The year is April 1891. Nineteen year-old Natsuko (Ichiyo) Higuchi visits the literary reporter for the Asahi Newspaper, Tosui Nakarai. Having lost her father and eldest brother one after the other and with her second brother estranged from the family, Natsuko found herself in the position of head of the family at this young age, and in order to provide for her mother, Taki, and younger sister, Kuniko, she has made the decision to write novels. This move has been inspired by the fact that one of her fellow students at a poetry school named the Hagi-no-ya has written a novel and received a large sum of royalties for it.
The Tosui that she meets this day for the first time is tall and handsome as well as being kind and humble. She is delighted when he agrees to give her advice about her writing. But he tells her that her novels are too straight and prudish for newspaper sequels and that she should show a little more of the grit of the lives of the common people in her stories.
At the same time, however, Natsuko hears a shock bit of gossip from her friend Kikuko Nonomiya who introduced her to Tosui. Kikuko says that a young woman boarding at the Tosui home has given birth to a child out of wedlock. Although the child’s real father is Tosui’s younger brother, Natsuko believes Kikuko’s suggestion that it is probably Tosui’s child. As a result, Natsuko ends up holding a life-long misunderstanding about Tosui that is in fact unfounded.
One snowy day, Natsuko takes the manuscript of her first short story
Flowers at Dusk
) to Tosui’s secret studio to show him. Kindly, Tosui makes her a warming sweet soup with beans and tells her that he wants to publish her stories in a new literary magazine named
he will be starting. Tosui is also an outstanding journalist who had served as a foreign correspondent in Pusan, Korea, and he talks to her about his lament over the Japanese government’s plans to occupy Korea and colonize it. Natsuko is deeply touched by Tosui’s kindness and honest, straightforward way of speaking. But, when he suggests that she stay the night, she suppresses her rising emotions and refuses the offer, then sets out to walk home in the snow.
By this time, rumors have begun to spread in the Hagi-no-ya literary circle about a possible relationship between Tosui and Natsuko. It is a time when such rumors spell disaster for an unmarried woman. Natsuko decides that she must not see Tosui ever again. Despite this decision, her affection for him only grows. She longs to see him but cannot. To battle this painful longing, she plunges herself into her writing with a passion. It is as if she turns that pain of Tosui’s absence into a burning energy to write.
Soon, at the introduction of Tatsuko Tanabe, Natsuko has her story
A Buried Life
) published in the magazine
Miyako no Hana
. This story caught the attention of an editor of the literary magazine
named Tokuboku Hirata and he visits the Higuchi home. He would then become Natsuko’s connection to numerous other figures of the literary world.
Even though Natsuko was now becoming known as the novelist Ichiyo Higuchi, her writing income was still not enough to really support her family. She decides to try to make ends meet by running a shop selling household goods. She is determined now not to write things that sell but to devote herself to writing only what she really wants to write and stay true to her literary ideals.
Natsuko moves to set up her shop in Ryusenji-machi near the Yoshiwara red-light district of Tokyo. Besides the new experience of trying to run a store, she sees here a whole new world populated by the poor children who come to buy penny candies, the customers of the tea houses and other people associated with the prostitutes of Yoshiwara.
In the end, she is not able to earn enough from the shop’s meager sales to support the family, and after a short eight month’s she is forced to fold the business. She says that she cannot write good novels if she has to try to run a business at the same time. Her outlook toward writing has swung in the opposite direction from eight months earlier. She moves her family to Maruyama Fukuyama-cho in Hongo, where their life will be even poorer than before. Maruyama Fukuyama- cho is a district of bars and brothels and Natsuko’s experiences there, listen to the problems of the prostitutes and sometimes writing letters for them, changes her worldview and her ideas about people. Having now come to the belief that the ultimate love between a man and woman is a love one falls into against one’s will, Natsuko continues to write tirelessly with a conviction to see what lies at the end of such painful love.
During this period young literary figures like Tokuboku Hirata, Kocho Baba and Bizan Kawakami are frequent visitors to the Higuchi house to talk of literature. This was the beginning of what would be known later as the “miraculous 14 months of Ichiyo Higuchi” that saw a tremendous outpouring of work. In works including
The Last Day of the Year
), with their realistic portrayals of the lives of common people, Ichiyo Higuchi would win praise and recognition in the literary world. The man Tosui Nakarai, who had once been such a powerful presence in her life was now someone she no longer needed to see.
At the same time, however, Natsuko’s body was succumbing to tuberculosis. In her fevered mind she saw the faces of many people she had known come and go, and in the end it is Tosui’s figure that appears in her mind’s eye. He asks her, “If you loved me, where did that love get lost?” She answers him, “In my writings!” The feeling she once had for Tosui were all written out of her, poured into her writings. That was the final destination of her unrequited love.
“You were my mentor as a writer. Could I ever have written about love if I had not met you? There would be no Ichiyo literature without the joys and pains of love. You influenced me more than anyone …”
Turning from the sight of Tosui grieving at the loss of her, Natsuko says, “Well, what shall I write next,” as she begins to prepare ink once again.