Who is Jun’ichirō Tanizaki?

Back in January 2018, I submitted an essay on the Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki to The Quarterly Conversation, an online journal run by Veronica Esposito that had a major focus on literature in translation.  My contribution took a look at Tanizaki’s work in an attempt to tease out common themes, particularly with regard to several books that had appeared in English around that time, either for the first time or as new translations.  Sadly the site appears to be offline now, so I thought it would be a good idea to bring my essay back here in case anyone feels like checking it out (all links will take you to reviews or pages on this site) – hope you like it 🙂

Asking who Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is may seem a little bizarre, especially to those with any kind of interest in Japanese literature. Nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and even shortlisted the year before his death, Tanizaki is one of the more prominent figures in modern (i.e. post-1868) Japanese literature, and well known for his fiction and other endeavours, such as his translation of The Tale of Genji from old Japanese into the modern language. However, in another sense, on a more personal level, the question is not quite as strange as it might initially appear. Readers often develop an image of a writer while working through their books, and many of the top Japanese authors seem easily classifiable, from the eccentric Kōbō Abe to the calm, traditionalist aesthete Yasunari Kawabata, via the political protests of Kenzaburō Ōe and, more vivid than most, Yukio Mishima with his unique blend of homoerotic and right-wing tendencies. But who exactly is Tanizaki?

To get a clearer picture of a writer, we can, of course look to his body of work, or at least those books that are available in translation. Major works like The Makioka Sisters, Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi and Quicksand show a writer with a fascination for certain themes, including cultural differences between the Japanese regions and the sometimes-fraught relationships between the sexes. Yet there’s far more to Tanizaki than his novels. In addition to In Praise of Shadows, the short meandering essay on the wonders of Japanese aesthetics, he wrote a whole host of non-fiction works, as well as a multitude of short stories and novellas, many of which drew on traditional Japanese tales. Sadly, not all of this is available to Anglophone readers, but a recent surge of the writer’s work into English, some rereleased, some appearing in English for the first time, may just shed more light on our man in the shadows.

Among the recently republished works, some focus on Tanizaki’s shorter work, including the New Directions release A Cat, a Man, and Two Women, and the new edition of the collection The Gourmet Club: A Sextet, out last year from the University of Michigan Press. The same publisher also rereleased Childhood Years: A Memoir, a whimsical autobiography examining the writer’s early life, which provides fascinating insights into young Jun’ichirō’s formative years.

However, it is the new works, the first for some time, that have provided the most excitement for Tanizaki followers, with four new titles appearing in the space of a year. Another University of Michigan Press release is the short-story collection Red Roofs & Other Stories (translated by Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy), featuring four stories from the start of the writer’s career.  Meanwhile, New Directions have brought out the early ‘crime’ story Devils in Daylight (tr. J. Keith Vincent) and the late nostalgic novel The Maids (tr. Michael P. Cronin). However, the most recent of these new additions to the catalogue of English-language Tanizaki works was published by Columbia University Press this January, the thriller In Black and White (tr. Phyllis I. Lyons), a book that after its initial serialisation was never even published in Japanese outside the writer’s collected works.

Without really measuring up to Tanizaki’s major achievements, the four additions are all interesting and entertaining books, with The Maids and Devils in Daylight, in particular, receiving a positive reception. More importantly, though, a variety of themes run through the books, most familiar from earlier works, helping us to learn more about the writer. One of these is his interest in the world outside Japan and his examination of the effect exposure to foreign culture was having on the Japanese way of life at the time of writing. From our modern, western vantage point, it is hard to comprehend the culture shock the island nation experienced after the end of the sakoku period of isolation, and in an attempt not to be swallowed up by the west like so many other ‘lesser’ countries, the Japanese strove to imitate westerners, not always with the best of results. The 1920s, when much of this fiction was written, was perhaps the apex of this era of imitation, and several of the books featured here pursue this theme.

