable of discerning his own fallibility. “The mysterious and magical transformation of this place into a beautiful town had occurred simply because I had mixed up my directions”, he admits (Angles 234). This realization normalizes the story. Strategic ideas about how to operate in the modern city are deconstructed when ground level tactics reveal unexpected sights, but the normal way of seeing things feels “natural.” Even the clearest maps may be turned upside down to look utterly bizarre. But few would keep them so inverted and, thus, in a transformational flourish, those alternate worldviews disappear. Similarly, “[t]he mysterious neighborhood that I had seen a moment before existed in some universe of opposite space where the compass was reversed” (Angles 235). Only after deflating estranged possibilities and reminding readers of his ability to discern between hallucination and the modern world will the narrator’s second and much more dramatic episode ring with enough truth to be truly weird.

The second spectacular episode in “Cat Town” deserves to be encountered in all its glory. The narrator loses his way on a “narrow road [that] continued for some time, then disappeared into the depths of the woods” (Angles 237). Be careful when walking into an unknown forest, especially when you’ve warned of nearby “possessed villages” (Angles 236)! Having become dislocated, the narrator finds himself in what seems the usual situation — an urban landscape too spectacular to be true. Knowing the alarming precarity of such visions, he tellingly describes the city as “a perilously fragile structure of thin crystal” (Angles 238). “This realization suddenly made me extremely anxious,” he remembers. Everyone is suddenly tense. “The air surrounding me was electrically charged, and in it I felt the anguish of the inhabitants’ nerves stretched to the breaking point” (Angles 238). A calm. Someone falls. Cue the explosion.

Terror’s revelation erupts with sublime thunder. Just like a joke, the timing of terror is crucial. In the fracture between a spectacular, beautiful vision and a recognizably dour urban modernity rushes the violence of the weird, a perceptual fissure that consumes the eye and the mind with its irreparable incongruity. “My senses had lost their balance. The universe was collapsing around me” (238). This dislocating revelation is neither jamais vu nor déjà vu, neither never seen nor already seen. Between the two opens an abyss: a sight of something more real than “reality.”

And also, for some reason, cats.

The curious are encouraged to see for themselves. Hagiwara’s narrator defends his story in the same way Hagiwara defends his own poetry. “People smile coldly at my tale. They say it is the demented illness of a poet or a nonsensical hallucination born of absentminded daydreaming” (240). He can only defend himself through testimony. I was there. I saw. I know madness, but this is different. Believe me. Fantasy often offers some elfin token for the traveler as “proof” of other realities; the weird is not so easily sated.

Let us turn to another modern traveler and another cat-ridden town. In Haruki Murakami’s “Town of Cats” (2009), a stand-alone excerpt from 1Q84 (2011) published in the New Yorker, narrator Tengo Kawana is another urban navigator. Like Hagiwara’s narrator and many of Murakami’s other protagonists, Tengo travels through Tokyo as if unconsciously. In general, “Town of Cats” revolves around alienated travel. Tengo’s father resides in a sanitarium, his vitality apparently drained through long employment for a Japanese transportation agency in addition to the severe disinterest of his own son, Tengo.

In turn, Tengo loves abstractions like language and math, which he compares to “a magnificent imaginary building.” He most prefers the “vast magical forest” of literature. Abstractions offer him a refuge; more than that, words have less structure and fewer solutions than mathematical theories. Literature allows him the belief that his “real father” might be different from the man he will visit in the sanitarium. It is disappointing that the virtual play of literary possibilities is constrained in an old Victorian straightjacket of inheritances and hidden orphans, but there it is.

