Tanizaki Junichiro

Tanizaki Junichiro

I should save Tanizaki Junichiro (1886-1965) for January of next year, when he'll be a character in the story the countess tells in Bridge 13 of  my novel, but he comes second in this series of major 20th-century Japanese novelists, beginning in the generation following Soseki that he shares with the great short-story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927--who died young, by committing suicide), and, since Tanizaki lived long, on into the generation he shares with Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972).

I'll discuss three of his novels briefly, recommending all: 1) his first, Naomi; 2) the one I read first, and still like best, Some Prefer Nettles; and 3) his longest, and the one considered best (perhaps even the best 20th-century Japanese novel) by most informed critics, The Makioka Sisters--a stunning film version of which should also be available at your local mall.

I begin with Naomi,  not just because it was Tanizaki's first real novel-length work of fiction, but also for three personal reasons.  First, I've just finished reading it myself, in English translation, for the first time.  I'd never read it before because the translation was published in 1985, about ten years after I was doing most of my reading in Japanese fiction.   I didn't even recognize the title when a friend loaned me a copy, since the Japanese title, Chijin no Ai, had been more literally translated as A Fool's Love in the commentaries I'd become familiar with.  Second, Naomi is my wife's name.  We discovered that it is a relatively common woman's name in Japan--though my wife's name comes from the Book of Ruth, while I'm not sure where the Japanese name comes from, just that it doesn't end in -ko (child), as most Japanese women's names do--and my wife is certainly nothing like Tanizaki's heroine in this novel!  But the novel did evidently help popularize the name in Japan, as people, particularly young people, talked about Naomism.  Third, the novel was serialized, as I'm now serializing my own novel (though on a very different pattern), beginning in the newspaper, the Osaka Asahi Shinbun, until negative reactions forced them to drop it, then in the magazine Josei.  This, too, isn't so special in Japan, since almost all of Soseki's novels before, Tanizaki's other novels, and Kawabata's novels after were serialized this way--but these were added reasons for the novel to be appealing to me, it is now fresh in mind, and I do think it may be the best place to meet, and begin to understand, the early Tanizaki.

Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, to a middle-class family in the printing business, and shared the experience of so many of the world's greatest writers--Shakespeare, Melville, Dostoyevski-- coming from the middle class, and a family that was doing well enough to provide him with a good education when he was a boy, then, when the family had reverses, finding his best avenue to fame and fortune (or just making a living) to be through his gifts as a writer.  As a young man at college, and in the years just after, he was a somewhat flamboyant writer, trying for sensational effects, and was definitely attracted to Western values and literary models, settling in the Western community on the Yokohama Bluff and becoming involved in writing scripts for films (though he did study Japanese Literature at Tokyo University, so came by his later dedication to The Tale of Genji honestly).

Naomi was written in 1924, just after the Tokyo earthquake had forced Tanizaki to move West to the Osaka region (from which he never returned), but it is a Tokyo novel, reflecting the appeal of that Westernized world, and so provides nice insight into the spirit of the early Tanizaki himself and the world he lived in the early 1920s, where he was facing somewhat analogous problems in dealing with the powerful influences from the West to those Soseki had faced a generation earlier, but by then, of course, Japan had been responding to those evolving problems for over a generation--Tanizaki was strongly influenced by American movies, for example--and the two men were of very different temperament and interests (I don't believe coming to terms with social dancing was one of Soseki's problems).

