“The Dancing Girl” (1890)
By Mori Ogai
“The Dancing Girl” is the first short story published by Mori Ogai. It was written around the Meiji Period, the time when Japan opened its doors to the western world.
In this short story, Ota Toyotaro was sent to Germany to study law and politics. He starts a relationship with a poor “dancing girl” named Elise after she asked him to help her get out of a forced marriage. Ota saves her and uses his student finances to support her. Ota eventually loses that funding after someone reported him for spending time flirting with women as opposed to studying.
His friend, Aizawa Kenkichi helps Ota get a job as a reporter. One day, Aizawa and the Count visit Germany, and Ota meets them. Aizawa hints to Ota that he may have an opportunity to be an interpreter for the Count and suggests that Ota leaves Elise so that he can move back to Japan to start his new career. Ota sees this as an opportunity to reclaim his name and also to climb the social ladder. The Count invites Ota on a trip to Russia to act as his interpreter. Ota goes on the trip and leaves his pregnant girlfriend, Elise, behind for the time being.
While away, Elise wrote love letters to him, telling him how much she misses and longs for him. Elise begs Ota to promise that he won’t leave her after this trip. When Ota returns home from the trip, the Count sends him another letter asking him if he would like to return to Japan and be his personal interpreter. Ota automatically agrees, but he realizes that he will have to tell Elise that he’s leaving her for good. He ends up in a depressive state and stays bedridden for days. When he wakes up, he learns that Aizawa told Elise that he is leaving for Japan, which led to Elise becoming paranoid and mentally ill. She ends up in a mental asylum and Ota returns to Japan but before leaving, he gives money to Elise’s mother so that she can take care of their baby. Ota considers Aizawa a great friend but blames him for what happened.
“The Dancing Girl” is a story about modernization and the acceptance of western values and culture. The story mirrors Mori Ogai’s own life when he lived abroad in Germany. Ogai focused on studying medicine but he ended up embracing European literature and culture and started a career as a writer. In fact, you can read Elise as the symbol of modernization and westernization and when Ota returns to Japan, it can be seen as a symbol of his loyalty to Japan or his imprisonment in the life and culture of a Japanese man, despite being exposed to western thought.
We also see the struggle between duty/obligations vs. personal affairs. Ota desires to rejuvenate his career and name, but at the same time, he cares for Elise and hopes to be with her too. In this story, he is unable to have both, but it’s unfortunate that his decision wasn’t made by his own volition but by his friend.
Lastly, Ogai experiments with his writing by showing human emotions and psychological issues within his characters which, at the time, was rarely explored in Japanese literature. In this story, we see Ota struggle with his identity. In the beginning, Ota felt like a “machine” where his only purpose was to study law and politics because that was what he was told to do. However, when he encounters Elise and starts writing popular news around Germany, he gained a new sense of freedom and independence that he never got when he was tied down to the university.
I really enjoyed “The Dancing Girl.” It’s a romance story but it explores how modernization and westernization influenced Japan and its people.