Mizuno, the writer at the heart of In Black and White, enjoys foreign food and drink in bars in the centre of Tokyo, and when his head is turned by a woman he meets there, it’s the western influence of her dress and the fact that she spent time in Germany that leave him unable to resist her charms. Similarly, ‘The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga’ (one of the stories from Red Roofs) has one of its protagonists turning his back in disgust on his native culture, embarking on bouts of hedonism lasting for years in which he attempts to wipe away the stain of his birth by sleeping with white women and gorging himself on western food and spirits. Not for the first time, Tanizaki’s characters are cowed by what they see as superior beings, the women’s flawless white skin untouched by the ‘dirty’ tinge the men sense when they contrast the foreigners with native women. However, this ranking of races also works in the other direction. In ‘A Night in Qinhuai’ (again from Red Roofs), a story that will almost certainly offend modern sensibilities, the Japanese protagonist roams a Chinese city in search of a woman for the night. While well-written, the story mainly attracts attention for its slanderous, stereotypical views of the locals, dismissing them as dirty and uncouth, reflecting the contemporary sense that the Japanese had to rise above other Asian countries if they were to attain the level of the western powers.

The cultural theme also examines differences within the writer’s country. Tanizaki left his native Kantō (Tokyo/Yokohama) region after the great earthquake of 1923, and he was to spend much of the rest of his life in the Kansai area centred upon the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Perhaps the most famous of his works set here is the family epic The Makioka Sisters, and late in his life Tanizaki used The Maids to revisit both the theme of cultural differences and the area (in fact, the house represented in The Maids was both the setting for the earlier novel and the writer’s own main residence). The Kantō-Kansai divide, still evident today, was even more distinct a century ago, meaning an imported Tokyo resident such as the writer Raikichi must adapt to the customs both of his local-born wife and the series of maids the family employs, in terms of food, behaviour and even dialect. Interestingly enough, this book (which appeared in 1963, shortly before Tanizaki’s death) expands upon the traditional East-West rivalry by having many of the maids come from the island of Kyūshū in Japan’s far south, thus introducing a new element to intra-Japanese relations.

Of course, Tanizaki has one other recurring focus; even a cursory glance at his work will reveal an obsession with the erotic and the female form. Quicksand, in which a married couple walk helplessly into an affair with a seductive young woman, is perhaps the best example of this theme, and while none of the four new releases are entirely focused on this obsession, most feature at least one alluring siren. This is clearest in Devils in Daylight, in the form of a seductive stranger first seen by the hapless heroes of the piece through knotholes in a wall – while she is in the process of strangling a man and helping to place him in a bath of acid… Less deadly, but just as alluring, is Mizuno’s paid partner from In Black and White, a woman who sucks the writer dry both physically and financially. In both cases, the man caught up in the woman’s tangles is well aware of the inevitably devastating effect she is having on his life, but is simply unable, and perhaps unwilling, to do anything about it. The Maids is less overtly sexual in nature, but even here the elderly narrator looking back at the women his family has employed over the years can’t help but pick out a few choice examples of relationship issues, including the discovery of a liaison between two of the young women in his care.

Red Roofs & Other Stories, quite apart from the aforementioned examples, continues along this theme in the other two tales. ‘The Magician’, a short, magical-realism piece, has a couple attending a magic show, where the audience fall under the spell of a charismatic conjuror, submitting to his commands in a fit of quasi-sexual surrender. The title story itself is a variation on Tanizaki’s major early success Naomi, in which a man gets more than he bargains for when he takes in, and later marries, a young, alluring woman. This time, the action is seen through the eyes of a young actress, Mayuko, whose use of alcohol, sleeping pills and a wilful manner with men again evokes the erotic scenes of Quicksand (written just a couple of years later). The advantage of having the focus on the woman comes from being privy to the reflections on her lifestyle, and her exhaustion at having to play along with the machinations of both her patron and her young lover.