Naomi tells the story of the fascination of Joji Kawai, the first-person narrator, a Japanese man in his late twenties, with a 15-year-old Japanese girl, Naomi, whom he comes to worship in the process of taking charge of her life in order to do his best to Westernize her as his ideal woman--on the movie star model: "Mary Pickford's smile; Gloria Swanson's eyes; Pola Negri's wrath; Bebe Daniels' suave affectation."  Both of the characters in this little drama are fully imagined, in part because they are autobiographically grounded in Tanizaki himself and the sister-in-law who was embracing Western social dancing, among other liberalizing influences from the West, and with whom he evidently did become obsessed.  Those Western influences on their women, not so welcome in Japan in 1924, became somewhat more so, if grudgingly, in the last half of the century (after General MacArthur), as a much higher percentage of women adopted some elements of Naomism.  And the relationship between men and women explored in the novel is now likely to provoke more debate among readers in this country as well, where women's liberation--for all the world's women--has become so much more fully articulated a goal than it was in 1924 (though my own mother was something of a flapper back in those days--smoked cigarettes, drank beer with the men, was proud of her spit-curl, danced those dances, and laughed at the older generation's criticism of her "wild ways"--but was still no Naomi).

Another thing that makes Naomi appealing to me, however, is that, in spite of its being grounded in the imitated flapper world of the 20s (and Tanizaki's own experience with "social dancing"), the basic plot line--the young protagonist who discovers a girl who is still a child, sees her as a diamond in the rough (in a kind of love at first sight), then undertakes to shape her into his ideal woman--is the Murasaki plot from the great classic The Tale of Genji (more about this next year), where Genji takes possession of the young Murasaki and then very carefully raises her to be his ideal woman, and his empress.  But in The Tale of Genji this is an aristocratic couple: Genji, the Shining Prince, the son of the emperor, and Murasaki, of the family of Genji's mother, who is raised by Genji to be an empress, while Tanizaki presents the son of a farmer, with a middle-class job and limited financial means, taking a girl from the lowest class (as we learn near the end), a serving girl in a cafe whose family is happy to be rid of her, but in whom he sees the potential of a very new ideal.  He then attempts to make of her this new Japanese woman--the  woman liberated from family responsibilities, much better educated and more sophisticated--modeled on Western women like the dance instructor--who might then be a proper mate for a man wishing to move in that world.

The young Tanizaki himself evidently stood in the greatest awe of that model, the Western woman he saw in American movies, and his hero does everything he can to turn Naomi into one, beginning with the obvious physical characteristics of hair style, make up, and Western clothing--all that he can afford to buy--so that she looks Western (and, part of her potential, she already did look Eurasian).  But education is just as important.  A great deal is made of her study of the English language, which Joji finally undertakes to instruct her in himself--since she is not getting past participles and the passive voice right--as a skill absolutely necessary in the "new woman," and music, and, finally, dance--which becomes particularly important in the novel as the symbol of this Western orientation (Tanizaki took lessons in the two-step himself, under his sister-in-law's influence, and felt as inept as Joji does), and as the activity through which Naomi gets involved with other, and younger, men, finally foreigners.  Such a transformation of a Japanese woman was conceivable in Japan in 1924, but it appealed only to a limited number of young people (early hippies?), who would challenge traditional life-styles, and began to talk of being Naomi-ized.  Their parents, and the conservative community in general, brought so much pressure on the newspaper that they dropped the serialization a little over half way through the novel (about where Naomi becomes more obviously sexually promiscuous), and it took Tanizaki about six months to find another publisher, the magazine Josei, for the rest of the novel.  By then Joji has come to see that, in some ways, Naomi's Japanese nature, in other ways her lower class nature, will insist upon itself--so that he provokes a separation that lasts for several months and almost drives him wild.  But, even knowing that she will never be his ideal woman, he is still very much under her spell, loves her to the point of absolute submission at the end, as he let's her manipulate him into providing her own ideal life--on the Yokohama Bluff.  This masochistic submission gives the novel a strong romantic theme (that I can't imagine in Soseki, for example), where the man is knowingly obsessed by the woman to the degree that he becomes her absolute slave--a theme which is very common  in Tanizaki, early and late.

