Defendant: Feltrinelli publishing
Charge: gross criminal laziness in choosing the covers for Yukio Mishima’s books
So I read Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask recently, as you do when you’re queer and you know that good ol’ Mishima was gay (which… the man alone deserves an entire post of his own, so I won’t go there today). But I’m not here to talk about the book. I want to talk about laziness, and specifically, the laziness of one of the bigger Italian publishers of today.
First of all, some facts. This book was published in 1949, then translated into American English by New Directions in 1985, and then translated into Italian. Yes, this book is a translation of a translation. And not of some obscure (in the West, or in Italy) Japanese author, but by an author who has been translated in multiple languages and is one of the most widely known worldwide. The edition I bought is the 32nd edition since the first one in 1969. There are 15 books by Mishima in this same publisher’s catalog. And in all this time, no one thought “Hey, maybe we should do a decent translation of this book that keeps selling!”
Second of all. Those 15 books I mentioned? Their covers have only 2 themes:
- NAKED WOMAN (3 covers)
- stereotypical traditional images of Japan. (10; 2 covers are outliers)
Seeing as Mishima did write a lot about the clash between tradition and modernity in Japan, it somewhat stands to reason that the covers evoke the more traditional aspects of Japanese culture. However, the covers chosen by Feltrinelli don’t strike me as taking this into consideration. There is no clash, no tension; there is just a lazy, unimaginative yell of “Hey! Hey reader! This book is about Japan!!”. The color scheme across the covers is often the same (white-red-black) and there is an obvious recycling of the same identical idea:
the “geisha” as mysterious evocation of mysterious, far-away Japan (spoiler: no book in this list deals with geishas. There is not ONE geisha in these books).
These women either give their backs to the viewer (so mysterious!!)
or look at them coily from underneath a wide-brimmed hat (so seductive!!)
One cover is even just her shadow, cast on a zen rock garden (GROAN).
Then there’s the traditional ukiyo-e cover.
This story is set shortly after World War II. The ukiyo-e chosen is definitely much older than that, and it depicts what (I think) is a scene from the Floating World, the Kyoto red light district. I haven’t read this book, but I know it’s not set in Kyoto. There could be a scene set in Kyoto, somewhere in it, I guess… but you get me. What does an ukiyo-e like this has to do with the book? Nothing. But it’s stereotypically Japanese. Personally, I think it also looks cheap.
By the way, before you think this is a problem with only this publisher, I want to point out how I first noticed this when I looked at the two books by Mishima I have: Confessions Of A Mask (Feltrinelli) and Dollhouse (Einaudi). The Einaudi cover does the exact same thing – white-red scheme, giant red dot/sun, and feminine iconography.
I mean, they’re not ugly… but they’re unimaginative, and also misleading, actually. These books aren’t about traditional Japan. They’re often about the clashing between noble versus bourgeois values in a rapidly changing, modernizing nation, about family tragedies, sexuality, cheating… and there are no sexy geishas in them. I call this false advertisement. Also, can we stop with this generic advertisement for “this book was written by a Japanese author”? He’s called Yukio Mishima, I’m sure the reader can guess that.