Perhaps less evident in previously translated work, though, is Tanizaki’s interest in thrillers, with several examples here of the genre. The main focus of In Black and White is the writer protagonist’s story about a perfect murder, in which he accidentally includes the name of an acquaintance in the manuscript. The realisation that he would be the prime suspect were the murder to actually occur leads Mizuno to take several precautions, including arranging an alibi at a ‘tea house’ (or, less poetically, a brothel…). Sadly, the focus wanders throughout the novel, and Tanizaki only returns to his crime after a lengthy interlude, but Devils in Daylight takes the same road with a much stricter focus. There is a definite noir focus to the story, and the catalyst for the whole affair, a note that the writer’s friend finds in a cinema (written in secret code), is actually a nod of the head to Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Gold Bug’, Tanizaki’s inspiration for the book. The Japanese literature we are accustomed to in translation isn’t really famed for its page-turning qualities, yet Devils in Daylight shows that Tanizaki wasn’t averse to an absorbing read.

There is one final aspect of Tanizaki’s writing that comes through in these works, namely a lively sense of humour. Even in his most serious pieces, there is usually a laugh somewhere, often at the writer’s expense, coming largely from a series of flawed writer narrators. In Black and White has the money-grabbing, skirt-chasing Mizuno, a selfish man with few redeeming features.  This is in stark contrast with Takahashi, the timid, homely protagonist of Devils in Daylight, who, despite only wanting an early night, is dragged by his friend around the dark alleyways of Tokyo. While ‘Red Roofs’ has a serious side, there is something comical about Mayuko’s ham-fisted attempts to keep the men in her life happy, but the subtlest jibe comes in ‘The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga’ when Tomoda slates the dismal atmosphere of Japan, and its ugly houses and women. For anyone who has ever read In Praise of Shadows, Tanizaki’s earnest defence of his country’s cultural style, this is a delicious irony that cannot help but raise a smile.

So what do these additions to the list of Tanizaki’s works in English tell us about the man himself? Well, he is clearly a man of many faces: a serious writer with a fascination for tradition and the past; an observer of cultural differences, both internal and external; a man obsessed with women, at times denigrating them, but at others acknowledging their mastery over men; a writer always looking to experiment with a variety of styles and genres. Above all, though, Tanizaki is a man we may be unable to measure by means of his writing, as what we see is what he wants us to see. A prime example of this is related in translator Thomas J. Harper’s afterword to In Praise of Shadows, where an architect charged with building a house for Tanizaki is quick to assure the writer that having read his book, he knows just how to proceed. Tanizaki’s response? “But no, I could never live in a house like that.”  Obviously, if you want to understand the man, you shouldn’t always take him at his word…

Nevertheless, the more of his works you try, the clearer the image of the writer behind them becomes, and reading these four books has certainly helped to show him in a different light. Let us hope that more of his output continues to be translated into English, helping us all to get a clearer picture of an excellent writer, even if Tanizaki’s true face is destined to remain in the shadows.

4 thoughts on “Who is Jun’ichirō Tanizaki?

  1. Great piece Tony – thanks for republishing it here. I have several of his works unread on my shelves, including Makioka and In Praise of Shadows (I think…) but for some reason he’s never been the Japanese author who shouted for the most attention. But I’m intrigued enough by what you say to think about digging out something soon…


    1. Kaggsy – I think the fact that he died before receiving the Nobel Prize (which he probably would have, eventually) means he’s often ranked below Kawabata and Oe, but he wrote many wonderful books, including the two you mentioned (which I’d highly recommend), and he actually has more work available in English than just about any other Japanese writer (with the possible exceptions of Haruki Murakami and Yukio Mishima)…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tony, a beautiful piece! I regard “The Makioka Sisters” as one of the finest novels I have ever read. At the moment I’m not reading much books, I’m more busy watching dvd’s. If you ever want to look at great movies from Japanese directors, you can check out the movies of Akira Kurosawa and especially those of Kenji Mizoguchi. I saw a lot of these movies the last few months and I’m very impressed by them. Greetings, Erik


    1. Erik – Thanks! I’m still reading just as much as ever, but I would like to try a few Japanese films at some point 🙂


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