‘In Black and White’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

My last look at Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s work involved a short piece blending thriller and erotic themes, and today’s choice, on the surface at least, is a very similar novel.  Once again, we’re off to Tokyo, in the company of a writer who becomes swept up in an intrigue involving a beautiful woman and night-time assignations.  However, despite the title, things are never really clear-cut, and there’s certainly more to this story than you may think on a first read…

In Black and White (translated by Phyllis I. Lyons, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) allows the reader to spend some time with Mizuno, a slobby author who makes a living by writing sensational stories for popular literary magazines.  He has developed a name for the ‘diabolical’ (both in his writing and in real life), and his latest effort, To the Point of Murder, a story in which he has a nasty writer murder a fleeting acquaintance, adds to this reputation.  As is his wont, Mizuno has based the character of the unlucky victim on someone from his own life, but unfortunately, through carelessness, he used the man’s real name in several places in the manuscript – and the error wasn’t picked up.

With no chance of rectifying his blunder, Mizuno begins to panic, imagining a worrying scenario:

Then it came to him.  The tangled threads of his thoughts had been twisting around in crazy directions, and he suddenly realized that it was more complicated than the base problem of Cojima’s hurt feelings.  What if – what if – Cojima were to be killed in a  fashion identical to the murder of Codama in the story.  Wouldn’t he – Mizuno – be suspected?
p.18 (Columbia University Press, 2018)

The thought drives him to attempt to cover his (future) tracks by providing himself with an alibi for the potential date of the crime by spending his time at a ‘teahouse’ (with geishas…).  However, before he can do so, he runs into a far more intriguing prospect, a ‘modern woman’ with an irresistible proposition.  Little does he know that this is the real start of his problems.

1928 was a big year for Tanizaki, with three books on the go virtually simultaneously.  While two of them (the erotic masterpiece Quicksand and the more restrained seduction of Some Prefer Nettles) went on to become well known both in Japan and overseas (in English, too), In Black and White was rather less successful.  Initially serialised in a newspaper, the novel never had a book release, only appearing later in print as a part of Tanizaki’s collected works.

There’s certainly a lot to like about the book, with its excellent set up and meta-fictional twist involving the character Codama and his real-life counterpart Cojima.  The tension gradually builds, lending the first part of the story a claustrophobic air as Mizuno’s fears become magnified; in his mind, the unlikely gradually comes to seem almost inevitable.  I also enjoyed the shift in pace when he tries to come to terms with his ‘problem’, and the way Tanizaki expands on his character, pushing him out into society (where his encounter with the modern ‘German’ woman shows his true colours).

The focus on the character allows Tanizaki to develop Mizuno (who turns out to be a rather unlikeable character) in depth, revealing his quirks of talking to himself and squandering any money he manages to con people out of.  In his mind, he swings between the reality of being a writer hack and delusions of being a new Balzac or Bakin, creating great art he will defend to the death (even though most reviews of his story are rather negative).  Even the ideas he comes up with to save himself are rather idiosyncratic.  The first involves preempting any potential murderer (the ‘Shadow Man’) by writing a second part in which this scenario comes to pass, thus thwarting his unknown nemesis.  The second is to stay at home and fake having a sexually transmitted disease – his frequent trips to the toilet ensuring he is seen and providing him with an alibi…

The story and the mystery make up one part of In Black and White, but the novel is just as focused on a second idea, though, the life of the unsuccessful writer.  Mizuno is obviously an exaggerated caricature of the type, but it’s fascinating to see Tanizaki (writing for serialisation) describing the tortured, time-poor artist, struggling under the pressures of poverty, deadlines and writer’s block:

He thought, I’ll be tough with myself and write at least one line, but already extraneous fragments of thoughts that had nothing to do with the story roiled up, gathering like clouds in his head.  Until he could tame them somehow or other, there was nothing he could do about it, so he’d helplessly lean his cheek on his hand and stare out of the window or lie on his back with his legs outstretched, glaring at the ceiling.  Then, spying a clearing in the clouds, he’d take up his pen again and write another line or two.  But as he wrote, the hazy clouds would come welling up again.  It was like trying to make his way between waves that came pressing in one after another. (p.43)

Adding to his dilemma is the state of his finances (he’s broke and has debts all over the city).  The second part of Mizuno’s story is designed just as much to squeeze money out of his publishers as to cover his backside, and one of the magazine’s workers is eventually driven to renting a room downstairs to ensure Mizuno actually does some work.

It all sounds interesting enough, so why has In Black and White remained virtually unknown for so long?  I’m no expert, but if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that it’s probably the result of an unbalanced structure.  The novel really consists of two loosely linked stories, that of Mizuno’s fiction and his personal tale, including a financial relationship he strikes up with an alluring woman.  Both parts are excellent, with the bumbling, lazy, vindictive writer providing the link between the two.  Yet while the two parts do eventually connect, there’s a sense that the main story of the potential murder is put on the back-burner for too long, a result of the nature of the writing (newspaper serialisation).  It’s all good stuff, but I definitely felt that the book developed organically, without later revision – and that Tanizaki himself was happy to wrap things up by the end.  For me, to be more equally balanced, the novel either needed to be longer, with far more added to the end of the story, or much shorter, cutting the section about Mizuno’s amorous adventures substantially.

However, as Lyons explains in her excellent Translator’s Afterword, that would be missing the point.  While I was reading, I noted how at times this seemed like a twisted version of the famed Japanese ‘I-Novel’, and Lyons confirms that suspicion:

In Black and White satirizes the conventions of Japanese autobiographical fiction in an ironic parody of the “I-Novel'” (watakushi shōsetsu or shishōsetsu), a genre in which the author and other actual people can be more or less clearly discerned as characters in the story, and which was being much debated at the time.  This novel is thus in part a parody of bundan issues. (p.221)

By ‘bundan’, Lyons means the contemporary Japanese literary world, and Tanizaki was a dissenting voice raging against the constraints of the Japanese literary style of the time.  The afterword provides more information about this background to the novel, including details of a literary discussion carried out in newspapers between Tanizaki and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (one ended by Akutagawa’s suicide…).  It’s a fascinating insight into the literary politics of the time, and Lyons makes a compelling case for the importance of In Black and White in Tanizaki’s body of work, regarding it as a bridging piece to his later, more complex and subtle works.

I’m not entirely convinced.  I enjoyed In Black and White, but it does tail off a little, and it could have been so much more.  I suppose that’s what happens when you’re writing to a deadline (and working on two other books at the same time).  Still, for the clever concept, and its excellent depiction of the artist as a cheating sleaze, it’s well worth a look, especially if (like me!) you’re looking for any insight available into its creator.  Not for the uninitiated, then, but well worth a look for anyone looking to expand their J-Lit knowledge, and a welcome addition to the collection of Tanizaki’s English-language works 🙂


3 thoughts on “‘In Black and White’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

  1. What a wonderful review! Some Prefer Nettles is one of my favorite books, and I had no idea In Black and White even existed. Sometimes I get lost in Japanese literature. I do feel I’m missing a lot, since I don’t know the culture, but I love the elliptical prose.


    1. Kat – It’s one I stumbled across by chance at the end of 2017, and that chance discovery was the catalyst for my recent Tanizaki marathon 🙂


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.