Each character in “Town of Cats” is lost in a labyrinth of dislocations. While speaking with his father (in what might be code or madness) at the sanitarium, Tengo remembers a story called “Town of Cats” that Murakami describes as a “fantastical piece by a German writer”. In this remembered tale, a traveler gets lost in a town where cats emerge once the sun is down. Sound familiar? There’s a twist: although the traveler of “Town of Cats” is at first upset, he realizes that this is “the place where he is meant to be lost.” The thought is reassuring for Tengo in Murakami’s own “Town of Cats”, as he is desperate to settle the question of his paternal filiation. A similar revelation would suggest that his Sunday travels were “meant” for him to discover that his father is not his father, as he has believed all along. When Tengo and his father do talk, however, the mise-en-abymes of nothingness and vacuums occupies them. Questioning why the urban landscape of the remembered “Town of Cats” is populated by cats, his father says, “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” The story becomes its own cipher encoded in Oedipal handwriting.

What is most interesting about “Town of Cats” is that it redirects its affiliations with Hagiwara’s “Cat Town” through a purportedly German predecessor. Sure, Tengo could be misremembering the origin of his “Town of Cats”, but Murakami’s purposeful distance from Japanese antecedents is complicated by the remarkably strong precedent of “Cat Town.” Murakami walks us around but does not open the most interesting cryptic image: why cats, specifically? Once more: “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.”

To move us to the next section of this argument, it is merely necessary to say that Hagiwara’s “Cat Town” is designated not a “short story” but instead a “Roman in the Style of a Prose Poem.” What kind of poetry is this?

Poetries of the Weird: Hagiwara’s Modanizumu Images

Hagiwara’s work is renowned for its role in modanizumu, the period of cultural activity in Japan between 1913 and 1938. In a statement that readers of “Cat Town” could attest extends to Hagiwara’s prose as well, critics argue that Hagiwara “invent[ed] a vernacular lyricism appropriate for a modern world filled with skyscrapers, consumer goods, mass culture — the new urban setting of Tokyo” — and to which the poet then applied the panacea of illness as a “remedy” to modernization’s many forms of alienation (Sugimoto 20 – 21). Cities are planned with a certain kind of rational urban symbolism that enumerates, commodifies and alienates individuals with nightmarish results. In this space, writing offers a potential tactic for liberation — or at least the recognition and abandonment of these late capitalist strategies as “occupied places” (de Certeau 196). For Hagiwara, poetry is a “heresy of the modern, a kind of corrupting illness” or, succinctly, “a symptom of madness in modernity” (Sugimoto 23, 25). Of the genres of writing, poetry’s affinity for madness allows it to challenge modern theories of Enlightenment rationalism and the oppressive real hierarchies that historically accompany them.

Poetry might be just the tonic needed, for it sharpens the pharmakon of writing: poetry’s subtle knife mixes the otherwise incompatible elements of poison and remedy, madness and rationality. In “Cat Town”, the narrator observes that the “universe that lies beyond common sense and logic — the universe that is known intuitively to the poet — belongs to the metaphysical” (236). It is difficult to argue with the material force of consumer culture and brutal skyscraper architecture, not to mention the violence of major urban highways, but the refuge of linguistic abstraction offers a tactical realignment and a new way of seeing things. Allow me to extrapolate from Hagiwara’s narrator’s observation: in narrative prose, traditionally anchored by realist discourses, the weird arrives to depart in an imagistic flash — a moment when the bottom drops out of your world. In poetry, however, an image can be held through an intensity of thought that extends the space of perception. An abyss may disclose a face for its subject.

At which point you might want to know about the specific kind of weirdness that Hagiwara’s poetry brings forth. One answer involves cats. Try Hagiwara’s “The Lonely Blue Cat” in Sato’s recent translation:

Here’s a blue cat. And a willow is being blown in the
wind, and over the graveyard the moon is up.

This is the weird with a finger to its lips: caution. However, This modern tanka’s brief lines unfold with images at once innocuous and uncanny, rational and mad. What moon is this? What willow, what wind? There’s a cat again, disappearing into the graveyard’s dark shadow.

Of course, reading in translated English is a problem. Comparing the work of Wilson and Sato reveals insoluble interpretive quandaries. Take Hagiwara’s “Green Flute”.

From some far sea of yearning
A ghostliness appears.
With slow appalling pad
It lurks towards us, turning
More nasty as it nears,
Seeming at last to be
A cat without a head
That staggers in the dead
 Black shadows of this sad
Unseemly cemetery.

