‘Devils in Daylight’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

The latest leg of my Jun’ichirō Tanizaki journey takes us back to 1918 for a short book that is long on excitement.  It has the usual literary and sexual elements to the story, along with a rather voyeuristic style, but there’s also a darker, noir feel.  Let’s peek in through the window and see what’s going on in the dark streets of Tokyo, but whatever you do, don’t make a sound – or there may be serious consequences…

*****
Devils in Daylight (translated by J. Keith Vincent, review copy courtesy of New Directions) is narrated by Takahashi, a busy writer living in Tokyo.  One day, while rushing to meet the deadline for a manuscript, he receives a phone call from his friend Sonamura, an eccentric whom the writer suspects of being close to a mental breakdown.  The call does little to change this opinion:

“What I am about to tell you is a secret.  You are not to breathe a word of it to another soul!  Later tonight, at around one o’clock, in a certain part of Tokyo, a crime… a homicide will be performed.  I want to get ready now and go see it happen, and I want you to go as well,  So what do you say?  Will you join me?”
p.8 (New Directions, 2017)

Despite being worn-out from writing all night, Takahashi agrees to meet his friend, if only to try to stop him from going off on a wild goose chase.

On his arrival at Sonamura’s house, Takahashi is told the story behind his friend’s claim and is convinced to tag along on the hunt for the scene of the impending murder.  While the first attempts prove to be fruitless, Sonamura later works out the location and drags the reluctant Takahashi off again, resulting in their tiptoeing through dark alleyways until they reach an old house.  Carefully, they put their eyes to the gaps in the blinds, and to his surprise (and horror) Takahashi realises that there are three people in the room – and that only two of them are moving…

At just eighty pages, Devils in Daylight is more a novella than a novel, but it’s certainly an absorbing read, dragging the reader along in its wake, and it’s quite likely you’ll gulp it all down in a single sitting.  For the first half, it’s a standard noir work, with the two men stumbling across a crime and wondering what to do about it.  As they take a deep breath, and their bearings, there’s more than a hint of Conan Doyle about it all, the bewildered, sleep-deprived Takahashi acting as the Watson to Sonamura’s half-crazed Holmes:

“There is a great deal that I do not understand myself.  But let me tell you what I have been able to observe…”  He began to explain, point by point, in the tone of a teacher patiently instructing a student. (p.55)

Once Sonamura decides he wants to track down the main culprit, a beautiful woman with a cruel face, the game is most definitely afoot!

Of course, the work is far more subtle than this would all suggest.  Tanizaki is playing a different game, both with his alter-ego Takahashi and the reader, and Vincent’s excellent afterword lets us in on some of the secrets.  The text mentions Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Gold Bug’, which provides the inspiration for the note in code that Sonamura finds, telling him of the time and location of the crime.  Vincent explains that this story was well-known at the time in Japan, and that Tanizaki has actually adopted certain aspects of the piece, transporting the action from California to Tokyo.  In fact, the translator even took the liberty of echoing some of the language from that story in his work, adding an extra layer of complexity to the English version.

Despite Vincent’s excellent work, though, the success of Devils in Daylight is due mainly to Tanizaki’s masterful handling of his material.  As is the case elsewhere (for example, in several of the stories in the collection The Gourmet Club), the story is built around a jaded Japanese bourgeois looking for new thrills.  Having tried a variety of activities to fill his free time, Sonamura is desperate for new kicks, and this mystery is just what he needs to amuse himself.  Much of the humour of the book comes from Takahashi in his role as the nervous sidekick, an unwilling accomplice who would much rather be tucked up in bed at home than roaming the dark streets.

However, the true star of the story is the woman the two hapless amateur detectives see in the old house.  Both agree that she has an uncommon beauty, but they’re slightly puzzled as to the kind of woman she is, unable to decide whether she’s a geisha or not (both men are intimately familiar with the Tokyo demi-monde…).  What is clear is that she’s a deadly beauty with the ability to entrance men and then make them disappear without a trace.  Another of Vincent’s remarks stresses Tanizaki’s love for the movies, and there’s certainly a cinematic feel to the pivotal scenes, with the two men watching on the other side of the wall.  The unknown woman is framed by the knot-holes, as if on a screen, a femme fatale if ever there was one.

Having managed to get away unseen, the two men could be forgiven for pretending the whole thing never happened, but Sonamura is like a moth longing for the flame:

She is a heroine ripped from the pages of a detective novel, a devil incarnate; a demon who has long been nesting in the fantasy world inside my head.  She is the fantasy I have longed for, now manifested in the real world and come to comfort me in my loneliness.  I believe that she has come into existence for my sake alone. (p.64)

To Takahashi’s horror, his friend decides that he’ll get no rest until he tracks her down, but the writer an’t help but think that poor Sonamura may well end up as the next victim.

An excellent short work, Devils in Daylight is extremely enjoyable and probably a lot more accessible to the average reader than many of Tanizaki’s better-known books.  In addition to highlighting Tanizaki’s story-telling ability, this clever homage to Poe once again examines the attractions the darker side of life can offer.  Like Takahashi, we can only watch dumbfounded as Sonamura plunges into this erotic and deadly world, wondering why he’s willing to put his life on the line.  Will he come through unscathed?  Well, I’m afraid there’s only one way to find out…

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6 thoughts on “‘Devils in Daylight’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

  1. Very excited by your Tanizaki season: judging by Quicksand and The Gourmet Club, he’s a far cry from the Japanese cliché of understated decorum. Where would you recommend to start?

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    1. Tannery – If you want something long, then perhaps the excellent ‘The Makioka Sisters’. For a charged erotic thriller,’Quicksand’. For something a little more subtle and traditional, ‘Some Prefer Nettles’. ‘Devils in Daylight’ would probably be enjoyable for a newcomer to Tanizaki, and ‘Naomi’ (which I own but haven’t yet read) is one many people recommend 🙂

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  2. Tanizaki is one of my fave Japanese writers… Some prefer nettles, Naomi, The Makioka Sisters, Diary of a Mad old man, enjoyed all of these. I have Devils in Daylight on my bookshelf, haven’t gotten around to it yet as my backlog is ridiculous.

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    1. Jeff – Sometimes you just have to make the time for yourself (I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d go through ten of his books in such a short time-span, but once you start…)!

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