Review: Natsume Soseki's 'Kokoro'

Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (meaning heart, getting at the essence of something) is a deceptively simple story exploring egoism, generational conflict and death. It is a character study of shame written in the turbulent shift from the Meiji era of Japan, symbolised by the death of Emperor Meiji and the subsequent ritualistic suicide of General Nogi Maresuke. This historical sequence is explored as a background narrative, an expert instance of literary morphasis in which something kept out of central focus in a story is thereby rendered with more emphasis by the author. The foregrounded story is, then, an attempt to tease out the meaning of General Nogi’s drama. The book assumes a basic understanding of this backdrop and an appreciation for its ramifications: General Nogi fought in the Seinan (Russo-Japanese) War and was one of Imperial Japan’s national heroes, but he lost the Emperor’s banner during the Satsuma Rebellion and sought to reclaim his honour through suicide. He was ordered not to by his junshi (master), the Emperor, and consequently waited for the Emperor’s own death to enact his own. ‘When did he suffer greater agony,’ Soseki’s novel muses, ‘during those thirty-five years, or the moment when the sword entered his bowels?’

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