‘Red Roofs & Other Stories’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

I’ve already posted on two Jun’ichirō Tanizaki books published by the University of Michigan Press (The Gourmet Club: A Sextet and Childhood Years: A Memoir) recently, but both of those were actually rereleases of old titles.  Today’s choice, however, provides some new work, a small collection of stories never seen before in English (even if ‘new’ might be pushing the meaning of the word a tad).  The stories may be fresh, but many of the themes are familiar, and there’s the usual sense of fun running through them.  Let’s step back in time and take a trip to Japan – and perhaps beyond…

Red Roofs & Other Stories (translated by Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy, digital review copy courtesy of the publisher) brings together four previously untranslated pieces from one of the most successful twentieth-century Japanese writers.  All four date from early in Tanizaki’s career, written between 1917 and 1926, and in their introduction the translators explain how little of his output from this period is available in English.  Four stories might seem a little stingy, but they’re all fairly lengthy, together coming in at around 170 pages, and they’re all good reads, albeit in very different ways.

Half of that page count is accounted for by the first story, ‘The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga’.  This novella begins with the usual Tanizakian narrator receiving a letter from a woman he doesn’t know, in which she urges him to help her find her husband, a man who keeps skipping out on his family only to return, exhausted, years later.  The reason the narrator has been applied to is because of a postcard of his she found amongst her husband’s belongings – and our friend realises that only one man could have had it in their possession.  He pays a visit to this friend, the flamboyant Ginzō Tomoda, and starts to investigate the strange matter…

‘The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga’ is a clever story, hinging on the impossibility of the two men being one and the same, even though everything suggests there’s a connection.  The photo Matsunaga’s wife sends the writer obviously bears no resemblance to Tomoda, yet he still has doubts about his shifty friend:

Precisely because we were so close, I’d never given a thought to it before, but there was really no one who seemed as open as Tomoda and yet was, in fact, so full of ambiguities.  What was his past like?  What kind of life had he been leading?  How old was he?  What university had he graduated from?  If asked about these specifics, I would have had no way to reply.
‘The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga’, p.28 (University of Michigan Press, 2017)

The suspicion grows and grows, until the writer is unable to escape the nagging conviction that the two men really are the same person.

It’s all great fun, and superbly put together, with part of the fun coming from the way Tanizaki pokes fun at himself in his alter-ego’s role as the hapless bystander.  Interestingly enough, Tomoda, the man of the world, also criticises some of Tanizaki’s own ideas.  In Praise of Shadows (to be reviewed…) is Tanizaki’s ode to Japanese culture, but in this piece he uses Tomoda to rip this idea to shreds.  Far from revelling in the warm glow of shady places, the western-obsessed Tomoda spits bile about his home land’s dull, dark rooms, uncomfortable furniture and unattractive women…

After the hints of foreign shores provided in the first story, the second one, ‘A Night in Qinhuai’ takes us off to lands unknown.  In this one, a Japanese visitor to China takes a nocturnal tour of Nanjing, in the hope of finding a woman to sleep with.  It’s an intense, atmospheric piece, in which Tanizaki drags us through the dark and suspiciously tranquil streets, with danger lurking at the end of each small alleyway.  While it’s undoubtedly well written, it’s a little disturbing, too.  Quite apart from the distasteful theme of the visitor’s quest to ‘buy’ a woman, his blunt remarks about Chinese hygiene (or a lack of it) won’t endear him to all readers.

The slight air of fantasy apparent in ‘A Night in Qinhuai’ explodes into full-blown escapism in ‘The Magician’.  Here, a couple are drawn to an expansive pleasure complex, where a famed magician performs miraculous feats, and despite himself, the man falls under the charismatic conjuror’s sensuous spell.  ‘The Magician’, with its fantasy slant, is a little unusual for Tanizaki, but this extended writing exercise does have connections to other work.  You see, there are hints of Quicksand‘s erotic themes in the idea of surrendering oneself completely to someone we must simply trust won’t take advantage of us…

From fantasy, we return to reality, and ‘Red Roofs’ takes us once more to the Kansai region of Japan, the scene of many of Tanizaki’s most famous works (c.f. The Makioka Sisters and Some Prefer Nettles).  Unusually, it features a woman as the focal point, an actress from Tokyo who settled in Kansai after the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake.  Mayuko has a number of men in her life: Onchi, her on-off boyfriend; Odagiri, the older ‘patron’; and Teramoto, the shy, proper university student whom she’s oddly attracted to.  She wants them all, for different reasons, but when they somehow all end up in her house at the same time, problems are bound to arise.

The erotic games are again reminiscent of Quicksand, but it’s a different book which is the main influence here, namely Tanziaki’s first big success, Naomi.  ‘Red Roofs’ appeared a year after the novel, and it’s a sort of play on that work, featuring a similar character, but this time telling her side of the story.  Initially, it seems as if she’s the one in control of the tangle of relationships, but she comes to have her doubts:

Even after she became his mistress, she had secretly indulged in whatever mischief she pleased.  It amused her to keep him at her beck and call while she deceived him, and possessing the skill to do so was pleasant.  But recently, as she gradually came to understand the man’s secrets more clearly, she had realized that, even as she thought she was deceiving him, in fact she was being forced into a mold of his design – that her flesh and even her personality were being toyed with.
‘Red Roofs’, p.155

There’s a stark contrast between the carefree start of the story, with Mayuko shopping for jewellery in Kōbe, and the frazzled end which sees her juggling her suitors and lamenting the exhausting demands of her way of life.  The search for love, happiness and success is proving to be far more tiring than she’d imagined…

Red Roofs & Other Stories is another excellent slice of Tanizaki’s work – I’m gradually working my way through the great man’s work in English, and each one read helps me understand him and his ideas more.  However, despite the recent glut of reviews, I still have a good number to get to.  There are two more books of stories on my shelves (a cat, a man & two women and Seven Japanese Tales), not to mention the copy of Naomi that I’ve been meaning to open for a while now.  It looks as if this extended Tanizaki season still has a fair way to go…


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