Summary: The wheel of karma and debt of loyalty
Comment: Idealistic is not a term usually applied to Japanese fiction. Perhaps it is the Buddhist doctrine that life is suffering, and something to be endured, but it is rare for a story to end on a high note, or to see positive rewarded with positive. More likely, it ends with death.
Koda Rohan may be the rare exception to this rule. One could almost characterize his stories as uplifting. Certainly, there is suffering to be had, hardships to be endured, but the ultimate reward is something...good. A greater twist one could not expect in a Japanese novel.
"Pagoda, Skull & Samurai" is three short stories, each motivated by karma and idealism. The characters are low people, not aristocrats or warriors of note, although their desires far outstrip their birth. Koda is a superb writer, and uses each figure to present his view with crystal clarity. Chieko Mulhern's translation is equally flawless, knowing when to use the original Japanese words and when to translate them. (Although she did feel the need to translate "ninja," which was amusing.)
"The Five-Storied Pagoda" is the story of Jubei, a poor apprenticed workman who dares to dream that he may undertake the building of a famous temples new five-storied pagoda, being so bold as to place himself in competition with his master. Jubei feels it is his karma to build the pagoda, a religious act in and of itself. His vision is too strong, and he throws himself in the face of social conventions to achieve it. He dares everything for his dream.
"Encounter with a Skull" is a marvelous, romantic tale of a aimless wanderer, of neither talent nor fortune, who encounters a beautiful woman in a shack in the mountains. A meeting that is possibly not ordained by karma still proves a valuable lesson.
"Bearded Samurai" is the longest of the three stories. An encounter with Dairoku, a samurai in the service of Takeda Katsuyori, son of Shingen. In a battle with Nobunaga and Tokugawa, Katsuyori is not the man his father was. Dairoku must decided if it is more honorable to blindly die for an incompetent Lord, or if serving life is the braver deed. Samurai fiction is rarely translated, and this notable story is engaging not only for its plot but for the personages involved.
All three stories are gripping, and make for a swift, enjoyable read. As a regular reader of Japanese fiction, it is refreshing to read something as well-written and unique as "Pagoda, Skull & Samurai." Highly recommended.