‘The Reed Cutter’ & ‘Captain Shigemoto’s Mother’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

Back in 2018, the bulk of my #JanuaryInJapan reading (indeed, extending into February) looked at the work of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and I had a great time making my way through several books for the first time, as well as rereading a few old favourites.  Surprisingly, though, I didn’t actually manage to get through all of the books I bought for the occasion, and today sees me finally getting around to one of those that missed out last time.  It brings together two shortish works (translated by Anthony H. Chambers), both of which are unmistakably Tanizaki stories.  There’s the usual obsession with the past, and (of course) the merest hint of the erotic for good measure 😉

In The Reed Cutter, the writer decides to go off on a lengthy ramble to visit a shrine, and as he walks through the countryside, every temple, mountain and river seems to remind him of a story or poem from the past.  You see, this is the Kansai region, the location of the old Imperial court and the setting for many works of classical literature, and an educated man like the writer can’t help but see traces of Genji or Ariwara no Narihira everywhere he looks.  Of course, this is Tanizaki, so as well as poetry, the traveller has a few bottles of warm sake on him to make the journey more enjoyable.

However, what seems like an enjoyable blend of travel writing and literary reminiscence takes an unexpected turn when, while gazing up at the autumn moon on a sandbank in the middle of a river, the writer is surprised by a stranger, who has had the same idea.  As they exchange poems, songs and sake, the newcomer begins to talk about himself, explaining why he has come out on this moonlit night – and a very good story it is, too.

The Reed Cutter, running to about fifty pages, is an excellent novella which sets the mood nicely, almost lulling the reader into a sense of calm and relaxation in order to prepare them for the stranger’s tale.  Typically, it involves matters of the heart, and the body, with the man’s father falling in love with a beautiful widow who is unable to remarry, only to be offered help by her sister, who is prepared to give up her own happiness for the sake of the poor woman.  Yes, it’s another Tanizaki love triangle, and we are just as spellbound as the writer as we listen to the storyteller’s slow rendition of the tale.

The story is beautifully written and evokes a time long gone, with wonderful scenes both of the writer walking through an historical landscape and of the stranger’s experiences, and this seems to be what Tanizaki is striving for:

As we grow older we come to a sort of resignation, a state of mind that lets us enjoy our decline in accordance with the laws of nature, and we come to wish for a quiet, balanced life, do we not?  And so we derive more comfort from a lonely scene than from a gorgeous view, and we find it more fitting to lose ourselves in memories of past pleasures than to indulge in real pleasure.  In other words, for a young person, love for the past is nothing but a daydream unrelated to the present, but an older person has no other means for living through the present.
‘The Reed Cutter’, p.23 (Vintage International, 1995)

As he shows in works such as The Key or Quicksand, Tanizaki is a master at describing how men late in life derive vicarious pleasure from the lives (and loves) of others, and The Reed Cutter is another example of this, with just enough seductive spice to raise the piece above a simple pastoral tale – especially when the ending suddenly undercuts everything we’ve just heard…

While The Reed Cutter takes place in the writer’s present, the second offering here, the short novel Captain Shigemoto’s Mother, is set firmly in the past.  We are taken back to the start of the tenth century to be told a story involving real historical figures, with the writer, again intruding into the tale, telling us all about love intrigues that happened in the capital long ago.

The main character of the first half of the story is Fujiwara Tokihira, or Shihei, the Minister of the Left and possibly the most powerful man in Japan.  Having heard rumours of the beauty of the wife of his elderly uncle, the Major Counselor Kunitsune, he pumps the famous philanderer Heijū for details, and when the drunken guard eventually confirms his suspicions, Shihei decides that he must have the woman for himself.  Of course, the Minister is too high in the world to demean himself by sneaking around in the shadows and using maids to pass on messages, and he concocts a plan that is simple and yet breathtaking in its audacity.  Events come to a head when he graces his uncle with a majestic visit, and with the woman he desires watching on behind a screen, he puts his plan into action…

Captain Shigemoto’s Mother is an example of a sub-genre of Japanese literature in which authors revisit and reexamine historical events, with Fumiko Enchi’s A Tale of False Fortunes another excellent example of the type.  Tanizaki takes the story of Shihei and Kunitsune (and the hapless Heijū), turning it into a tale of intrigue, with the clueless old man’s beautiful young wife at the centre of it all.  However, this is actually only half the story.  After a brief interlude explaining the destiny of some of the major players, Tanizaki then turns his attention to the captain of the title, the son of Kunitsune and his wife.  Growing up with only the memory of an enchanting face, Shigemoto somehow feels incomplete, and the second half of the novel focuses on his relationship with his father, and his hope of one day meeting his mother again.

Captain Shigemoto’s Mother is definitely a book of two halves, and the first part, in which Shihei hatches his plans, is a wonderful read.  At times it reads like Heian fan-fiction, with everyone sleeping with everyone else behind their backs, and the writer’s wry comments carrying the story along nicely.  It wouldn’t be Tanizaki without the usual insights into the characters’ libidos, and even the shattered Kunitsune can surprise the reader with his view on the affair:

Tracing his recollections this far, Kunitsune remembered that his feelings had shifted in an odd direction at that point.  Watching Shihei’s intolerable behavior, he had not found the rudeness disagreeable: strangely enough, he had felt something rather like pleasure…
‘Captain Shigemoto’s Mother’, p.108

The pivotal scene where Kunitsune entertains his nephew, unaware that the last few months of pleasantries and gifts have been carefully building up to this moment, is a fantastic piece of writing, and the reader will feel for the old man when he wakes up the next day and realises what he’s done.

Yet after all this build-up, the rest of the book is a bit of a let-down.  Tanizaki immediately puts the brakes on with some frankly dull info dumping, and the second part of the story, following Shigemoto as he grows up yearning for his mother, seems like a completely different work.  There are some interesting scenes here featuring Kunitsune, and the very different (and disturbing) ways he attempts to comes to terms with his loss, but (for me, at least) the momentum squandered at the end of the first half never really returns.  Yes, the story does come together in the end, but I’d have been quite happy to have just had the first fifty or sixty pages, really…

Still, there’s a lot here to like, and in Chambers’ capable hands, The Reed Cutter & Captain Shigemoto’s Mother makes for more delightful reading, and another welcome feature in my personal J-Lit library.  I do have one more of Tanizaki’s books, but I think I’ll save that for when I’m next wanting to try his trademark blend of historical musings and erotic interests…

…maybe next January, then 😉

2 thoughts on “‘The Reed Cutter’ & ‘Captain Shigemoto’s Mother’ by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (Review)

    1. Emma – Of course, a couple of times. I especially liked it as it was partially set close to where I used to live in Japan 🙂


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