Girl, I could easily
In such a place concerning
Grief and the end of day,
Grief and the night’s returning,
To death’s menagerie
Stagger away.


Through this twilight field
elephants with long ears are lumbering along.
A yellow evening moon wavers in the wind
and here and there hat-like grass leaves flutter.
Are you lonely, young lady!
Here is a small flute   and its sound is clear green.
Blow gently into its mouthpiece,
tremble in the transparent sky
and call up your mirage.
from the direction of a far-off sea of longings
an illusion seems gradually coming closer.
It is like a headless cat and totters in the grass shadow
of a cemetery
I’d just like to die in such a sad evening landscape.
Young lady!


Wilson’s earlier adaptation of 1969 strongly emphasizes rhyme and image, while Sato’s later translation modulates its images with quieter language. Words such as “stagger,” “ghostliness,” or “death’s menagerie” become mannered: “lumbering,” “elephants,” and “an illusion.” What similarities exist seem cut from the same cloth as “The Lonely Blue Cat”. Each poem focuses on a graveyard in which its speaker wonders about tarrying too long; in each looms a cat’s inhuman presence. Look too close and a mirage will vanish, or you may see more than you bargained for — you may see something “more nasty as it nears.” Hagiwara’s images are decidedly weird.

To his contemporaries, Hagiwara disrupted formal shapes and sounded very modern. As a result, much criticism on Hagiwara (as well as his own critical writings) emphasizes the historical reception of European influences by Japanese writers during modanizumu. What is missing from this exemplary critical conversation? A new vision of Hagiwara’s work is as simple as wondering about poetic images — Hagiwara’s most exquisite delight and poison.

In this regard, weird thinking also profits from examining the criticism that Hagiwara himself wrote. Take, for example, the following passage, which Sato cites as proof of Hagiwara’s critical acumen. In it, Hagiwara reads a haiku by Japanese poet Yosa Buson (1716−1784):

A squid-shaped kite: where yesterday’s sky used to be

Commentary: In the wintry sky where a northerly wind blows, a kite is up. In the same wintry sky, yesterday, too, it was up. The dreary season of winter. The wind blowing through a frozen dull sunlight, screaming sadly. The glassy cold blue sky. Up in that blue sky was a lonely kite yesterday, as it is today. Buzzing nonchalantly, boundlessly high, sorrowing in the globular sky, there’s always a single distant memory drifting!

In the poesy of this haiku is revealed the most Buson-like nostalgia and romance. Pay attention to the fact that all the poetic qualities are contained in the deep emotion of the expression “where yesterday’s sky used to be.” Yesterday’s sky is no longer today’s sky. Yet in that different sky the same kite is up, as always. In other words, in the space always changing, in the time always passing, a single kite — an image of memory — exists in the globular sky constantly, sadly, desolately. Viewed in this haiku, philosophically representing Buson’s leitmotif as it does, contrasts with Bashō’s famous “An old pond.”

I should add that attention should also be paid to the fact that the locution, “where yesterday’s sky used to be,” is wholly a symbolist technique shared by the poetry of modern Europe and that it is a distinct feature with no precedent in the Japanese literature of the past. Buson’s mastery is that he, like today’s poets, had a European lyrical method, born though he was in the Edo period when there was no intercourse with foreign countries. (trans. and qtd. in Sato xviii-xix)

Hagiwara’s rhapsody is a marvel of intense reading; it sustains the poem’s attention on images with logico-hallucinatory precision, teasing and pulling from the haiku’s density a world of complex emotion and literary tradition. The dangers that run like a live current throughout weird literature enliven this “image of memory” — remember that, for Hagiwara, “the past” rings with pain, and it is therefore not surprising when the wind blowing through frozen sunlight is “screaming sadly.” His finger still covers his lips, however, guarding his weirdest secret: the squid-shaped kite. A squid! Even if a common shape for kites in Buson’s or Hagiwara’s time, this apparition from the deep water reminds us that mysteries are aloft above. It is Lovecraftian, perhaps, but also a nostalgic, mannered return to a subject of shunga erotica, such as Hokusai Katsushika’s woodcut series Kinoe no Komatsu, or The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814).