His next novel was Some Prefer Nettles, the first Tanizaki novel I read (in the summer of 1973 when I took those courses at Sophia University in Tokyo), and it is still my favorite.  It seems to me a far superior novel in three important ways.  The theme is more thoughtfully engaging in considering the competing attractions of East and West--and opting for the East.  Some Prefer Nettles also seemed prophetic of Tanizaki's own life, as in moving--in body and spirit--to the Osaka-Kyoto region in Western Honshu after the earthquake he found his true home.  In withdrawing from Tokyo he seems to abandon  the ideal of the Westernized woman as well.  As he moved to this next novel, he seemed to reject the world he himself had helped to define in the earlier novel, to reject Naomism.  The novel is in third person, so his central character, Kaname, is not the narrator, but he does as much as give his clearly Westernized wife to a friend (as I like to think Shakespeare does the Dark Lady in his sonnet sequence, and as Tanizaki himself seems actually to have done), while he seeks traditional Japanese values where they are most available, in the Osaka-Kyoto region.   Second, perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, more interesting than any character in Naomi, is Kaname's father-in-law, the father of this Westernized woman, but himself an amateur student and teacher of traditional Japanese values, who seems to be determined to save Kaname's soul.  He is meticulous about everything from dress, to diet, to entertainment, and pursues the puppet theatre, bunraku, to its home islands south of Osaka, where the great masters and mask-makers still exist and pursue their related arts.  The third reason I find this a richer novel is that tutorial in traditional Japanese culture, in fact, particularly the passages on bunraku--one of the best introductions to the arts of the Japanese Renaissance I know.  The father-in-law has also trained his own geisha, O-hisa, much as Joji had trained Naomi in the other direction in the earlier novel.  It remains ambiguous whether the son-in-law from Tokyo inherits her at the end of the novel or not.  But that is where Tanizaki's own spirit has gone, for the rest of his long life--as he became spokesman for traditional Japanese aesthetic values, and did modernized versions of The Tale of Genji  three times (in 1941, 1954, and 1965).

Tanizaki's novels tend to satisfy the Western reader's sense of plot better than most Japanese novels, and there are many Western students of Japanese literature who consider him the best Japanese novelist largely on those grounds, considering his well-plotted longest novel, The Makioka Sisters, the best Japanese novel.  It was written, for the most part, during the war, in the early '40s, and compares favorably to Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, as the story of four sisters in an upper-middle-class merchant family in Osaka and their marriages.  Finding a suitable husband for the third sister (modeled on Tanizaki's third wife) is the central concern, but there are many other plot elements that revolve around that.  It is a remarkable novel in the full picture of the Japanese life of a traditional Osaka family of wealthy merchants presented, and there is a remarkable Japanese film version of the novel, not only reflecting the detail of that life, but presenting scenes of fantastic scenic beauty.  That film is  available in this country, and, if you feel up to a long Japanese novel (530 pages), I recommend that you read The Makioka Sisters, and then rent the film.  If that doesn't convince you of the riches of Japanese literature, nothing I say is likely to.

If, however, you are not ready for that long a novel, you might try Tanizaki's short stories, seven of them translated by Howard Hibbitt in 1963 as Seven Japanese Tales (which I taught for a while in Freshman Composition classes, and which are comfortable reading for a Westerner).  Start with "The Tattooer" (only 6 pages long), which is sometimes seen as particularly revealing of Tanizaki's own masochistic obsession with cruel women (and his foot fetish--which in a kimono society, where the back of the neck and the foot were all the naked flesh to be seen, is not so hard to understand) which can then be found everywhere in his work.  I have taken the title of my novel, The Bridge of Dreams, first, from one of my own sonnets, but it came there from another of those short stories, and Tanizaki had taken it from The Tale of Genji, where it is the sub-title of the last of the six books--and I am pleased to see myself in that tradition.  Then you might go on to read The Key (127 pages, where a college professor and his wife know each is reading the other's diary commenting on their sex life), then The Diary of a Mad Old Man (144 page, where an old man who is dying is still chasing his daughter-in-law, a former chorus girl), then Naomi (237 pages), then Some Prefer Nettles (143 pages), and finally work up to the masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters (though it would be all right to see the movie now--then again after you read the book).

Also see Donald Keene's Dawn to the West, which has an excellent 65 page chapter (720-85) on Tanizaki.