Mori Ōgai co-mingles nostalgia for a vanished Tokyo of the late 1900's with romanticism as he tells the story of secret longing, isolation, and unrequited love. The main character, Otama, is the subject of pathos in this Meiji- period story: a naïve heroine left with gloomy prospects after her divorce from a bigamist policeman, succumbs to filial duty to her impoverished father by becoming the mistress of a sleazy moneylender.
Her patron, Suezo, while shrewdly building a business on the exploitation of others, compares typically to most Meiji-men: selfish, egotistic. Already married, he secretly sets up Otama in a residence where she wiles away her days like a lonely bird in a gilded cage.
The story of Otama is told in flashback through the narration of a keen observer - a friend of the male protagonist, Okada, a medical student pursuing plans to study in Germany, with ill- managed finances that force him to seek the services of the calculating moneylender. During one of her days often filled with boredom, Otama takes notice of, and becomes infatuated with the handsome medical student as he passes by her balcony. Their meeting develops into unfulfilling entanglements for all.
Ōgai vividly details everyday life in the village from shopkeepers, street performers, housemaids, geisha, and policemen to university students and their landladies: giving a strong impression of a transitioning Japan moving into the 20th century; though his characterization of women seem less than flattering, possibly suggesting once more, a distinctive Meiji societal attitude. For example, Otama early in the story is depicted with a flaccid personality, weak and too easily compromised to be completely sympathetic to the modern reader. Suezo, on the other hand, adulterous, serpentine and slithering; unlikable from the beginning, describes his wife as 'ugly and quarrelsome.'
Ōgai's imagery may seem clumsy or indelicate in areas as noted in the scene where Okada accidentally kills a wild goose.
Among these bitumen-colored stems and over the dark gray surface of the water reflecting faint lights, we saw a dozen wild geese slowly moving back and forth. Some rested motionless on the water.
"Can you throw that far with a stone?" Ishihara asked, turning to Okada.
Okada hesitated. "They're going to sleep, aren't they? It's cruel to throw at them... I'll make them fly away," said Okada, reluctantly picking up a stone.
The small stone hissed faintly through the air. I watched where it landed, and I saw the neck of a goose drop down. At the same time a few flapped their wings and, uttering cries, dispersed and glided over the water . But they did not rise high into the air. The one that was hit remained where it was.(111)
The image of the dead goose linked with Otama's fate is just one of several less subtle scenes, branding the story in general with a fable-like signature.
Not all wild geese can fly.
The Wild Geese was my first Mori Ōgai novel; a quick read at 119 pages, I have to admit that it didn't impress me as a 'classic' piece of Japanese literature. It truly leaned more to a charming fable whose heroine disregards the coveted riches of golden eggs, and finds freedom in the spreading of her own wings.