The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa was one of Kawabata's earlier works, written after he had already achieved some recognition in Japan with The Izu Dancer, but well before his worldwide breakthrough Snow Country. The novel (now translated into English for the first time ever) takes place in a thriving entertainment district in Tokyo, at a time when Japan was rapidly industrializing, building universities, importing Western technology and making its own, in order to establish itself as a world power. Kawabata's choice of setting was especially well-suited for capturing the spirit of these times, because a place like Asakusa was a perfect illustration of the way the Japanese culture itself was changing: jazz music and flapper dresses became popular, music-halls and vaudeville theatres edged out traditional forms of entertainment, and gender roles were suddenly much less rigid, ambiguity was fashionable, images of ennui-ridden "modern boys" and provocative, alluringly dangerous "modern girls" became so iconic that the words designating them ("mobo" and "moga") entered everyday vernacular. This novel can be read as a valuable document of this interesting and short-lived period in Japanese history.
Nominally, the story revolves around The Scarlet Gang, one of many youth gangs running around Asakusa at the time. Their exploits are related by a nameless, first-person narrator, whose association with members of the gang gives him an excuse to wander around Asakusa and observe various aspects of life there, in a detached and casual manner. Often, the things he sees are unrelated to each other, and he flits from place to place without lingering anywhere for too long, which makes his account seem more like a set of anecdotes about Asakusa life than like a coherent narrative. In fact, the role in the plot of The Scarlet Gang itself is secondary to these anecdotes. The narrator hints that the gang is involved with criminal activities, but never really explains what those activities are, or how the gang profits from them, or even what people are actually in the gang. Only a few members of the gang are encountered in the book, and when they do appear, they're not doing anything gang-related.
It seems that the gang's sole purpose is to give a certain outlaw mystique to its members. Although the ostensible goal of the book may be to create a general portrait of Asakusa life, Kawabata is drawn to deeply introspective, intensely personal stories, as he was in every work he ever wrote. So, when a few distinct plot threads begin to emerge from the book's seemingly formless narrative, they all deal with very specific, individual passions and emotions. The longest of these coalesces around Yumiko, Asakusa slum dweller and prominent member of The Scarlet Gang; her sister, we learn, was seduced and abandoned by a certain man, and eventually Yumiko meets this man, entices him, and takes revenge.
Yumiko is a strange character. She knows the score, talks cynically about prostitutes and gang leaders, like nothing can shock her anymore; her gang affiliation and short haircut serve to establish her as a thoroughly modern girl. Kawabata describes her as possessing a "coarse, adult carnality," and her earthy speech implies that she's highly experienced at using it for her own ends. But then, we learn that she's actually a virgin; she simultaneously shuns and yearns for intimacy, and speaks sorrowfully of her inability to feel attraction towards anyone. This sudden image of disturbed purity does not resemble the stereotype of the "modern girl" at all, but it does greatly resemble all of Kawabata's heroines. Here the author abandons the character of his chosen setting, in favour of one of his own major themes, and in fact, the story only gains power from it.
The other main plot threads also contain haunting depictions of individual turmoil. In one, a pimp known as Left-Handed Hiko acquires and exploits an underage prostitute (a common occurrence in Asakusa, Kawabata implies). However, the way this scenario plays out is anything but common. Although the girl is selling her body, she shows herself to be so inexperienced in worldly matters that she genuinely believes Hiko's smooth-talking and empty promises. Her innocence so astonishes him that he is overcome by intense guilt, then by fear, and finally flees.
Some of the shorter asides are also striking, like the one enumerating the love affairs of a low-level thug named Umekichi; the increasingly sleazy nature of these liaisons is first shocking and then profoundly sad, so much so that there's something unsatisfying about the way the description glibly, quickly tosses them off. Each item on the list of "confessions" hints at depths of passion that could have filled a novel in their own right, but the narrator moves on after having only skimmed the surface. Still, the countless anecdotes interspersed between the main plot threads serve to give a jaunty, devil-may-care demeanour to the story, and the narrator's flippant voice maintains the vibrant feel that Kawabata perceived in Asakusa life, in spite of the more brooding sections.
The back cover and the foreword claim that this is a modernist book, but that might lead one to expect it to be more difficult than it actually is. For instance, the foreword emphasizes the narrator's self-referential turns of phrase, like how he frequently addresses the "dear reader" directly. But this practice can be found in Western literature and poetry before the advent of modernism, where it was used for its humour value, much like it is here. The foreword also interprets the episodic nature of the story as evidence of modernism, but, as the foreword itself points out, the book was being serialized in a newspaper even as it was being written; such a style of writing was especially well-suited for such a format. Perhaps the book makes more sense if one views it as a collection of loosely connected short stories, some longer than others, rather than a novel; and in that case, it again has many precedents in the nineteenth century.