As a kite, the shunga image (if that is what it resembles, a squid or an octopus) has lost its titillating, educational cache, but it has retained the sensuality of its original, namely its qualities of “unrestrained imagination, but humor too, and refinement” (Baucheron 99).

Things of the sea, extra-terraceous by definition, look odd in the sky but also along the shoreline where nebulous sea-bodies wash up to deflate and rot. Translating Hagiwara’s “Song of a Hermit Crab”, Sato gives us the following line: “it’s a cloud-like image   a lonely hermit crab’s ghost, / you see” (97). The mesh of images grows discomforting and timeless, lost in ever-fluctuating immensities. Reminders too rise up of Hagiwara’s “Moonlight and Jellyfish” in Wilson’s adaptation, where the titular jellyfish reflects itself as “A thing transparent, a chilly thing, / [that] Flows in the water, knows no end …” (69). The sea offers many such strange inhuman things. Another is the titular “thing most cold” in “Sea Shell” whose “teeth / Flow in the water, and its hands / Flow in the water underneath / Things colder than it understands” (Wilson 70). And then there is the shellfish of “Enchanted Graveyard” that appears alongside other weird creatures — a cat, a ghost — as the “common kindred of this sullen coast” (Wilson 62). Along this coast, assumedly, is the subject of another of Hagiwara’s poems, “Rotten Clam”, left on the beach flats “where sadness broods, / From entrails on the rot / The putrid breath protrudes, / Flickeringly” (Wilson 44). Not a pleasant place, these shores of shifting time. They collapse fate in space to leave revealed to sight things slimy, rotted, and weird. For Hagiwara’s poetry, shore and air alike are possible extensions of the abyss that “Cat Town” sees in urban and feline figures.

To search for the power of the weird is to discern in normal forms and images things unexpected and surprising. Examining signs and symbols for guidance, like the narrator of “Cat Town”, we sneak around the obstinacy of the work of art and modern life, using one to answer the other, asking questions, stealing glances, getting caught seeing images. Weird reading may not ascertain the whole picture. Should it? What is “whole” can only be individuated because it has been cut from the cloth of things with ration’s shears. “Cat Town” poses the weird as a dividing line-become-abyss plucked from a momentary sight, a descending bottomless image that, if examined too long, could cause a madness like and yet utterly distinct from hallucination or illness.

I want to return to cats but with a new twist, because figures can change in the night: they might be dogs. Is this portrait, an image of marginal life enters through our window. Should we look?


That creature with the sour
And always twisted face
Lurks in his hiding place
Close by the window-sill.

When white the cherries flower
Always, from some dark hole,
Some basement of the ground,
That creature, murk turned mole,
Comes cringingly around.

Over the window-sill,
Squirmed like an annelid,
He slid into my room
Who snapped him as he slid.

When in the reddish gloom
Of darkroom light I peered
As through a dripping sieve
At that pale negative,
Its ghostlinesses cleared
And slowly there appeared,
Like stains in a looking glass,
Something; a shadow-shape
Of some thing ominous.

Ah, from my neck and nape
Upwards, I found I was
Shaking like shiver-grass. (Wilson 46 – 47)


He always has a crooked face,
and stands by the window,
when the time comes for white cherries to bloom,
he again crawls out of the bottom of the ground,
like a mole,
intent, stealing his footsteps,
he slipped in the window, when
I took a snapshot.

In the shadow of vague light,
I looked through the whitened plate,
some shadow was caught on it, faded.
Only above my neck,
I was trembling like a courtesan’s‑flower. (Sato 41).

Concluding Thoughts: Toward A Weird Poetry

To my knowledge, there is no widely recognized tradition of contemporary poetry within genres such as fantasy, horror, or science fiction. Granted, contemporary awards and individuals are seeking to change this situation; examples include the Rhysling Award, Eric Basso, and, as Desirina Boskovich recently pointed out, Nancy Hightower. But it has been a long time since the enormously popular allegories of Edmund Spenser and Christina Rossetti. These are prose genres, no question. They unspool social philosophies and construct to examine scintillating structures of the mind and imagination. Thus does the weird Roman of “Cat Town” become Murakami’s “Town of Cats”: what is first a tale of dislocation’s hyperreal shock settles into a tale of comfortably dreamlike prose structures.

