Critical Context

Among Tanizaki’s twenty-five or so original novels, Diary of a Mad Old Man falls among those that are short—the majority, with the notable exception of Sasame-yuki (1943-1948; The Makioka Sisters, 1957), set in the twentieth century (the other novels being set in the past, anytime from the Fujiwara to Tokugawa periods) and written after Tanizaki’s transforming experience of the great Tokyo-Yokohoma earthquake of 1923 and his subsequent resettlement in the Kyoto-Osaka region. The novels of this period are generally considered his best; indeed, up to his death, Tanizaki was regarded as a leading candidate for the first Nobel Prize for Literature to be awarded to a Japanese writer.

The continuity in Tanizaki’s works is evidenced by his portrayal in the early ones of the femme fatale, as in “Shisei” (“The Tatooer”) and of the elderly, as in Misako’s father in Some Prefer Nettles. In the works The Makioka Sisters, Shosho Shigemoto no haha (1950; The Mother of Captain Shigemoto, 1956), The Key, “The Bridge of Dreams,” and Diary of a Mad Old Man, Tanizaki increasingly focuses on old age, aging, disease, illness, and death, very probably reflecting the concerns of an aging author, from his fifty-seventh to seventy-sixth year. Of these latter novels, Diary of a Mad Old Man has the closest affinity with The Key, which is also in the diary form (a professor’s and his wife’s respective diaries). While in Diary of a Mad Old Man Tokusuke views his escalating contact with Satsuko in popular-culture terms, as an “erotic thriller,” in The Key the Professor views his improved sexual relations in the more philosophical light of rationality surrendering to the animal. Moreover, Tokusuke repeatedly requests that Satsuko masticate some medication and administer it mouth to mouth to him, symbolizing the maternal life-giving force she is to him. In The Key, however, the Professor chews medication and transmits it mouth to mouth to his wife, symbolizing the life-draining force she is to him, which ultimately leads to his death (and cessation of his diary) toward the end of the novel.