Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Two themes, beyond those already mentioned, are the pervasiveness of dualities in Japanese culture and life’s ironic reversals. The first theme occurs in nearly all Tanizaki’s fictional works from the 1920’s onward that are set in the twentieth century, such as “Aoi hana” (“Aguri”) and Some Prefer Nettles. Characters are aware of and often comment on the tensions resulting from these dualities. In Diary of a Mad Old Man they include regional dichotomies (Tokyo food and drama versus those of Osaka, and the inhumane chaos of Tokyo versus the quiet of Kyoto), hemispheric dichotomies (Western dress, food, and culture—particularly films—versus their Asian counterparts), the present versus the past (particularly concerning the change in Japanese women), ugliness versus beauty, old age versus youth, and disease or illness versus good health.

The second theme is embodied, literally, in Tokusuke’s ailing physiology. For example, despite Tokusuke’s prior heroic resolve about death, his deep anxieties, and all the superstitious precautions taken about good and bad days (according to the almanac of such matters), the instant cure (or calamity) promised from the spinal injection technique of Dr. Fukushima comes to nothing when the physician, previously infallible at the procedure, has two unsuccessful dry runs on Tokusuke and declines to attempt the operation. Further, though Tokusuke states with some satisfaction near the novel’s beginning that his bowel movements are unimpaired, Dr. Katsumi’s clinical record at the novel’s close reveals that Tokusuke’s attacks were associated with “straining at stool” and subsequent bowel movements.