In contrast, the evanescent music of lyric poetry opens wounds in human subjectivity. Poetry’s concision grants its a song a sharp edge with which it allows us to keen. Such a statement sound romantic, even wistful, as indeed may the poetry it seeks to evaluate. But when it comes to a writer such as Hagiwara we can recognize a sharp insight into the hyperreal in his work, however depreciating its author might have been. “Someone like me is no more than a miserable blue cat’s nightmare,” Hagiwara wrote in his Preface to Blue Cat (1923 [Aoneko]). In the same Preface, Hagiwara observed that his poetry’s “essence […] lies in the pitifulness of yearnings with no apparent cause for the world of reality. Thus I breathe into the fife’s mouth hole, trying to play a mysterious and sensuous life” (Sato 63, 61). We don’t talk much about poetry and the weird because the language of poetry is already so unfamiliar and intense.

Prefacing his earliest poems, Hagiwara speaks to the desire to use language as a tactic for survival within a nightmarish world where late capitalist structures dominate urban life and push to the margins its shores and graveyards, its animals and alienated peoples.[5] (Although “Cat Town” is weird, cat cafes, catering to urban bourgeoisie, are becoming de rigeur. All things can be sold.) For Hagiwara, language offers a way to pinpoint so as better to see and to escape the shadows that haunt him. “I want to nail my own gloomy shadow into the moonlit earth,” he wrote; “Lest the shadow follow me forever” (Sato 7). Affiliating himself with the nightmare of a blue cat and, before that, with a howling dog that sees its own shadow, Hagiwara’s images offer powerful and sensuous dislocations of identity wrenched from its human mask. All of which raises a last question: what do we look stripped of our symbols?

In Hagiwara’s literary remains we have a marvelous weapon that might shear humanity from its mad rationalisms, but also a flute that plays to the heart of a most surprising genre: a poetry of the weird. “Cat Town” exposes the hyperreal fracture between jamais vu and déjà vu; it cuts our eyes open with the same suddenness as a glass shatters. An image from the nightmare of an abyss explodes into view. In the debris, we see the ground on which strategic maps of the world are built. Nothing after is the same. At times the image, that thing looks like an animal: now a cat, now a dog. Now only a face.

“Sickly Face at the Bottom of the Ground”

At the bottom of the ground a face emerging,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging.

In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
soft vernal grass-stalks beginning to flare,
rat’s nest beginning to flare,
and entangled with the nest,
innumerable hairs beginning to tremble,
time the winter solstice,
from the lonely sickly ground,
roots of thin blue bamboo beginning to grow,
beginning to grow,
and that, looking truly pathetic,
looking blurred,
looking truly, truly, pathetic.

Its green grope to the spring.

Sad in the ailing earth,
Tongue-tender with despair,

In the dark at the bottom of the ground,
a lonely invalid’s face emerging. (Sato 9)

“Face at the Bottom of the World”

Face at the bottom of the world:
A sick, a lonely face,
One invalided out
Of every inner place;
Yet, slowly there uncurled,
Green in the gloom the grasses sprout.

And, as a rat’s nest stirs,
Its million tangled hairs
One queasy quivering,
Thinnest of winterers,
The bamboo shoot prepares

Green moves through grief’s grimace;
And, sick and lonely, there
In the gloom of the under world,
At the bottom of the world, a face. (Wilson 66)

Works Cited

Baucheron, Éléa and Diane Routex. The Museum of Scandals: Art that Shocked the World. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2013. Print.

Breton, André. What is Surrealism? Selected Writings. Ed. Franklin Rosemont. New York: Pathfinder, 2002. Print.

De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.

Lippit, Noriko Mizuta. “Tanika and Poe: The Grotesque and the Quest for Supernal Beauty.” Comparative Literature 29.3 (1977): 221 – 40. Print.

Murakami, Haruki. “Town of Cats.” The New Yorker. Trans. Jay Rubin. 5 Sept. 2001. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Nadeau, Maurice. The History of Surrealism. 1964. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: 1965. Print.

Norfield, Tony. The City: London and the Global Power of Finance. London: Verso, 2016. Print.

Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millennium: Volume One, From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Print.

Sato, Hiroaki, trans. Cat Town. Sakutarō Hagiwara. New York: New York Review Books, 2014. Print.

Scott, A.O. Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. New York: Penguin, 2016. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Melancholy Objects.” On Photography. New York: Anchor, 1973. Print.

Sugimoto, Mike. “The Illness of Prose: Hagiwara Sakutarō and the Status of Poetry in the Modern.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 4.1 (2002): 20 – 37. Print.

Tyler, William J. Introduction to Modanizumu: Modernist Fiction from Japan, 1913 – 1938. Ed. William J. Tyler. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008. Print.

Wilson, Graeme, Trans. Face at the Bottom of the World and Other Poems. Sakutarō Hagiwara. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1969. Print.


[1] Cats, Japan, and weird fiction: it is worth noting that Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” (1843) was quite popular in Japan. Poe’s influence extends to Natsume Sōseki, Ueda Bin, Iwano Homei, Baba Kocho, Hirata Toboku, Tayama Katai, and Nagai Kafu, all stemming from Aeba Kōson’s translation of the story in the November 1888 issue of Yomiuri Shimbun (Lippin 221). Hagiwara acknowledged a debt to Poe, as did Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, whose 1918 “The Hell Screen” also appears in The Weird, albeit with caveats for both writers (Lippit 223).

[2] Many critics objected to Hagiwara’s work with thinly-disguised prejudice. Wilson summarizes these criticisms: “the startling originality of its themes and imagery is no more than a direct reflection of the poet’s persistent physical ill-health and of his spiritual and intellectual neurasthenia. His poetry’s consequent aura of irremediable malaise, the argument continues, inevitably appeals to our own distempered times but it disqualifies Hagiwara from a major place in any healthy tradition” (26). However Wilson too wonders whether Hagiwara lost his edge through excessive alcoholic drinking. For a parallel case, see the slighted reputation of Irish writer Flann O’Brien. If weird criticism can make progress on this state of affairs, it must refuse to oppose the “healthy tradition” of normative health with the aesthetic fascination with the sickened, ill, or mad — the two are two faces of the same flipping coin. Instead, weird approaches put the coin on its edge; they make it disappear, mutter about old gods, and slip into shadows. (Your coin is a dream.)

[3] We could also refer to the Surrealists for whom, as André Breton and Louis Aragon wrote in La Révolution surréaliste, mental crises such as hysteria could “be considered a supreme form of expression” (qtd. in Breton 321). In his The History of Surrealism (1964), Maurice Nadeau argues that, with their poetry especially, Surrealists sought to prove “[t]hat there exists no barrier between the normal man and the so-called ‘ab-normal’ man; that there exists no state starting from which one can be certain that this man is mad and another rational” (188). The effort continues.

[4] Sato’s and Wilson’s versions read very differently. Such friction between translations recalls the twentieth-century English literary tradition’s fraught early relationship with translated East Asian literatures. W.B. Yeats’s creative adumbration of Japanese Nō drama and Ezra Pound’s appropriative usurpation of Ernest Fenollosa’s translations of Chinese poetry for his own Cathay (1915) represent warnings and seductions alike, proof of the alluring power of adaptive cross-cultural distortions.

[5] Ascertaining the role of finance in contemporary global capitalism and asking both “what kind of world works like this?” and “[w]hy should the lives of millions of people be influenced by the vagaries of financial market prices?”, Tony Norfield answers with the same logic that drives the nightmare of Hagiwara’s skyscraper-defined, consumer-driven modernist city: “This only looks normal, rather than weird, because we are used to it” (8).

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